Making “Women of the Balcony” Learning of the closing of Ohav Sholaum Synagogue in Washington Heights, (upper Manhattan) I went and gathered up some objects that were left behind. The most unusual and moving thing I saw was on the second floor in the women’s balcony. There, rows of abandoned, modest, multicolored cushions remained on the benches marking the places of their absent owners. I took them home — orphans with little intrinsic value except as a memorial to the generations of Jewish women in synagogue balconies.
Sitting outside by the stoop to pry open the cushions and remove old stuffing and feathers, I felt like a textile archaeologist peeling back layers of fabrics. The fabrics were remnants from the bottom of the sewing shelf, but now they revealed the modest lives and choices of German-Jewish refugee women. A 1960s upholstery fabric covered a 1950s curtain, which in turn covered a 1940s patterned dress silk… like finding cities below cities in an archaeology dig.
I salvaged the fabric remnants and created multiple textile panels as a memorial to the women of Ohav Sholaum and all the Jewish women who sat in all those synagogue balconies. The fabrics of all the original cushions are reused in the vanishing perspective stripes that recall the view I saw in the synagogue balcony.
I was told that when the women died, their cushions were never moved nor removed. In fact, the cushions, which expressed their personalities by the fabrics they chose, became their markers — in life and then later in death.
Using myself as a model, I created an “everywoman,” patched together in neutral colors and placed in the center of the tallis-like panel. She is a seamstress, of course, and she is making a cushion…of course.
We are all seamstresses,
who are descended from seamstresses.