Erica Jacobs keeps a sacred space behind the fireplace of her Mount Washington home, a narrow room just wide enough for a small loom. On the loom, she weaves tallitot, striped Jewish prayer shawls described in the Book of Numbers.
The spot isn't special to Jacobs just because she weaves the garments of her faith there. The very act of weaving is holy for her.
"I love the feel of fabric, and weaving helps center me; it's the one aspect of my life that's ordered and calm," says the 43-year-old classical violist. "The days that I weave, I feel a lot more combed out. And of all the people who have come to me for [shawls], I've liked every single one of them."
Derived from the Hebrew word for gown or cloak, tallitot evolved from the rectangular mantles worn by ancient Jews. After the exile from the land of Israel, the garment was no longer used for daily wear and became a tool for prayer.
The shawls are worn by males during morning prayer and also during all Day of Atonement services.
In non-Orthodox communities, women also wear the shawls on special occasions. Among the Orthodox, women are not known to wear fringed, four-cornered garments, as is commanded of men.
The people who go to Jacobs for the four-cornered woolen shawls are mostly the parents of children about to become bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. The girls pick the colors they want running through the bone-hued wool -- their adolescent tastes running toward fuchsia and violet -- while boys often leave the choice to their mothers.
One young woman wrote this thank you to her parents after receiving a Jacobs shawl:
"Last night I dreamt of thousands of tallitot and none the equal of mine. I honestly feel the love of my family and Judaism when I wrap myself in it."
Other customers are brides following the tradition of giving shawls to their husbands on the day they are wed.
Sometimes the situation is unusual, such as the time a teen-age girl wanted one for her dying father. Although Jews are often buried in their prayer shawls, this man decided to give his a longer stay on earth, entrusting his shawl to the daughter who had had it made for him. He is still living.
Since 1993, Jacobs has turned out a couple of shawls a month, selling them for $300 each. Nearly all of her customers are Reform, Conservative or unaffiliated Jews. Orthodox families, which tend to shun brightly colored tallitot in favor of those with traditional black or blue stripes, rely on store-bought shawls made in New York or Israel.
"People come to me because they want something special in the colors," Jacobs says.
Although there are no regulations governing the size, color or design of the shawls, there are some rules. They may be made of any cloth as long as linen is not mixed with another fabric. The primary biblical command concerns the number of corners and fringes, known in Hebrew as zizit.
The eight strings attached to each corner have been interpreted as symbolizing the transcendental, since it is one more than the biblical seven days of creation.
The number eight also echoes the covenant between God and Abraham, which Jews remember by circumcising an infant on its eighth day of life. Known as a bris, the ritual is often performed as the child lies on a prayer shawl.
The five knots tied in each set of eight strings symbolize the five senses and the five books of Moses.
Although Jacobs deliberately measures the width of each shawl with 613 threads of yarn commemorating every law a Jew is commanded to observe, she is not caught up in the minutiae surrounding tallitot. It seems to be enough for her to know that her work is cherished.
"It's enabled me to take part in so many life-cycle events in people's lives," says Jacobs, who worships at Beth Am synagogue with her husband and three children. "You can pass them from generation to generation. There are wonderful stories of people bringing them out of the Holocaust."
Gift for a daughter
She got started a few years ago, wanting to create something special when her daughter, Tamar, became bat mitzvah. Her husband, Lou, a social worker who carves canoes and kayaks in the family's back yard, had built Jacobs' loom and suggested that she weave their daughter a shawl.
The gift was a success (Tamar rarely attends services without it), and people began asking for shawls of their own. Thus, a hobby became a small business, with Jacobs turning out one or two a month.
Jacobs also makes matching carrying bags for the shawls and for yarmulkes, although she turned down a request from Isaac Pollak in New York City, who wrote seeking a skullcap with the image of Elvis Presley on one side and Madonna on the other.
It's the kind of thing that persuaded her to keep the business small enough that it never feels like work.
"I've always loved weaving, and making tallitot has given it a new depth," she says. "The technique I use is a basic one; anyone who can weave could make a prayer shawl. It seems that the simplest way is the most eloquent."
Pub Date: 6/21/96