When Sarah Resnick from Advah Designs got in touch with us, we were psyched. Focused on “marking life cycle events with ritual and beauty,” Advah designs makes tallits and chuppahs that are “works of art, and tell a story we are proud of,” while rooting themselves in values of social justice–sustainability, inclusivity and fairness–“living out our Jewish values in each item that we design and create.” We talked for a while, and realized just how much we had in common, which resulted in a bit of an informal interview on both ends (you can read Sarah’s interview with me, here). Enjoy! Ketuv: How did this all start? And what made you decide to stick with it? Sarah: I’ve been playing with fabric and yarn and textiles for as long as I can remember–my father’s bedroom was underneath mine when I was growing up, and he could always tell what time I finally went to bed the night before by when my sewing machine stopped whirring above him. When my brother Caleb had his bar mitzvah a few years ago, he asked me to weave a tallit for him. First, he asked for a tallit with a skull on it, and when I declined he asked for one with an American flag…This led to a conversation of what we could create that would last him his whole life, and through that process we chose colors and a design that he was proud to wear on his bar mitzvah. After that, I realized that making tallits was a lot more meaningful to me than simply weaving scarves or shawls, and I was lucky enough to start finding people in Boston who commissioned me to make custom tallits for them. Fast forward a few years, and the requests I was getting quickly exceeded the capacity I had to weave on my own loom. Some stores started reaching out to see if they could carry my work, and I realized there was a real demand for unique, contemporary designs for tallits and chuppahs. So I started thinking about how to find other textile producing communities and artists who I could partner with to create a new line of tallits and chuppahs. I built a relationship with a fantastic social enterprise called Indigo Handloom to create the cloth for the tallits–they employ spinners and weavers in rural Indian villages, and they make this special fabric that is a blend of silk and hand-spun cotton that is heavenly soft and so full of character. I’ve stuck with it because it’s an opportunity to combine so many things that I love: design, ritual, finding ways to create objects in environmentally sustainable and ethical ways, and getting to share the stories of the communities who make and use my tallits and chuppahs.
Photo by Susan Bowlus for Indigo Handloom
Ketuv: Tell me a little bit about the objects themselves. What attracts you to them specifically? Sarah: I met with a rabbi a few weeks ago who really put into words how I feel about this. He said that he always counsels the couples he is marrying to follow the tradition of gifting a tallit to their spouse on their wedding day. He tells them that when times get tough and their relationship hits a challenging period, they will always have that tallit to wrap around them, a physical and comforting reminder of the love and joy and commitment that surrounded them on their wedding day. Memories can fade and photographs can only capture a slice in time, but there is something about wrapping yourself in a tallit, or reaching up to run your hands across the chuppah that is hanging on your wall, that can bring strength and comfort and clarity for how to move forward.
Textiles are the first thing we are wrapped in when we are born, and they take an important place in all of our life cycle events, so I’m drawn to creating for these moments. There’s also the meditative aspect of making fabric. Throwing the shuttle back and forth across my loom, watching thousands of threads slowly turning into cloth–to me, it feels like holy work.
Ketuv: Where do you get inspiration for these designs? Sarah: Each of the chuppahs I make is inspired by a different poem. Wendell Berry, Khalil Gibran, Li-Young Lee–those are the poets that inspired the chuppahs I currently have available for sale. I like to draw inspiration from poets who aren’t Jewish, or who aren’t necessarily writing about lovey-dovey romantic love, and to bring those influences into my work as I create new interpretations of one our most ancient traditions, the chuppah.
Ketuv: What was your “Jewish upbringing” like? How do you participate now? Sarah: I grew up in a small Reconstructionist congregation in Pittsburgh, in an interfaith family. We didn’t have a rabbi, and the synagogue was almost entirely lay-led. My mother–who was born in Berkeley in the 60s and raised by strictly atheist parents–was horrified when I started coming home from Hebrew School talking about how God killed all the evil people in the story of Noah’s Ark. But she warmed up to it when we got to the more nuanced parts, and my family really embraced Shabbat dinners and studying the weekly parsha together. I remember being bored a lot in Hebrew School, but I loved studying at home with my father and I was really raised to see Judaism as a wide and welcoming community that could enrich and support my life.
I’ve wandered quite a bit with my Jewish identity over the last ten years. I struggle to find a traditional synagogue that I feel at home in. I work for an organization called JOIN for Justice, which works to bring Jewish communities into struggles for social justice, and that organization and the alumni of our programs have really become my Jewish home in Boston. I also find a Jewish home sitting at my loom weaving tallits, or sprawled out in a park somewhere painting a new chuppah design. I’m lucky to have been raised to be able to find my Jewish identity everywhere, not just inside a synagogue.
Ketuv: It seems like inclusivity and social responsibility is pretty important to you when it comes to this business–tell me a little about that! Sarah: Before I decided to really make a go at it as an artist, I worked as a community organizer in Toronto and then later in Boston. I’m drawn to people and their stories, and I see a lot in the world that is totally screwed up and needs to change–both within the Jewish community, and in the broader world. While my professional work has shifted away from directly organizing for social and political change, I always knew that inclusivity and social responsibility would be at the heart of my business. There is enough cheaply made crap that comes from exploitative labor in China to last us all a few times over–and sadly, there’s plenty of Judaica that fits into this category too. I want to create beautiful, well-made objects that lift up and celebrate the communities of the people who make them. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Ketuv: How would you like to see Judaica and Jewish ritual change? What do you see as your contribution in that arena? Sarah: I’d like to see Judaica and Jewish ritual continue to adapt to the increasing and glorious diversity that is represented in our Jewish community. There are so many ways to express and interpret our connection to Jewish ritual beyond pomegranates and Stars of David, and I think the most exciting Jewish art is bringing influences from the broader world into our traditions to enrich them and also open them up to the wider community. There are are a number of artists and Jewish leaders who are doing this (including the inspiring work of Ketuv!), and I’m excited to join this community through my work through Advah Designs.
Find out more about Advah Designs here.