Our Hebrew high school offers core classes and elective classes in small units. When we were approaching the new unit, the educator asked me if I would be willing to teach a knitting class. I agreed to do it on two conditions: that we were able to somehow create a class that also involved serious Jewish learning, and that there was enough interest to make it worthwhile. As it turned out, eleven students signed up for the course (including four boys!), and I was having no trouble coming up with good topics for learning that related to both knitting and Judaism.
We called the class, “Knitzvah.” The course has three primary goals: To learn the craft of knitting; to complete a blanket (made in squares) to donate to the charity of their choice; and to study Jewish texts that tangentially or directly relate to the craft. All of this in a 30 minute time-slot!
For our first class, the students selected the color yarn they wanted to use and learned about knitting charities. The chose, as a class, “Project Linus” to be the beneficiary of their knitting.
By the second class, we had our supplies in hand, and I spent the entire class going around the room teaching the basic stitches. I handed out a text study about the 39 categories of labor that went into producing the Tabernacle. I hoped that the students would discuss how much love, skill, and craftsmanship went into the building of a holy place. The reality was however, that since this was their first day with yarn and needles and the class was only thirty minutes, the text study was largely ignored. This class was pretty much a skill-building class alone.
I worried that that would be the norm, and that the class would fail as a “Jewish” course even if it succeeded as a knitting course. In planning for the third class, I realized that I needn’t have worried. The topic was keva and kavannah.
Prayer takes two forms – keva, the concrete, written text of the prayers, and kavannah, the personal intention that each individual brings to the text. When we learn the Hebrew text, the keva, and know it well, we have an opportunity to get lost in the kavannah. Hebrew prayer can work as a mantra, and it actually helps if you aren’t fluent in Hebrew! If I am praying the Yotzeir prayer, for example, I know that this is a prayer about creation, nature, and light. As my mouth recites the Hebrew words, my mind and heart can meditate on their meaning. If the prayer was in English, I would be far more wedded to the actual written words of the text.
After we discussed the concept in class, we talked about it how it applies to music. I sang the chorus of Jeff Klepper’s “Shalom Rav” twice. The first time I sang it, I tapped out the rhythm on my thigh and gave a clean rendition of the notes on the page with no inflection or prayerfulness. Then I sang it again, praying for peace as a I sang the words. We talked about the importance of prayerfulness. We discussed the difference between the notes on the page and a musical interpretation – kavannah.
After all of that, I brought the subject to knitting. I explained that we were beginning our knitting with a swatch just for learning, but that we would discard these swatches. These are about learning the keva of knitting. Once we have all mastered the stitch, we will begin work on our blanket squares. In making these, we can add the kavannah. These blankets are for sick children. We will knit our love, caring, and our prayers for healing into the stitches. Having mastered the keva, as they have with their prayers, they will have the attention left over for kavannah.
My sister had a baby recently. Her first child had been born very sick and this new pregnancy was frightening for our family as we all worried for my sister’s health and that of this new baby. I began a baby blanket almost as soon as she told me that she was pregnant. As that tiny baby developed, I knit his blanket, adding love, hopes, and prayers to every stitch. Her older daughter, now a beautiful five year old girl, still sleeps with the blanket that I knit for her. I dreamed of seeing this new, hopefully healthy baby, wrapped in the thousands of stitches that I knit for him.
Charlie was born in October. He is a beautiful, healthy, happy baby. The favorite plaything of his big sister, and loves to nap on all of us. His blanket came out perfectly. I hope he can feel all the love within the stitches.