Threads of Chinese and Russian intermingle on handmade tallit

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The tallit Jackie Swoiskin gave her husband on his birthday was hand-embroidered in whirlpool patterns of brick and blue. Hebrew letters spiraled toward the vortex, while Russian letters swirled outward. Brachot printed in Chinese ran vertically along the tallit's edges.

The Chinese symbolizes half her heritage; the Russian, her husband's heritage. The Hebrew connects them both.

A similar tallit done by Swoiskin is now on exhibit in Palo Alto as part of "At the End of the Silk Road: The Jews of Kaifeng, China," at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center's Koret Gallery.

"When I embroider, I feel as if I'm bringing several cultures together onto fabric," Swoiskin said. "Written Russian is very curvy, Hebrew is very straight and Chinese characters are like flowers."

When translated, these Chinese characters mean "invisible force of the law," said Swoiskin, an Amerasian Jew and co-host of Channel 38's "Inside China." She found the ancient Chinese blessings in a resource book, "Chinese Jews."

In her tallitot, Swoiskin combines geometric designs with soft curves and lines; the tzitzit are constructed from what she describes as Gothic lace.

Although Swoiskin taught herself embroidery, just three months before her husband's May birthday, the only problems encountered during the tallit-making process came from choosing a fabric. She originally chose upholstery materials, but the tallit "ended up looking like a couch, or clown outfit."

Eventually, sheer and patterned silks were used successfully; to ensure the materials were kosher and that no silks, wools or cottons were mixed together, fabric samples were sent to an Orthodox laboratory in Brooklyn for analysis.

Swoiskin, who also makes challah covers, said she was inspired to design tallitot after reading a book on the Jews of Kaifeng, China.

When her works were completed, she discovered that the Sino-Judaic Institute, a Menlo Park organization that focuses on the history of Jewish communities in China, was sponsoring a display at the ALSJCC.

Believing that her own work would fit in, she contacted gallery representatives.

The San Francisco resident said she always had a strong interest in fashion and was voted best-dressed student as a senior at Bullard High School in Fresno.

She plans to evolve further into tallitot design, introducing a collection for young people.

Future projects include fashioning a Chinese-inspired tallit. She will ask her Chinese father to copy the inscriptions that the Jews of Kaifeng wrote on the stone pillars of their synagogue. Swoiskin will then trace his calligraphy on sheer ribbon, embroider over the tracings and sew the ribbon on the tallitot.

"Being a living Chinese Jew, I feel I am doing my part in passing the heritage of the ancient Kaifeng Jews through my tallitot for future generations," Swoiskin said.