Ornamental Judaic quilts add haimish charm and warm up synagogue walls

On a cold, winter Shabbat, after lighting candles, why not cuddle up with your Shabbat quilt?

You've never heard of a Shabbat quilt or its place in Jewish ritual life?

Berkeley Quilt-maker Jodi Warner is looking to change that.

Warner, who lives in Berkeley, has created quilts for b'nai mitzvah and Jewish education classes, as well as for synagogues and Jewish homes.

Two of her quilts adorn the walls of Walnut Creek's Congregation B'nai Tikvah, where they commemorate the synagogue's 13th, or bar mitzvah, year.

"The quilt allows people to embroider their own emotions and feel a sense of connection to what is inside the temple," said the congregation's rabbi, Raphael Asher. "It adds beauty and texture to the sanctuary."

The large quilts hang like tapestries on opposite sides of the synagogue sanctuary. One depicts the Tree of Life, holding in its multicolored branches a Star of David within another star. Two doves gently place a gold crown on the tip of the larger star.

The other quilt pictures a menorah, its seven branches appliquéd over a patterned background. The middle candle releases a bright flame illuminating the center of a Star of David.

To create the quilts, 60 congregants painted on fabric, which Warner then cut up and pieced into two quilts. The process took her a year and a half.

Warner has made several quilts for special Jewish occasions. Her first quilt was for Ronit Reich, the late wife of Brian Reich, cantor of Berkeley's Congregation Beth El. Ronit Reich was also principal of the religious school at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Warner was attending a class on stress and healing at Beth El when she decided to make a quilt for Reich, who had ovarian cancer. The class helped create the quilt as a means of dealing with its own stress and as a healing object for Reich.

"She kept it close to remind her that many people loved her and were wishing her well," Warner said. "She died while she was under the quilt."

Warner has made Jewish quilts for a number of individuals, including a noted Los Angeles rabbi. Shealso has created b'nai mitzvah quilts for people to sign at the reception instead of the more usual photographic posters.

While teaching an adult Jewish-education class in Albuquerque, N.M., Warner worked with students to create a quilt on the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. Participants painted pictures on fabric that brought out the meaning of the story in their own lives.

"One older woman in the class wanted to depict the theme of the continuation of the Jewish people," Warner says. "She painted symbols of the desert and then put dots all over the painting. She said these dots symbolize sperm because the Jewish people need to keep fertilizing. You never know what people will use to represent Judaism."

Warner has also stitched a quilt for a Hadassah benefit and sewn a Torah curtain for Beth-El. Warner says that even Noah Alpert, the founder of Noah's Bagels, swaddles himself in one of her quilts.

She first became interested in quilting after taking a quilting class while staying at home to care for her first child.

Although she didn't learn quilting from her family, she says her interest "was a synthesis of my mother, who was an artist, and her mom, who was a brilliant seamstress.

"In my own family, we had no quilts. It wasn't something a Jewish family did," she says.

Yet quilting enjoys a long tradition in the United States, where quilting bees were a popular social and artistic outlet for women. Many of these works now hang in museums. "While they were one of the few forms of artistic expression for women, they could also be used around the house," Warner says.

In recent years, the AIDS quilt has served as an example of how quilts can be transformed from the traditional handicraft into both a personal and a social emblem. Several artists and organizations also have picked up the trend and created quilts to make a public statement.

Warner, like a number of other artists, has used quilting to bring herself closer to her own developing Judaism.

"I've found it hard to settle comfortably into Judaism, since my parents were atheists. But when I was in Israel a few months ago, I was so glad I had combined quilts and Judaism. I felt like I had contributed to my people," she says.

Currently, Warner is working on a quilt for a children's camp in Greece that houses refugees from Bosnia. She sent fabric, brushes and paint and asked the children to paint their visions of world peace. She recently received the painted fabric with their designs and is now stitching the quilt.

What attracts Warner to quilting is the ability to craft a myriad of patterns and meanings into soft, comfortable spreads.

"They are strong ritual items yet utilitarian. Quilts are very comforting. They are heavy, warm, and have a wonderful sensuous quality," she says. "A quilt can be a family or community heirloom and also a piece of art."