Every year in late October, thousands of people kept warm in handknit hats, scarves and sweaters descend on the artsy Upstate New York town of Rhinebeck for a weekend of festivities celebrating yarn, knitting and fiber arts.

It’s probably fair to say that many of those attending the New York Sheep & Wool Festival likely haven’t given much, if any, thought to the role of G‑d or religion in their creative endeavors.

But Rivka Hurwitz believes that there are many connections, and uncovering them can move a simple craft to another plane.

“We all want to find that place where we relate our interests to who we are in our essence, our neshamah [‘soul’],” said Hurwitz, who works in the yarn industry, noting that she found “ unbelievable connections between the world of knitting and spiritual truths.”

She shared her thoughts on “The Kabbalah of Knitting” during a post-Shabbat talk led by Tzivie and Rabbi Hanoch Hecht, co-directors of Chabad Dutchess-Rhinebeck Jewish Center.

One parallel between Judaism and knitting has to do with “dropping a stitch,” said Hurwitz.

“If knitters drop a stitch, we know we have to go back, and find that one stitch and pick it up; otherwise; the garment is in danger of unraveling,” she explained. “That experience is true of the Jewish people. We are inextricably bound with each other, and if we drop a stitch—drop a Jew—we as a Jewish people unravel.”

For knitter and pattern designer Sarah Jordan, the talk was eye-opening.

“I thought it was fantastic,” she said. “I never thought of knitting as having a connection to religion, but there really are so many. This was something that never occurred to me before, but Rivka found all these instances.”

The weekend celebrates yarn, knitting and fiber arts.
The weekend celebrates yarn, knitting and fiber arts.

Jordan, who attended the event with her friend, Amy Manko of Ross Farm Mercantile, was also surprised by Hurwitz’s links between the fiber arts and everyday life. “We talked about the word ‘unraveling.’ When things are going wrong, they are unraveling as they do with yarn. I think it’s a good metaphor for life, and if your knitting is unraveling, then things are going really badly.”

Newbie knitter Barbara Glazer spent much of the evening working on a simple project that she said “just looks complicated.” She mentioned being impressed by Hurwitz’s breadth of knowledge and by the discussions within the audience that followed her presentation.

“One of the first things she mentioned was about wool and flax, and how the first references to fiber arts are in the Bible,” said Glazer. “It’s been a part of us forever.”

Glazer pointed out one of Hurwitz’s examples came from the biblical song, “Eishet Chayil” (“Woman of Valor”) in Proverbs 31:10-31 that says: “She seeks wool and flax, and she works it with the will of her hands.”“She seeks out wool and flax and cheerfully does the work of her hands.”

“When we take raw materials and create a shawl or a scarf, and we put our being into it, it really comes from G‑d,” said Glazer. “It’s a gift, and it’s really meaningful. I think it’s added a dimension to the work that can seem mundane.”

Hurwitz, left, with Amy Manko
Hurwitz, left, with Amy Manko

‘It Lit a Fire Under Me’

For Tzivie Hecht, offering the class seemed like a great idea for her local community and the visitors who came for the fiber festival.

“The New York Sheep & Wool Festival is very much a part of Rhinebeck. It’s about being in the country and on the farm, and feels very rustic,” Hecht said. “We wanted to be able to incorporate an element of Yiddishkeit and deeper meaning into things that usually are unrelated.”

She went on to say that some years, the festival coincides with Sukkot, and a number of attendees wearing their handmade goods will stop by the Jewish center to visit the synagogue’s sukkah and eat a meal there. This year, however, with Sukkot long over by the time the festival began, it seemed like a good time to offer a concrete program.

Jordan said Hurwitz’s talk has given her a new motivation when knitting.

“I had been doing some charity knitting before, but never thought of knitting as being tikkun olam, repairing the world. It lit a fire under me, and I realized I can do this,” she said. “As a Jew, it’s a good thing for me to do. It’s two parts of my life that I never thought of connecting ... and now I can.”

Newbie knitter Barbara Glazer, center, was impressed by Hurwitz’s breadth of knowledge and by the discussions after the talk.
Newbie knitter Barbara Glazer, center, was impressed by Hurwitz’s breadth of knowledge and by the discussions after the talk.