Connecting to My Jewish Ancestors Through Fiber Arts

After developing a chronic illness, I started working with fabric — in the tradition of my bubbes.

I’ve had plenty of fictional heroines, but my real-life heroine has always been my father’s bubbe, Ruth. The stories my father told around the Shabbos table fascinated me: Ruth was only a teenager when she survived a pogrom and walked across Russia with her two little brothers to reach the ship that would take her to Ellis Island.

I always wondered how the broken-hearted young refugee my father talked about became the peaceful old woman who knitted tightly woven little baskets and crinkly dolls with sweet, sleepy faces. She passed away in my childhood, but for many years I treasured the beautiful things she crocheted for me.

I wasn’t able to glean as much information about my grandmother’s grandmother, Bubbe Basha, but it always filled me with pride when my grandmother would compare me to her as I played “shopping” for buttons and cast-offs in the storage closet. “You’re very clever and you want to learn how to do everything, just like her!” In addition to speaking five languages, Bubbe Basha used to run her family’s fabric store in a time when women rarely controlled their own finances. She ordered the fabric and measured it out for customers. Sometimes, when she couldn’t purchase goods herself, she padded her smallest daughter’s clothes with cash and sent her into the city to buy fabric.

So, in many ways, fabric was in my DNA, and I appreciated it from an early age. My own grandmother gave me her old sewing machine and a sewing kit so that I could make clothes for my dolls. I loved spending time on careful details like tiny pockets. But as I grew up, I replaced sewing with other hobbies, like ballet and musical theater.  Long hours of rehearsals and practice came easily to me. I knew I wasn’t born with “the look,” but I could spend more hours stretching, learning accents and reviewing monologues than anyone else.

In the end, it wasn’t typecasting that sabotaged my goals, but my own body. After I got seriously ill at the start of my sophomore year of college, I was eventually diagnosed with a genetic collagen disease that made my blood pressure drop, my joints wobble, and caused chronic fatigue, which made staying awake in classes difficult — especially when I had to abandon my handy ADHD medication due to heart issues.

I needed a quiet activity that I could use to keep my brain stimulated and alert. With the help of my school’s costume design department’s scrap fabric bin, I decided to start embroidery. At first my decorative stitches came out as oversized, sloppy disasters. After a few tangled messes and wasted skeins of thread, I considered quitting. Then the perseverance I’d used to achieve my front split — the perseverance my immigrant ancestors had used to survive — kicked in.  By the end of the semester, I knew enough stitches to embroider holiday ornaments for my friends and teachers. I also got into felting, which is gloriously tactile and messy, after attending a workshop at my college.

Courtesy of Ennis Rook Bashe

I may be using thread for secular reasons much of the time, but I feel connected to my ancestors through my fiber arts practice. Even though I don’t identify as a woman, I know the patriarchy doesn’t see me as a man, so I love learning about these Jewish women’s traditions. Recently, I read about the Ashkenazi practice of soul candles, where women would carry balls of thread to the graveyard and wrap the thread around the gravestones of family members. Then, they would use this thread to make candles for the synagogue. According to an article in the Forward by Annabel Cohen, “measuring the burial places […] was a way of connecting the living to the ancestral chain all the way back to the matriarchs and patriarchs.” That’s how I feel when I take out my embroidery thread, knowing that what I’m doing is similar to what my foremothers did.

Courtesy of Ennis Rook Bashe

When I started writing my first novel, I was inspired by my own love for fiber arts and the stories I’d heard of the strong women in my family. Sariva, the protagonist of “A Scheme of Sorcery,” is a second-generation immigrant in a land where her people are distrusted due to stereotypes. Instead of letting her enemies overwhelm her, Sariva uses her needlework as a coping mechanism, and even a form of protest.

I wanted to write a heroine who was as brave as Bubbe Ruth and as resourceful as Bubbe Basha. Hopefully they’d be proud to see themselves in my art, and in Sariva.

Ennis Bashe

Ennis Bashe (they/them) is a Jewish, disabled non-binary poet and novelist currently living and working in NYC. Ennis has received a Rainbow Awards honorable mention and is a Lesfic Bard Awards winner. Ennis’s new book, “A Scheme of Sorcery,” will be published in September 2021.

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