The story of creation: Artist Miriam Karp on making her daughter's bat mitzvah tallit
Miriam Karp is an artist who has been creating hundreds of one-of-a-kind ketubot since 1976. She is a featured artist in Anita Diamant's book, The New Jewish Wedding, and her work, which has appeared in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States, is in private and public collections in the U.S. and abroad. On the occasion of her daughter Isabella's bat mitzvah, Miriam made her an extraordinary tallit.
Leah (LB): When did you start making ketubot? How did you get into this work?
Miriam Karp (MK): I've been interested in calligraphy since I was a child, copying alphabets I found in the encyclopedia. After college, when I was living in New York, I took a Hebrew calligraphy class at the 92nd Street Y and then took English calligraphy classes. My mother asked me to do a replacement ketubah for her best friend who, for her honeymoon, had sailed on the Andrea Doria ocean liner when it went down, and had lost her ketubah that many years ago. So my first one was in 1977. My second was based on the locust tree growing outside my Brooklyn brownstone. I've been doing them off and on ever since in addition to getting my MFA in painting, teaching and being a painter. I've been making ketubot as my living since 1996.
LB: Why did you decide to make your daughter a homemade tallit for her bat mitzvah?
MK: I've always sewn and love it. I had seen some beautiful hand-made tallitot at my synagogue and knew that would be something I'd want to do for Isabella's bat mitzvah. The mother of a friend of mine made all the tallitot in her family from material she bought at sari stores and I thought that's probably what I would do. I envisioned a simple design with bands of different fabrics. Hah!
LB: Can you tell us about the significance of the tallit's design?
MK: When we picked Bereshit for my daughter's bat mitzvah, I decided that I wanted to depict the creation of the world on her tallit. I wanted everything on it to have some personal significance as well. So, for example, on the band of the creatures of the sea, I put a jelly fish and a sea horse because I'd made Halloween costumes of each (we have a costume gallery in the hallway of all the costumes I've made since Isabella was three). We have five aquatic turtles so I put a turtle in the water as well as a tortoise on the "beasts of the field" section. Isabella's always had a gerbil for a pet so there went the image of one in the fields--it's got to be the only tallit in the world with a gerbil on it! There’s also a hen and her chick because we've hatched chickens twice. On the mountain tops, there’s a dog because she has three, a goat because we would like to own a goat (not going to happen), and a ram because Isabella's grandfather was the shofar blower at his synagogue for 30 years. The other animals I put in are ones that Isabella likes so they have significance to her. Across the mountain range I put images of the seven species with the pomegranates in the middles as a Tree of Life. When I was child my grandmother had a large pomegranate bush in her garden and it was always magical to me.
LB: What was the process of making your daughter's tallit like?
MK: It felt like I was recapitulating creation (only it took me 30 days instead of six!). It was actually a very powerful experience doing each section separately and working until I could say "and it was good." As an artist I've always felt that there's something god-like in making a piece of art, but this was the most literal experience I've ever had of that. In a strange way I felt that the experience of depicting Genesis on this tallit gave me a much deeper understanding of the story of Bereshit and of God as artist, an idea I had never really thought of before.
LB: How was Isabella's bat mitzvah experience different from yours and your mother's? Was it different from other girls' experiences in your community?
MK: I did have a bat mitzvah at 13 (1967) but at the time girls weren't allowed to read from the Torah or wear a tallit. So mine was on Friday night and I chanted the Haftarah. For my mother, the rabbi at her synagogue had approached her Orthodox father when she was 13 (this would have been in 1942) asking him if he would allow her to be the first girl in Atlanta to be a bat mitzvah, but my grandfather said no. In 1995 my mother had an adult bat mitzvah, chanted from the Torah and wore a tallit woven in Israel. She was the first woman in our family to wear and own a tallit.
Isabella goes to a community Hebrew day school that follows Orthodox practice. In her class, she's only one of three girls who will chant from the Torah and wear a tallit. Most of the girls aren't allowed to even participate in the service at all. We're the only family in her school belonging to a Reconstructionist synagogue and in our synagogue the b'nai mitzvot are unique to each child. So Isabella got to choose certain prayers and psalms that she loves and it made it an even more meaningful experience for her.
LB: Do you think you will be making more tallitot in the future?
MK: I did make one for myself which I finished the day before the bat mitzvah. It's very simple but I love it. And I'm making a tallit for my sister's 60th birthday. Again, a very simple one. But I really like the idea of making a tallit that is very personal and/or about a particular parasha. I'm in the process of redesigning my ketubah website and I'll be putting images of this tallit on it. If someone wants a custom tallit, I'd love to use what I learned making Isabella's. Maybe it will be a new line of work for me, who knows?