Berit Engen: WEFT and D'RASH – Weaving a Thousand Jewish Tapestries

I was born in Oslo, Norway, in 1955. As a child obsessively enthused over colors, I was intrigued when I saw a table loom at a country fair, noticing how the overlapping of warp and woof threads could make designs and how weaving techniques could create and manipulate hues. As a hippie-ish tween, I brought my hand loom everywhere, making scarves, ties, and belts in every setting. I wove on city buses, tying one end of the warp threads to the seat in front of me and the other around my stomach, and I wove under the vast sky, maybe on the door step of a centuries-old tar-smelling log cabin, or in a lingonberry patch or on huge, smooth boulders in a place called “The End of the World” in the Oslo fjord where the small islands of the archipelago disappear in the distance. 

Eventually, at age sixteen, I bought a big floor loom and made rugs and clothes. The loom filled a fourth of our small living-dining room in our tiny two-bedroom apartment. We lived in a post-war suburb, in the foothills of endless forest in which children could play, ski, and pick wild flowers. Sometimes I would sleep in these woods in the snow on a reindeer hide under fir trees after skiing with friends in moonlight to a small, silent white lake.

But the defining artistic moment took place when I hitchhiked at 21 for a year through Europe, visiting cities full of art. Ironically, though, it was not all that art that made me an artist. The inspiration came in Ravenna, Italy, near the famous mosaics I planned to see but never did because I had my nose in a book that completely absorbed me: My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok’s famous novel set in New York in the 1950s about a young Jewish painter of Chasidic background.  As a non-Jew, I did not understand the Jewish references – that is, a big part of the book –  but I did relate, shaking, to the painter’s sense of a calling to become an artist and questions about self-identity. I now yearned to make pictures, but I would “paint” them with yarn. This I pursued for most of the next 13 years, most memorably for two and a half years in Greece with my tapestry frame leaning on trees with pomegranates and olives, taking in the views, scents, and sounds of the Mediterranean.

In 1985 I came to the United States, married, and soon moved to Oak Park, IL, under a huge thick-trunked, thin-branched locust tree with feather-like leaves.  I had begun to establish myself as a Chicago based fine-arts weaver, but when our daughter Rivkah arrived in 1990, I gave up the time-consuming, intensive activity of weaving tapestries. I cried when I looked at my big, beautiful, walnut tapestry loom, hand-made in Oregon, but life got joyfully centered around family, schools, community, and eventually also Judaism. I converted after 18 years of being in love with my Jewish husband, 11 years of raising children, five years of preparing Shabbat and experiencing a growing love of Jewish observance, three years of intense study, and a few minutes in the mikveh. Celebrating and observing rituals and holy days, and teaching Biblical Hebrew and cantillation to students of all ages, enabled me to develop a relationship with the tradition and sparked my intellectual curiosity. Choosing Judaism was more than choosing a spiritual home; it was coming home to a place I had always longed for, like finding a part of me that was lost on the way.

In spring of 2007 I asked myself, “How can I contribute to Judaism by using my talents and skills?” The following Rosh Hashanah, I started my project, “WEFT and D'RASH – Weaving a Thousand Jewish Tapesries.” I now combine my love of my Norwegian heritage with my love of Judaism, and I live, sing, and weave under etz chayyim, the tree of life.

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