December 18, 2020
Sewing circle 'Chicks with Sticks' knit their mitzvahs
By Barbara Sofer
Theirs wasn’t an official aliyah pilot trip. Naomi May, a retired Atlanta Torah day school assistant principal, and her husband Saul, a retired professor of biochemistry, were ostensibly visiting their daughter and grandchildren in Efrat. But aliyah was on their minds, particularly because they were concerned about their son Joshua.
In Efrat, Naomi stopped in the local synagogue to say kaddish for her father, feeling a little shy in a synagogue not her own. There was only one other woman in the women’s section of the weekday morning prayer service. She was also saying kaddish. The woman made sure Naomi knew where the siddurim were and invited her to sit near her so they could say the mourner’s prayer together.
After the service, the other woman introduced herself as Phyllis Goldman, a veteran immigrant and English teacher, and asked if they were visiting and was there anything she could do to help. As it turned out, the two women also shared the midwest North American accent better known as a “Chicago accent” – or as they say in the Windy City, Chicawgo. Naomi was born in Chicago too, and as it turned out, had gone to elementary school with Goldman’s sister.
“She was so kind and friendly to me,” said Naomi. “That small encounter, those few kind words, were what made me feel we could make aliyah and that Efrat would be the right place for us.”
The Mays’ son Joshua is a special needs adult, and they were unsuccessful finding a group home for him in Jewish religious environment in Atlanta. On their trip, they found Jerusalem’s Seeach Sod, (A Secret Language), which has among its many programs for special needs children and adults, group apartments for adults at various levels of independence. They learned that there were families who moved to Israel just so their loved ones could be in Seeach Sod’s care.
So, in 2015 Naomi, Saul and Joshua May made aliyah.
“Seeach Sod far exceeded our expectations,” says May. “The care is wonderful and our son is happy there.”
Afterward, their older daughter and her family decided to make aliyah too, so the May family members were now all in Israel.
LIVING IN Efrat, Naomi heard about a knitting circle started in 2007 by Efrat neighbor Channah Koppel, an English-language writer and editor. The group was called Chicks with Sticks – no connection to the juvenile novel or hockey teams of the same name. A posting on the Gush Etzion community notice board brought tens of members, nearly all native English speakers.
Knitting circles, like quilting bees, have a social side. In this case. Koppel’s circle quickly moved beyond socializing to good deeds. With Koppel’s own son serving with the IDF paratroopers in the icy Hermon Mountain outposts, the knitters decided to make winter hats for his unit. Not surprisingly, requests followed from other units. Word spread among Israeli-loving knitting groups abroad. Koppel’s Efrat postbox filled with hundreds of warm hats from abroad, from Alaska to New Zealand.
The women also made sweaters and vests, scarves and mittens, shawls and cowls. Knitting, thought to have been invented in Egypt in the fifth century, is reputedly good for both relaxation, heart health and maintaining mental acuity.
“I always knitted as a hobby and I thought this would be a great way to meet people in my new hometown,” said May. Indeed, Chicks with Sticks meetings not only helped with knitting, purling and casting off, but they provided invaluable tips for new immigrants like her.
“You could say, they knit me into daily life in Israel.” May said.
Although clubs abroad often meet in coffee bars or pubs, the Gush Etzion women gather every two weeks (in non-coronavirus times) in each other’s homes. An early meeting turned out to be in the home of Phyllis Goldman, whom May had met in that short but important meeting in synagogue. May was delighted to renew their acquaintance and to tell Goldman what impact she’d had on her.
And then, suddenly two years ago, Phyllis Goldman collapsed in the same synagogue where she welcomed Naomi May. She died at age 64.
“We were all in shock,” said Chicks founder Koppel. “She was so lively and energetic, a beloved teacher and such a warm and loving person.”
A YEAR after Goldman’s death, the knitters still felt her large absence. Then Koppel received a phone call from Goldman’s bereaved husband Gershon Goldman. Their home was still filled with yarn. Like many knitters, who are notorious yarnaholics, Goldman had collected skeins in a kaleidoscope of colors, filling closets and drawers for future projects. Could he please deliver them to Chicks with Sticks to turn the yarn into something useful?
“Of course we said yes,” said Koppel. “We wanted to do something special with it. After group discussions we decided to make winter blankets to memorialize our friend. We knitters would each make panels according to our personal color choices and designs. That’s how she would have liked it – lots of creativity; nothing uniform.”
The panels turned out wild and wonderful: teal and turquoise, magenta and mauve, horizontal stripes and bold squares. There was no black or gray yarn in Goldman’s collection.
Several club members volunteered to sew the swatches together into large, warm blankets.
Because of the coronavirus, the Chicks with Sticks no longer sit around together in a living room with needles, yarn and patterns, but they communicate daily by WhatsApp.
The blankets project took nine months of knitting and stitching. Where they would be donated was initially unclear, until the knitters learned that Joshua May and the other special needs men who shared the Seeach Sod apartment with him had to move out of their group home to a different apartment, now in the Geulah neighborhood. The adjustment would be hard, particularly when the organization’s usual inclusion of families in programs was limited because of the coronavirus.
Wouldn’t it be cheering for each of the 11 of them to get his own bright, warm and comforting hand-knit blanket in the new and unfamiliar venue?
So, last week, right before Hanukkah, the small delegation – Channah Koppel, Naomi May and Gershon Goldman – arrived at the apartment with their arms laden with blankets, each different, each warm enough for even the chilliest Jerusalem nights.
These women may call themselves Chicks with Sticks, but I call them Mitzvah Stitchers.