My eldest daughter is graduating from high school next week. This is what I thought will happen: my mom and sister will cross the ocean to celebrate this important milestone with us. We will all dress up in our finest to attend the graduation ceremony. My daughter will receive her diploma in her new gown and cap. I will give her a special gift I stealthily prepared while she was at school.
High School Graduation Gift: The Jewish Blessing of the Child
For months I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to think of a meaningful graduation gift for my firstborn, a second before she flies out of the nest. For months I couldn’t think of anything special enough. Until one sleepless night, that is. One of those many nights on which my brain swerms with thoughts, bursting with creative ideas. Sometime between 1:00 am – 2:00 am it hit me: The Jewish Blessing of the Child.
I didn’t grow up in a religious family. My parents never recited the Child’s Blessing. I never heard it growing up. But when I had kids of my own, I learned about it through their school. When my daughters got involved with theater, one of the first plays they participated in was Fiddler on the Roof. One of the scenes that touched me most in that musical, and still makes me cry time and again, is the Shabbat Prayer: The Jewish Blessing of the Child. Perhaps because the blessing touches on every parent’s deepest fears, and expresses their deepest wishes: the desperate hope that their children will always be safe.
That night, it occurred to me that it would be meaningful to make a textile wall hanging with the Child’s Blessing for my daughter. Something to remind her of my love. A gift light enough and packable enough for her to take with her when she moves out of our home and into her college dorm. Something that will symbolically protect her when I’m not there to do so myself.
The Jewish Blessing of the Child is actually the Priestly Blessing. Originally, the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem used it to bless the people. After the Romans destroyed the Temple and exiled the people of Israel to the diaspora, Jews continued to recite the blessing in synagogues. Many still recite it daily. In some communities, it became a custom for parents to bless their children on Friday night, the eve of the Jewish Sabbath.
Here is the blessing, first in the original Hebrew, then the transliteration in Latin alphabet, and finally the English translation:
יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
Yivarechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha
May God bless you and protect you.
יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
Ya’er Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka
May God show you favor and be gracious to you.
יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלום
Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yasem lecha shalom
May God show you kindness and grant you peace.
In other words: May you always be protected, safe from all harm, and at peace.
Pandemic and a Slight Change of Plans
Assumptions and expectation are one thing, reality quite another. Or, as the Yiddish saying goes: we plan, God laughs. This is what is actually happening in spring 2020: Covid 19 is raging around the world. Flights are unsafe/cancelled. My mom and sister will not be coming any time soon. The school cancelled the graduation ceremony. We will all stay in our pajamas. My daughter will wear her cap and gown only for a short photoshoot. I made her gift at the beginning of the lockdown, while she was taking remote classes on Zoom in a different room. Unable to wait, I already gave it to her, weeks in advance.
I had a vague picture of how I wanted this wall hanging to look. On my last visit to Fabmo I picked fabrics for it: a grayish blue for the background, a festive silver for the fonts. I even found matching tassels to go with it. I brought them home and hid them in my sewing room, so my daughter doesn’t see them.
The pandemic hit before I started working on it. Those first few weeks of quarantine were quite emotional. Like many others, I was scared and worried. I confronted my own mortality, and felt a deep existential fear for my children’s safety. I tried to stay positive, keep a routine, work on happy things. But I also had this feeling of helplessness. There was little I could do in the face of the universe. I could only protect my kids that much. Suddenly, the Child’s Blessing wall hanging seemed more urgent.
The Making Process
And so, one morning when my kids were busy online with school, I gathered my materials. I had the ones I brought from Fabmo, of course. But in a corner of my sewing room I had another pile of fabrics, one that was sitting there untouched for three years, ever since my mother in law passed away. This was the pile of textiles I rescued from her house. In this pile were some white linens belonging to my children’s great-grandparents from both my mother and father in law’s families. For three years I was unable to touch them. They seemed too precious, not because of what they actually were, but because of who they once belonged to, their sentimental value. Now their time has come. The Jewish Blessing of the Child, sewn during a global pandemic, seemed like a great use for these precious fabrics.
I started by printing the Hebrew letters and cutting templates.
I ironed interfacing onto the back of the silver fabric, and traced the mirror image of the letters.
For hours, I cut each one out carefully until my hands ached.
I arranged them on one of the cloth napkins.
Then carefully sewed around each and every letter. This took many hours.
I attached the napkin to the background fabric, framed it in between two halves of an ancestral doily, decorated with couched ribbon to tie it all together, and sandwiched it with batting and a backing (also from the ancestral pile). I quilted it all together and, at the very end, added the tassels.
When I finished, I was too excited not to give it right away. And so I did. True, the school year hasn’t yet officially ended, but the last day of school was already behind us.
Making Two More
You might recall the three symbols of maternal love that became a tradition in my family. I originally expected the Blessing of the Child wall hanging to become a fourth, a high-school graduation gift for each of my three children. But that was before the pandemic. Once Covid 19 was here, I started thinking that maybe it would be a good idea to get the remaining two out of the way now, just in case…
And so, in the following weeks, I made two more. I already had all the materials, after all. They turned out similar, but not identical. Three pieces of cloth hangings that carried history and traditions from both my husband’s and my families. A symbolic hug from generations of ancestors, at a time when most hugs are only virtual.
Now, to wait for a vaccine…