Tell Rachel Braun that embroidery is women’s work and she will firmly assert that fabric arts is a bona fide art form. “It is undervalued,” she said in a recent interview with JewishBoston, “because the vast majority of the artists are women.” Braun herself embraced embroidery as art over two decades ago when she and her family were on a sabbatical in France. She attended a Masorti, or Conservative, synagogue in Paris, where they used a wimple instead of a Torah belt to keep the scroll in place. Braun admired the embroidery on it, and when she returned to America, she made a Torah wimple in honor of her daughter’s bat mitzvah.

Designing the embroidery on the wimple was by accident and then necessity. As she was embroidering her daughter’s bat mitzvah wimple, she used the wrong needle and cut herself. “I bled all over my skyline of Jerusalem,” she said. “About to give up, I realized I could stitch in other buildings to cover the stains. I loved the creativity of being able to do that, and the stitching itself was enjoyable, almost meditative.”


Braun made individual wimple pieces to commemorate all four of her children’s bnei mitzvah, and during the process she had an epiphany. “I realized the embroidery I was doing was also interpreting verses,” she said. “It was an artistic exegesis as opposed to a literary exegesis.”

In an essay she recently published in Lilith, Braun further explained that embroidery had “become a potent practice of living Torah and enacting Jewish life, rather than documenting myself for future generations. These experiences unfold in the offering of a drasha, a textual commentary, within the design itself, and indeed, in the repetitive glide of the needle through the fabric.”

Braun quipped that she’s drawn to the portions of the Bible that bore most people. She noted that among her favorite chapters are the descriptions of the Israelites wandering in the desert with various stops of the journey listed. “I like the ‘begats’ as well as the details construction of the mishkan, or tabernacle,” she said. Braun used the word meditative again, but this time it was to point out that repeating these details in the Torah is a way of “insisting that this biblical people’s dramatic experience is worth pausing to take note of. In embroidery, you experience that same rhythm—the little details add up to an entire story.”

A statistician and mathematician by training, Braun has recently published a book of her designs entitled, “Embroidery and Sacred Text: New Designs in Judaic Needlework.” The book is not only a collection of her work; it was also a project that she said organized her pieces into a coherent narrative. “Writing the book clarified for me a lot of what I was doing piece to piece over 20 years,” she said. “I understood the journey more when I sat and wrote about what I had been stitching and creating.”

One of Braun’s favorite pieces in her collection is a quote from Psalm 147:4-5, which she translates as: “God counts the stars, giving each a name; with grandeur and power, wisdom beyond measure.” In her Lilith essay Braun explained: “God counts the stars! That God painstakingly conducts a celestial census, and in doing so honors individuality in each, certainly touches a statistician’s heart. What patience that takes! What concentration and attention to detail!” Just as God named the stars, so did Braun—she gave each star in her piece a distinctive needlework pattern. The artist’s work not only interprets the text but reflects the intentionality of the verses.

“Jacob’s Ladder”
“Jacob’s Ladder” (Courtesy Rachel Braun, scanned by Philip Brookman)

In another piece entitled “Jacob’s Ladder,” Braun has a ladder that goes through the sampler of background stitches. The stitches, she said, help to interpret the rabbinic exegesis on what was happening when the angels went up and down the ladder. She brings in a Hasidic teaching from the Chabad tradition that says the angels moved up and down to delineate different spiritual levels. “I’ve tried to illustrate that interpretation,” she said. “As you move up and down the ladder, there’s a different artistic experience.”

Braun, who teaches statistics and calculus at a Jewish high school in Rockville, Md., is now working on interpreting a quote from chapter six of Pirke Avot that lists the 48 ways that one acquires Torah. She is at the design stage where she is working on graph paper and surrounding the words with its own blackwork pattern. Braun has also devised an ornate calligraphy for the piece. She envisions the work as a sampler of 48 different designs, each of them highlighting how Torah is learned and assimilated. “Before I start stitching, I’ll figure out how each of these different ways of acquiring Torah fit together,” she said. “The individual pieces will come together as one full presentation of the ways we can access Torah.”

But there is something ineffable about Braun’s process. Pausing over each stitch and repeatedly using the same motion with the needle enables her “to get a song going in my hand. It’s an entry in immersing myself in the text.”

Rachel Braun will be at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute on Thursday, Jan. 18, discussing her art and her book, “Embroidery and the Sacred Text.” Find more information about the event here.