On the Friday before Rosh Hashanah, Sarah Jacobs, the author of the blog Sarah in NYC, was facing a deadline to finish a custom kittel –the white coat traditionally worn by men on special occasions. The deadline was later that day, but she took time to talk to me about the kittel, her work, and the inspiration she finds New York City’s loud cultural mix. You can see the kittel on Sarah’s blog. Overall, the design has a traditional Old World feel, with heavy trim on the collar and cuffs and the placket that runs down the front. But it has some unusual detailing: inserted into the robe are rows of ribbon on which Sarah painted text from the High Holiday prayer book. The triangle insert of text, for example, is Kol Nidre, the declaration to annul vows recited on the evening of Yom Kippur.
The kittel is characteristic of Sarah’s work. She sews custom Judaica, and she insists on designing objects that cause people to think, an approach puts her work at the intersection of art and the technical craft of sewing.
Ideally, she says, a ritual object like a kittel or tallit or challah cover gets you to ask questions that help you focus on the mitzvah you’re about to do: “Why am I here, and what is this mitzvah?” She notes that Jewish prayer often involves finding a balance between praying consistently and experiencing “glorious moments of happiness,” and she wants her designs to help people find that balance.
She walked me through her thought process in designing the kittel: “What is a kittel? What is its task? And what happens when you have the text the person is reciting on the body of the person reciting it?” A kittel, she explains, historically gets it’s start as a German house coat. Traditionally, men wear them for the first time under the chuppah when they get married. They wear them on the High Holidays, they wear them when leading the Passover Seder, and they are buried in them. Referring to her latest creation, she says, “This kittel is not a static object. It’s raising questions. I hope it gets the wearer and observers thinking about what you’re doing on the High Holidays: You’re praying for your life.”Sarah’s motivation to help her clients connect personally to prayer and doing mitzvot is reflected in her custom tallitot, as well. Sarah calls the atarah, the neckband on the tallit, an “archway to prayer.” While an atarah is often embellished with the prayer that’s recited when the wearer puts it on, Sarah works with her clients to find a verse that that’s deeply meaningful to the client and a reminder of why they’re putting on the tallit.
She came to sewing “completely backwards,” she says, “like a lot of people.” She designed and made her first challah cover while teaching arts and crafts at camp. Several years later, she taught herself how to sew with her sister’s sewing machine while making a tallit bag for a friend. “I learned how to sew,” she says, “by banging my head against the wall and making every mistake that was possible to make.”
Friends urged her to make items to sell at craft fairs, but she realized that nearly everything she was making could be made in China for less. So she began focusing on items that could not be mass produced: commissions for one of a kind Jewish ritual objects infused with personal meaning. Now she’s a pro and can whip up a dress in an hour, but her blog posts often detail her efforts to expand her skills into new techniques to create her custom ritual objects.
Sarah’s a New Yorker now, but she grew up in Boston, the daughter of a Conservative rabbi. She attended Maimonides School, a Modern Orthodox school founded by the great mid 20th century rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and his wife, Tonya. Sarah credits the school’s rigorous Talmud education, where girls studied Talmud alongside boys, for her comfort with Jewish texts. She went on to get a degree in art history.
Her parents modeled an appreciation of meaningful ritual objects. “I grew up in a home where beautiful ritual objects were really important. My parents sought out special, artful things,” Sarah says. Now a longtime New York resident, life in the city further honed her design philosophy: “Because I live in an apartment, objects must be useful and not simply decorative.”
Her Sarah in NYC blog conveys a strong feeling of New York City, and reading it one gets the impression that Sarah is carrying on a generations-old tradition of New York’s garment industry and the Jewish community’s role in it. In one post, Sarah relates a trip to a specialty shop to get button holes sewn onto the kittel. Her photos of fabric stores show city streets. She shares photos of her family on subway platforms and at museum exhibits. When she posts photos of sunsets, the landscape isn’t beaches or mountain ranges, but the flat tops of brick buildings.
She loves New York’s “cultural cacophony” and how going about her day, particularly buying fabric like sari fabric or African mud cloth, brings her into contact with many different cultures and different people. “There’s something profound,” she says, “about buying fabric and the underlying humanity of the people who produced the fabric and those selling it to me.”
She relates the story about being in a small shop with her son when he was four or five years old. Her son showed her some change he had found. “Did you find it on the countertop or the floor?” she asked him, “Because if you found it on the counter, it belongs to the shopkeeper. If you found it on the floor, you can keep it.” The shopkeeper’s public mask fell from his face. ‘Where does that come from?’ he asked. From Halakhah, she told him; Jewish law. The shopkeeper walked over to a basket of coins with a Magen David and gave it to her son. “We’re all the same underneath,” she says.
You can see details of the finished kittel on the Sarah in NYC blog.