There is a Yiddish folk song called “Hob Ikh Mir a Mantl” (“I Had a Coat”), retold in myriad picture books, about an overcoat that is regularly refashioned into new objects. When the coat is worn and fraying, its owner cuts it down—snip! snip! snip!—and it becomes a jacket. Then it is a vest; then a tie; and so on, until it is something tiny: a button covered in cloth that is lost in the street, or the ragged remnant of a child’s toy.
The standard “moral” given in such tales is to avoid waste (the Jewish principle of bal taschit). On another level, the story is about the threads of memory and the drive toward narrative. In most versions, we are reminded that even when the final tiny button is lost, the story of the coat, and of its creator, remains.
One recent version, titled My Grandfather’s Coat, evokes our finitude at its close, meditating on how large, solid bits of matter break down to a limit of almost nothing, to mere atoms, stardust. In a cadence reminiscent of Good Night, Moon, we read:
Then slowly, the threads moldered away and moldered away . . .
. . . until there was nothing left at all.
No, nothing left of the cozy nest,
And nothing left of the kittens’ toy,
And nothing left of the stylish tie,
And nothing left of the snazzy vest,
And nothing left of the smart jacket,
And nothing left at all of your great-grandfather’s handsome coat—
No, there was nothing left at all.
Nothing, that is, except this story.
There is not, after all, such a thing as a creation ex nihilo, something from nothing, epes fun gornisht. Not truly. Each item the grandfather creates is composed of that which came before it. When the fabric is spent, it is spent. Is this all there is?
* * *
A few months ago, my six-year-old daughter visited a planetarium for the first time. The earliest morning show was designed for kids, embellished with animation, and all went well: A forlorn yellow star (our sun) found some planets and was no longer lonely. But the next show—the next show was about black holes. The dome over our heads blared with the bright light of a star going super nova. Then, superimposed videography of whitewater rafters sailing down a waterfall made us feel as if we were careening headlong into the gravitational field of a black hole, surfing the vast spaghettified waves down, down into a place from which nothing, not even light, could ever escape. My daughter screamed and begged to be taken from the theater. We complied. Is this all there is?
During the same week as my daughter’s existential terror in the planetarium, I was seated next to an astronomer at a college dinner. He commented on how much he enjoys our department’s programming and asked when the next public talk would be held. He mentioned, however, that he had once come to a lecture where he felt adrift, where the speaker did not utter the words “God” or “religion,” “church” or “synagogue” or “prayer,” and he left not sure if what he heard was really about religion. In his friendly query, I heard it: Is this all there is?
I was not surprised. No, I was prepared. I dug in. I started to explain how over the last decade or two, scholars had pushed back against those overly Protestant-determined, limiting categories to think through concepts of “religion” in more subtle ways, to be aware of how “the secular” is rarely completely so, shot through and codetermined by religion as it must be. In sum: I tried, with all of the internal snobbism of an expert to explain part of the project of The Immanent Frame. In this forum, John Modern describes his familial cringe at the framing of an imperative to provide religious literacy to masses in 2007. Here I was, a decade later, ready to patronizingly spread the gospel of my wisdom on the so-called secular.
Then the dean of the college called us all to attention; the fall ritual of welcoming our new experts was upon us. The conversation flickered past, unfinished, to be continued. But the query haunts me now. Is this all there is? What is it that we do? Like this past summer’s eclipse, can we only view “religion” through what seems, to others, like cardboard-framed sunglasses—darkly? I experienced the regularly scheduled sense that my work is, in the end, a grasping at wind. I picture my scholarship, and that of my peers, tumbling down the vast gravitational waterfall into a black hole of knowledge, never to be read by anyone who does not also hold a PhD in our subguild of subguilds. Whence the study of the religion/secular, then? I comfort myself with the reminder that the sun will go cold, anyway.
* * *
From the tiny unraveling threads that turn to dust motes to the vast spaghetti strings of gravity that cascade down into the black hole: Is this, then, all there is? Why do I fly across the country—away from the tactile embrace of my very finite daughter—to interview strangers about their Jewish creations while the world is, increasingly, burning?
Touch, writes Constance Classen, is “the hungriest sense of postmodernity.” Could this longing for the finite grasp of tactility be a response to our ever-growing awareness of just how many infinities there might be? This is one version of why I am studying what I study in my current research, visiting women in their living rooms and at their synagogues, gently holding embroidered wimpels and crocheted kippot and the most extraordinary hand-carved torah pointers. Against the macro, I wield the micro: If this is all there is, well, then let’s keep stitching. Or, as Pittsbugh-based artist and author Louise Silk told me: “There’s always a purpose for a quilt. There’s always a reason to have a quilt. And there’s always another present, another wall, another table . . . It’s endless, it’s absolutely endless.” She paused, then deadpanned: “You can have too many needlepoint pillows, for sure.”
Creation has so many possibilities, but they all run out eventually. There is consumption; there is that which is consumed; there is that which is remembered. “I Had a Coat” describes a real phenomenon: the reuse of fabrics. Long before the trend of upcycling, Jewish communities used and reused their textiles carefully. Gerry Weichman, one of the founding members of the West Los Angeles chapter of the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework, told me this about her work preserving textiles at the Skirball Cultural Center in the 1970s:
I would read, “this belonged to the mother of the family so-and-so, and then was reduced down in size to fit the other one, and then made into a pillow,” which is what I was repairing at the time. Reading the history of each piece that I handled was just visceral. You just felt it. . . . It really was very moving, because these were belonging to some human being that was part of our culture, really . . . We don’t do that anymore. There’s not the treasury to the pieces that they had in those days, because you didn’t have material very easily either. It was very expensive. Well, and there weren’t that many Jews. And then . . . a lot of Jews and their pieces were burned out during the Holocaust. It was time for us to make more pieces, and the contemporary ones.
Is this, then, at last, the creation ex-nihilo, the act of making something out of nothing? Out of the ultimate absence emanates the demand for new presence, the command to create? Gerry’s reaction to the fire is not blasé or spoiled, nor is it nihilistic like my own. It is something more, a vivid optimism. Instead of asking, “Is this all there is?,” she declares: this is what we will make. The objects will be Jewish ones. All the rest is commentary.
* * *
Our hungry senses long for a something, and then, there must be something more. In my research, there is a kind of hedonism, a drive to consume through the urge to frame, to catalog, to archive, to understand. And also, this: the sensory longing to touch the fabric, to grasp the needles, to smell the musty scent of yarn.
There is, I fear, a bifurcation in this essay between materiality and narrative, when in fact they are powerfully linked. Story adheres to fabric, and fabric catalyzes discourse. There are songs about coats and quilts made from the clothes of the dead. After the clothes are worn, what tiny remnants of us linger within them—our atoms and DNA moldering away like thread—and what stories do they tell? In 2017, a vertiginous time of jingoism and fear, of fires and floods, Peggy Lee stands out to me like a beacon. She would not run out of the planetarium, even when terror is truly the most logical response—whether it be to a black hole or the daily news. Is this all there is? To a fire? To finitude? She opens her arms in generous supplication, shimmies, and glances straight at the audience. So, too, do the ones with the needles in their hands.