Thursday, September 13
PITTSFIELD — More than 100 years of history hangs from a sapling.

The once young piece of earth, now varnished and streaked with gold leaf, bows slightly in the middle as it supports five fabric picture panels and generations of stories from Congregation Knesset Israel.

"It's really a living family tree," said Myrna Hammerling, director of the Hebrew School at the Pittsfield synagogue. "Last year, our theme was telling our story: the history of the faith and the congregation. The premise behind the wall hanging is that everybody has a story to tell."

The wall hanging, presented during Shabbat service Friday, tells stories in 64 fabric blocks of pictures, colors and even 3-D objects. Hammerling calls it a mini-history of the Jewish Berkshires just in time for Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days.

The project culminates a yearlong effort to explore Knesset's history, during which members have visited Ellis Island, reenacted immigration scenes and discussed legacies.

In one block of the wall hanging, a black-and-white photo whispers of the congregation's founding in 1893. The portrait of Joseph Z. Klein, a founding member, was provided by his granddaughter, who is currently among the oldest members of the synagogue. Another square of stories memorializes original members in a photograph taken just after the liberation of a Polish concentration camp.

Local fiber artist Fern Leslie was commissioned for the project more than a year ago with funds from a family-education grant provided by the Harold Greenspoon Foundation in West Springfield. Leslie met with members of the congregation in two sessions to design the historical work of art.

"Myrna said she wanted a family quilt," said Leslie, who has a store-front studio on North Street. "I wanted to keep the theme of a family tree, and it touches you because there are so many stories. People snuck in before it was presented and they were just like, 'Wow, look at that. And, do you remember this? And I didn't know that.'"

Stories, old and new

Hammerling said though the wall hanging holds some accomplishments and memories she remembers, others are new and intriguing.

"I asked questions and I got surprise answers," said Hammerling of her conversations with members throughout the project. "I had no idea that the daughter of one of our patriarchs came to Pittsfield because she was in the Tanglewood student chorus. I never even heard her sing, so how else would I know that?"

For today's celebration of the new year, the Knesset congregation will reflect on a year of inner exploration epitomized by the creativity poured in to the wall hanging. During the lengthy service, Hammerling says she hopes members will take time to look at the art and the scrapbook of coinciding family letters below it.

"If people go over and read the testimonies that we put together from the families, it will be perfectly like a prayer," she said, motioning toward the birch stand beneath the middle fabric panel.

'It's overwhelming'

The typed pages in the scrapbook are numbered as a guide to understanding the tales behind the tapestry. But Leslie and Hammerling agree that the most important aspect of the book is its ability to expand the living history, allowing members who did not construct a square for the project to add their own stories.

"When I first saw it, I had tears in my eyes," said Rabbi David Greenspoon, standing in front of the display. "When I look at the details people thought to include, it's overwhelming. In many ways, it's a really intimate look into who this community really is."

Elaine Schindler leafed through the scrapbook Tuesday in search of her family's square, number 16.

"There I am," said Schindler pointing to a wedding photo near the sapling on the first panel. "I'm 5 years old in that picture."

The black-and-white photo, taken in the 1930s on the steps of the Gathering of Israel on Linden Street, centers around the bride — Schindler's aunt Rose.

Inside the scrapbook, Schindler's brother Ed Skoletsky describes how Rose desperately wanted her brother, who walked with a cane, to be an usher for the wedding. So she ordered all the ushers to use canes during the ceremony.

"I never knew about the cane story," Schindler told Hammerling, closing the book. "We're natives here, you know. I'll have to find out more about that story."

To reach Amy Carr: acarr@berkshireeagle.com (413) 664-4995.