Altrove/Elsewhere – An Embroiderer’s Work

Catalan_Atlas_caravan_drawingBy Daniel Leisawitz*

Last Shabbat, Jews all over the world read the last chapters of the book of Exodus, in which the final priestly accoutrements are made, the Mishkan is completed, and its components and furnishings are brought to Moses for assembly in order to prepare the Tabernacle for the arrival and indwelling of the divine Presence.

Among the final preparations is the fabrication of the priestly vestments, which are made according to precise instructions given by G-d, as to color, material and form. In addition to the woven tunics, decorated turbans, and linen breeches are “sashes of fine twisted linen, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, done in embroidery – as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Ex. 39:29).

The detail that interests me here is the רקם מעשה (ma‘aseh roqem): the “embroidery,” or literally, “embroiderer’s work.” The attention to detail here is striking, indicating that these garments, which are to be used in the service of the Divine, should not only be functional, but also fine and beautiful. Indeed, decorative embroidery is apparently so important that among the supernatural artistic skills granted to the divinely sanctioned craftsmen of the Tabernacle and its instruments, Bezalel and Oholiav, is that of the roqem, the embroiderer.

I came to meditate on the word roqem for the first time, not in the Biblical context above, but rather in a very different text – Leone de’ Sommi’s Quattro dialoghi in materia di rappresentazioni sceniche – the earliest treatise on the practical aspects of theater direction. This text essentially marks the birth of the modern stage director – a figure central to all creative aspects of a play’s production, who, however, is not an actor in the play. The role of the theater director seems obvious enough to us, but until the mid-16th century, and indeed, for a long time after that, the responsibilities of the director was assumed by the lead actor, or capocomico.

Leone de’ Sommi (also known as Yehuda ben Yitzhak Somi), a Jewish resident of the northern Italian city of Mantua, an actor, playwright, director and translator, wrote his Quattro dialoghi around 1565, in the form of a fictional conversation between two noblemen and an embroiderer, who also happens to be a playwright, director and expert on all things related to the theater. Over the course of four days, the two noblemen pose to the embroiderer various questions about the theater and play production, and the embroiderer answers them in detail, allowing De’ Sommi to expound upon his ideas of play production and direction gained from years of experience in the theater.

As I was reading this fundamental text it struck me as strange that De’ Sommi would make his representative in the text an embroiderer. I understand the metaphor of the embroiderer of cloth becoming the embroiderer of words on the stage – the one who gives form and style to the performance – but there are more obvious trades that could have gotten this idea across: a weaver, a sculptor, a woodworker, etc. Why the relatively obscure embroiderer, or all things?

The answer, I think, lies in the etymology of the Italian word for embroiderer: ricamatore. Unlike the vast majority of Italian words, ricamatore does not derive from Latin or Greek. Rather, it has a Semitic origin, having made its way into Italian probably through the Arabic verb raqama, meaning to embroider or to weave a material. So, it seems that rather than designating his representative in the text by a Latin-derived trade, making him a weaver (tessitore, from Latin texere), a sculptor (scultore from Latin sculpere), or woodworker (falegname, from Latin lignum), De’ Sommi gave his mouthpiece a trade which holds within it a Semitic origin, linking back not only to the geographic Middle East, but also to the Hebrew Bible, and the divinely inspired craftsmen of the Tabernacle, who constructed the stage of G-d’s appearance and made the garments of the priests, so they could play their roles in the drama of redemption.

*Daniel Leisawitz, professor at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA). The artwork is by Abraham Cresques a 14th-century Jewish Spanish cartographer.