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Artist Jane Trigère honors Jewish ‘Women of the Balcony’

  • "Women of the Balcony" by Jane Trigere at Jewish Community of Amherst.
  • Detail of "Women of the Balcony" by Jane Trigere at Jewish Community of Amherst.
  • Detail of "Women of the Balcony" by Jane Trigere at Jewish Community of Amherst.
  • Detail of "Women of the Balcony" by Jane Trigere at Jewish Community of Amherst.
  • "Work by Jane Trigere at Jewish Community of Amherst.
  • Detail of work by Jane Trigere at Jewish Community of Amherst.

When Jane Trigère walked into a shuttered synagogue in New York City a few years ago, she was surprised at what she found: Scattered about in the balcony of the closed shul were dozens of colorful seat cushions, apparently left behind by the women who had once worshipped there. Trigère was immediately intrigued, she says, certain there was a story to be told about the abandoned, hand-sewn remnants of the now-defunct congregation.

Trigère, a textile artist whose work is often based on stories and memories of Jews about their history, culture and customs, has used the fabric from those cushions to tell the story of “The Women of the Balcony,” the title of an exhibit that Trigère says aims to honor the German-Jewish refugee women who sewed and used them.

“It’s the story that prompts the art. The rest is puzzling it out,” Trigère said in a recent interview at the Jewish Community of Amherst where the show will be on view through Jan. 30.

“The Women of the Balcony,” consisting of four textile art installations — three panels and one three-dimensional piece all incorporating fabric from the cushions Trigère found — revolves around the Jewish custom of a mechitza, or separation of men and women in an orthodox synagogue, and the dynamic relationship between the sexes and their places both in the synagogue and in life.

A mechitza can take various forms: a barrier, separate section or a balcony. In the synagogue that inspired Trigere’s art, the separation was a balcony. The purpose, she says, is to provide an environment of focus and modesty.

“Orthodox women don’t mind, they can focus, too ... you’re in prayer mode,” she said.

In search of books

In 2006, Trigère and her husband, Ken Schoen, a Judaica book dealer and owner of Schoen Books in South Deerfield, got a call about Congregation Ohav Sholaum, the closed New York City synagogue. The two decided to make a visit, hoping to find books for Schoen’s business.

What they found, Trigère said, was a shul that looked like it had been abruptly deserted.

“Everything looked like people had just gone to lunch. It was odd,” she said. Downstairs benches where the congregation’s men once sat were barren, except for a few talleisim, prayer shawls. There were no books.

But upstairs in the balcony where women once worshiped, Trigère found long, wooden benches lined with dozens of small, square seat cushions, each sewn by hand using a variety of fabrics — some floral, some bright, some vibrant, some faded, but all made with scrap fabrics by the women who had used them.

“Nobody was upstairs, but the benches were covered with individually made cushions,” Trigère said. “It was like the place was populated because each one was different.”

Trigère says she knew there was something special about the cushions as soon as she saw them.

“There was something like, ‘Wow.’ We both felt it,” she said. “We couldn’t leave them so I said, ‘You know what? We’re taking them.’ ”

After getting them home, Trigère began to take them apart and was surprised to find layers and layers of fabric underneath.

“It was like textile archeology,” she said.

For a while, the fabrics just sat there. Trigère knew she wanted to honor the women of the congregation somehow, but was unsure how to start.

“I had no idea what I was doing or going to do, if anything,” she said.

As she pondered how to use the fabric, Trigère began to interview women who had been members of the synagogue. Although some did not remember the cushions, Trigère said, others were able to add details to the story about the congregation — and the cushions.

Congregation Ohav Sholaum was founded by German-Jewish refugees in 1940, during the Holocaust. Located in Manhattan’s Washington Heights the synagogue “became a symbol of the annihilation of German Jewry and of rebirth on American soil,” according to the congregation’s 50th-anniversary souvenir journal. It closed in 2006, according to Trigère.

Each woman made a cushion from scrap fabric at home to serve as a placeholder in the synagogue’s balcony. They were nothing fancy, Trigère said, but they were never moved or removed. Even when a woman died, her cushion remained on her seat.

“Even when the congregation dwindled and there were three women left upstairs, they would chat with each other and then return to their cushion wherever it was,” she said.

When the synagogue closed, the cushions were left behind, largely forgotten.

“That’s why it was moving,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re going through something you don’t realize that it is momentous.”

Four-part exhibit

In “Women of the Balcony 1,” Trigère recreates what she saw when she first entered the balcony: On a hanging panel, four rows of squares, made with the cushion fabric, represent the V-shaped formation of the balcony’s benches. In the center is a woman sewing a cushion.

Trigère says when she completed the piece, she realized that it resembled a tallis, or prayer shawl, with its stripes (the benches) and rectangular shape. To build on that resemblance, she added her own version of the ritual fringe found at the corners of a traditional tallis, but braided in a piece of red thread to show that it is not actual ritual fringe.

That, she says, made her think about other corded or braided things in a woman’s life: She added an umbilical cord made out of clay to represent procreation and family purity laws; a loaf of hallah, braided bread eaten on Friday nights at the start of the Sabbath; and a braid of human hair.

“Hair is very personal and sensual,” Trigère said. “In orthodox Jewish communities the women will often have their hair covered; it’s only for their husbands to see.”

“Women of the Balcony 2” and “Women of the Balcony 3,” represent the symbiotic relationship between men and women.

Two panels make up “Women of the Balcony 2,” in which Trigère uses old talleisim, also found in the synagogue, to show counter-dependency between men and women. The first shows a tallis in a bag that the artist fashioned using cushion fabric. The women would have made the bag for the man’s tallis, Trigère says, thus suggesting a caretaking quality.

In the second piece, the prayer shawl represents a man’s arm, which appears to cradle a cushion — suggesting that the man is the caretaker of the woman, Trigère said.

“Women were upstairs and men were downstairs, but one did not dominate the other,” she said.

In “Women of the Balcony 3,” Trigère used cushion fabric to fashion flowers, with black fabric representing stems. This also suggests a theme of counter-dependency, but in a less literal way, she said.

“These are the women, these are the men,” she said, referring to the piece. “This is the upstairs, this is the downstairs. These are the flowers, these are the stems. You don’t have stems without flowers or flowers with out stems.” Because the panel is 10 feet tall, she says, the viewer must look up to see the flowers, just as the men of the congregation looked up to the balcony to see their wives or daughters.

Trigere’s largest piece in the collection is “Women of the Balcony 4,” a wooden, three-dimensional structure meant to represent the balcony. She used papier-mache to create heads meant to recall the women who once worshipped there. With what little fabric she had left, Trigère created a a different hairdo for each head, then fashioned hats from different periods.

The women’s faces are covered in pages from Fanny Neuda’s “Tehinnes,” a German book of prayers for Jewish women. Each figure represents a different prayer, the title of which is pasted across the lips. The heads are on poles that allow them to swivel and move as though talking to each other.

The “Women of the Balcony Series” has been displayed in museums and galleries in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. For her opening at the Derfner Judaica Museum in New York City, members of the former congregation were invited. Trigère said that while she was speaking about her art, an elderly woman stood up and said, “That’s my fabric,” pointing to a piece in “Women of the Balcony 1.”

“We were all so excited,” Trigère said. “I was wondering if anyone would recognize them.”

Former shul member Carole May, 67, who now lives in South Hadley, said she is pleased that Trigère has paid tribute to her former congregation.

“Jane absolutely captured the soul of the synagogue, and the women, and the women’s relationship to the men below,” May wrote in an email to the Gazette. “Her work gave honor to the community in every way.”

The Jewish Community of Amherst is located at 742 Main St. Gallery hours are Mondays through Fridays from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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