At the time the synagogue’s papers were donated to the Rauh Jewish Archives, a few objects were donated to the Heinz History Center’s physical collections as well. One in particular stood out to me — a tablecloth?! The record described it as a, “Large, rectangular white cloth composed of 48 napkins stitched together. Most napkins have embroidered names of family members of the Rodef Shalom Homestead Sisterhood–which is stitched in gold thread around a star of David in center of cloth. Lightly starched. Sewn by the Sisterhood of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Homestead.” Well, that sure sounded intriguing!
And indeed, waiting for me in the museum’s collections room at the time of my appointment was… a giant tablecloth!
Though spread across a couple tables, it was still folded upon itself, because at 16′ x 5.5′, three times as many tables were required. The collections assistant carefully unfolded one section at a time so I could see all the names that had been embroidered:
Louis and Bessie
|Lena and Samuel Gordon
Bruce David and
Paul Howard Friedman
Wendy Rae Weiner
Jacob and Mary
|The Nathan Rosenthals
The Simon Rosenthals
Rhoda and Ralph
Sidney and Edwin
|Jacob and Minnie Burechson
Paul Laurence Green
Sheila Karen Burechson
Keith Alan Burechson
Judith Sara Burechson
Benjamin and Ellen Joy
Sarah and Joseph
Daniel and Ida
Lt. Daniel I. Coltin
Herman S. and Rose
Anne M. Moss
Martin J. Moss
(The squares with a border have a scroll embroidered around the text.)
It’s a bizarre object, if you think about it — assembling napkins into a tablecloth?! So people could dine on a sort of cloth yahrzeit tablet? All quite unusual, if you ask me. Unfortunately, it’s unclear where the idea came from. (Update 7/3/2016: So far from Western PA alone we’ve found
six seven eight of these, this picture of a ninth, a similar quilt! See pictures of all of them here.) The Sisterhood minutes only survive for 1945-1955, and from the very first page the women recorded that they were “badly in need of [table] linens.” They were expensive then — should they buy paper instead? Or rent them? Several purchases were recorded over the years, but they seemed never to have enough. The first actual mention of this tablecloth, which appears in the minutes in January 1953, does not record the gestation of this fascinating idea. Perhaps it arose between the general meeting in at the start of the month, when the women resolved to use the money from their annual President’s Day party to purchase yet more linens, and the board-only meeting later in the month, during which, “The board [recommended] that the tablecloth money be kept separate from the proceeds of the supper. Also that the table cloth committee have the right to do anything they see fit for the making of this cloth.” At the next general meeting in early February,
Mrs Harry Weinberger gave her tablecloth report and had the napkins to show and when it is finished it will be something beautiful + something that will be cherished by our women….A motion made by Mrs Harry Weinberger + seconded by Mrs E.A. Keizler that we pay $56.56 for the napkins to be used in the tablecloth making.
And yet, by the following month $776.44 (!) had already been raised to fund it (and no, that was not the profit from the party). Something was going on that the minutes unfortunately do not capture.
Now, if you have an image in your mind of all these ladies sitting around in a sewing circle, gossiping about, say, Mrs. So-and-so’s uppity machatunim or the latest missions of their B-52 bomber, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but it does not seem it happened that way. Mrs. Michael Stoffa, one of the members, was hired for $50.00 to handle the initial embroidery. (If it makes you feel better, though, during World War II they had a sewing group and produced 3,808 articles over the course of three and a half years — sweaters, scarves, bags, pajamas, dresses, blouses, baby jackets, army kits, drapes, and more.)
But for some reason, despite the surplus of funds and the engagement of an embroiderer, the actual assembly seems to have taken a couple of years. A year and a half after the first mention, during the August 1954 meeting, “Mrs. Stein was called on for a report on the tablecloth. The napkins haven’t been completed but the problem now arises on the manner in which to put the tablecloth on display so as to have it in order + balanced correctly.” Ah, the old symmetry problem! But by the December meeting, “Mrs. Trachtenberg said that the tablecloth was completed enough to use it at the meetings as fund raising. It is $5.00 per name and $50.00 per napkin.” Although, in April 1955, “Mrs. Harry Weinberger spoke on the tablecloth stating the 17 napkins were completed + when entirely finished will hold 52 napkins.”
The tablecloth I saw has 44 napkins, of which 27 are embroidered. I have to assume it was not completed all at one time if for no other reason than my great-grandmother, the Bertha Hepps of the “In Memory of Bertha Hepps” square, died in 1957. And yet, her square is right between her husband’s (d. 1949) and her brother-in-law’s (d. 1948), so they must have reserved her spot. Other squares were added later, too: “In Memory of E.A. Keizler” could have been added no earlier than 1960, “In Memory of Sylvia Freed” 1970, the Moss memorial squares 1970 and 1971, and so on. Presumably five other napkins besides those I can obviously identify were also later additions; if you look closely, there are a few different embroidery styles going on, which fits. Besides these memorial squares, there are a number of squares noting the contributions of families then active in the shul. I enjoy seeing the names of some of you who are readers of this site today!
Because the sisterhood minute book ends in early ’56 it’s unclear when the cloth was used, although they mandated that its use be confined to “formal affairs of Sisterhood + Cong held in the Schule.” I suspect it was first used to cover the speaker table at the banquet commemorating the 50th anniversary of the sisterhood on December 11, 1955. Judging by the residual food stains, it performed its function well over the years.
At the end of 1955 Mrs. Harry Weinberg reported that the tablecloth cost $149.56. They collected $983.56 for it, which gave them a $834 profit. Like most of Sisterhood’s profits over the years, what they didn’t need for their own expenses they donated to the shul for its operating budget. More than merely honoring the families whose names are embroidered on it, the tablecloth stands as a unique symbol of the women’s tireless work over many decades to support their beloved community.
Do any of you remember seeing this tablecloth used at synagogue functions? Let me know in the comments below, or drop me a line! (And if you’d like to see a picture of your family’s square, please let me know — I did take photographs of them all.)
Source: 93.89.1–Tablecloth. Courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center.