top of page

Of Talmud and Tradition

I knit myself a pullover sweater which just didn't work as a pullover sweater. The front bottom edge puffs out in the front at an unflattering angle, while the back edge sticks out on the sides. The sleeves are a bit too far back, and the V-neck just doesn't sit right. It's a beautiful sweater though, blue and purple in a Seattle-spun yarn that I bought in Vancouver, started in India, worked on during the plane ride back to Canada, and finished in Glasgow.

Luckily, in knitting there's a technique called steeking. You take three columns of knitting, and crochet two rows down the spaces in between. You then take a pair of extra-sharp scissors and cut right down the middle. And then your pullover has turned into a cardigan, just like that!

While steeking truly is a bit of fibre magic, it relies on the fibres rubbing together. When you use a pure wool, made out of an animal fibre like sheep or alpaca, the fibres naturally rub, felting together in the friction. This allows the rows to stay put even when the columns are cut (something that would usually result in knitting disaster!). If you were to do so with a synthetic fibre, the likes of an acrylic or polyblend you would pick up in John Lewis or Michaels, the fibres wouldn't hold.

I've been thinking a lot about the handmade, the natural. In Scotland so many things come wrapped in plastic - at the grocery store you don't pick your tomatoes individually, you take a package of six tomatoes wrapped in a cardboard tray pinned firmly inside a sealed plastic bag. The vegetables sit on the shelves, all wrapped in their shiny plastic, and the day after grocery day they all go in the bin.

The idea of modernity is nothing new, of our little plastic realities, but it really hit me this past week as I visited Fife, a historic region of Scotland set on the East Coast just above Edinburgh.

Along the coast, there's a region called East Neuk, with a string of picture-perfect fishing villages set along the Scottish countryside. Rows of brick and stucco houses lie along curving cobbled lanes set with rich Scottish mosses. It rained gently almost the entire time, casting everything in an evenly-lit yet dramatic grey. The High Streets are filled with local cafes and fishmongers, with residential lanes curving down towards the harbours, which are filled with tiny fishing boats.

Walking along the empty piers was a cornucopia of fish smells and the bright colours of endless stacks of lobster cages and fishing nets. These are real, working harbours, not the touristy facade of Brugge or Amsterdam, but living historical villages, pushed into modern times but lingering around the edges.

St. Monan's is the furthest South village, and at its furthest South point lies the town church, built in 1362, by David II, son of Robert the Bruce. The town of Anstruther, further up the coast, gave rest to a Spanish Armada ship attacked by Queen Elizabeth the I in 1588. The cemeteries in all the villages hold the graves of people born in the 1700's, with illegible stumps dating much further back.

This is the history of Scotland, the ancestral roots of people that I know, going generations back to before they lived in the cities, when their great-grandfathers worked fishing trawlers and their great-grandmothers knit shawls and cured halibut. This is the history that I can't go back to Poland and see, but I can see here. While Glasgow is historic, the old buildings have been refurbished and turned into H&Ms. In Pitenweem, families still live amongst ancient stones, and people go out to fish the same routes that their great-grandfathers did.

This week was Assemblies Week at one of the high schools I work at. Each year group gets a separate time when most of them go to church service and I get to sit with a small group of Jewish students. Usually church service coincides with Christmas or Easter, so I talk about Chanukah and Pesach, but this week was just a bit too far between Tu B'Shvat and Purim, so instead I went to the Giffnock Beis Midrash and pulled out a hefty volume of Taanit, one of the 63 tractates of the Babylonian Talmud.

Talmud seems to be all the rage these days, in part due to a project called Daf Yomi which completed it's thirteenth seven-and-a-half year cycle in January. The Talmud is a compilation of Rabbinic discussions which was completed around the year 500. If you read a single page every day, you would finish in seven-and-a-half years. Hundreds of thousands of people study the designated Daf every day (including my housemate and coworker Micheline), and the study of Talmud by everyday people (as opposed to only by learned rabbis) is greatly increasing.