The Schorr family of West Orange have lots of handmade hats, scarves, and shawls. There’s a denim blue scarf, a rainbow-colored shawl, and even a knitted siddur cover. These items were not lovingly made by a bubbe living in a retirement community in Florida, but by a suburban dad with an Instagram account, i.just.knit.my.pants.
Eric Schorr, a member of Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange, is an unabashed knitter who pulls out his needles and yarn while on the commuter bus, during work meetings, and at lunch. Some of his most productive time is while his daughters are taking swim or martial arts classes. He said he turns heads of other parents.
“They think it’s cool I’m knitting and I’m a guy,” Schorr told NJJN.
There’s a societal misconception, he said, that knitting is “not considered masculine.” It’s a stereotype mirrored in some Jewish texts. For instance, in “Eishet Chayil,” “A Woman of Valor,” sung Friday evenings in many traditional Jewish homes, the archetypical female “seeks wool and flax, and works willingly with her hands” (Proverbs 31:13).
“Knitting is seen as, that’s what your grandmother did, that this is for women only — and not in a positive way,” said Schorr.
But it seems the threads of time are spinning in a new direction and modern men are embracing the craft.
“[There’s] more interest from male crafters every single day,” said Shira Blumenthal, brand ambassador for Lion Brand Yarn Company, in an emailed statement to NJJN. Crafting, she wrote, is a “genderless activity,” and cited six men who are part of the “growing number of male bloggers” in the company’s blogger network. Lion Brand, based in Carlstadt, is a family-owned company founded by Reuben Blumenthal in 1878.
“The increased passion of these men and their male followers … is testament to the current growth of male interest in knitting and crocheting,” said Blumenthal, a descendant of the company’s founder.
Noam Nissel, a graduate of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS) in Livingston, learned to knit from a guidance counselor in high school. In the fall he plans to study abroad in Ireland as part of his architecture program at Northeastern University. He told NJJN that while in high school he knit a cowl for his grandmother and had the Hebrew word for grandmother, savta, embroidered on the front.
“When I used to knit I got the feeling it was not such a manly thing to do, per se, as society would perceive what men do, but I didn’t let that stop me because I really enjoyed the activity,” said Nissel, whose family are members of Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange.
Turns out there’s a deep Jewish history to men and the making of garments. Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, director of the Jewish Wellness Center of North Jersey and rabbi emeritus of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, said he enjoys the latter parts of Exodus where “we’re reading about the work of everyone contributing to the building of the tabernacle, including men who were weavers.”
In fact, knitting guilds of the middle ages were powerful unions comprised of men. They continued to dominate the making of knitted goods until the 16th century, when the invention of a knitting machine outpaced the work of men, according to a 2013 article in The Huffington Post.
Fast forward 400 years, school-age boys in the U.S. and United Kingdom dabbled in the craft by knitting warm socks and gloves for their country’s soldiers fighting in World Wars I and II. Eventually, mass production reduced demand for hand-knitted garments, but in recent decades men have taken up the craft, some of them famous: A short list of male celebrity knitters include Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, and the late Robin Williams.
“More than once I’ve gone into a knit shop and I’m not the only male in the store anymore,” said Perlmeter, who lives in Montclair and is a member of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield.
Perlmeter, whose mother taught him to crochet, learned how to knit while in rabbinical school in the early 1980s. A group of women would sit in the back of the classroom and knit, and Perlmeter thought keeping his hands busy during boring lectures would keep him from “going stir crazy,” so he dabbled in the craft.
It wasn’t until he retired from the pulpit a dozen years ago that he began knitting in earnest. His favorite projects are sweaters, especially ones with complicated cable patterns.
The act of knitting weaves into his professional focus on Jewish spirituality and wellness. He finds it a “profoundly mindful activity,” as any knitter can attest, as there’s an intention focused on the pattern and a calming repetition in the work.
“It requires absolute presence in the moment, and at the same time I know that I’m making something that will bring joy into someone’s life,” he said.
Similarly, Nissel said that knitting brought him a “sense of calmness in a very chaotic day,” which included long hours and a dual curriculum.
“Knitting provided me with this quiet time to reenergize myself for the rest of the day, which is what I liked about it from the beginning,” he told NJJN.
Schorr chose to pick up knitting during a time in his life when he was “all stressed out.” He remembers his grandmother taught him the basic stitches, knit and purl, when he was a child; other popular modes of relaxation, such as yoga, didn’t appeal to him. At the time he was living in England within walking distance to a John Lewis department store, which had a large haberdashery selection, including needles and yarn. He started by knitting scarves for his girlfriend, now wife.
Today, living in his home state of New Jersey, raising a family of three young girls, and working full-time as a software developer leaves little time for his hobby, so he prefers small projects, like making coffee sleeves, and is considering knitting a kipa for himself.
Judaism has affected his craft in interesting ways. Schorr, who leads an observant life, had to reject a yarn for a scarf because it contained a combination of linen and wool, which is classified as shatnez, a mix of fabrics forbidden for Jews to wear, one of the most confounding prohibitions in the Torah.
He’s also been reading books by kabbalist Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and is intrigued by hidden meanings and layers, so he’s designing knitting patterns where the finished product has a different appearance on each side.
While known to become obsessive designing a pattern or staying up late to complete another row, Schorr’s hands remain idle one day each week. Knitting falls into several categories of work that is prohibited on Shabbat, two of which are chain-stitching and unraveling. But he sees an upside in the forced break.
“I’m putting my knitting down and for us it’s dedicated family time,” he said. “That’s one of the blessings of Shabbat.”