In Genesis when Jacob sees Joseph’s coat covered in blood, and thinks that his precious son is dead, he tears his clothes and begins to mourn. The act of tearing, keriah, is encoded in Jewish law as part of the ritual of mourning - whether expressing personal grief for a loved one, or a national grief for the people’s destruction.
The act of tearing, destroying clothes is a visceral action, full of rage and violence, physically expressing some of the many strong emotions one feels when one is bereaved. I also see it as making a symbolic break in personal identity. As a mourner, you are no longer the person you were. Something has shifted, something has ruptured in your life, and the experience of loss and grief can have a profound effect on identity. And so your clothing, that which represents your old self, is destroyed.
Grief can be also be a lonely experience, isolating and alienating, and effects personal relationships and engagement with the world. For me, this is beautifully expressed in a piece called ‘Widow’ by the artist Susie MacMurray. There is something compelling and attractive about the shimmering silver, and yet up close you realise that this effect is from rows and rows of large sharp pins sticking out of the leather dress. Prickly and dangerous.
This kittel comes from my personal experience of loss and bereavement. The days when the grief felt like it was choking me and I was unable to speak. The physical pain in my chest and stomach as if I had been punched. removing all traces of meaning or reason.
One of the sleeves is intact, with the opening stanza of the mourner’s kaddish “Yitgadal V’Yitgadash Shemai Rabbah...” embroidered on the cuff. An aide-memoire, as despite hearing these familiar words said by others, this mantra of praising God does not come easily. The other sleeve, the left sleeve, has been ripped apart, torn with some fragments hanging by a thread. The garment hasn’t been hemmed but I’ve unravelled and frayed it at the edges.
I made this garment shorter than the other kittels, to give emphasis to the disintegrating sleeve. The collar is exaggerated, high-necked and tight, with coils of silver wire wrapped around it. The void in the centre is made using a Japanese pattern-cutting technique called otoshiana - the drop hole - and is integrated into the seam lines that shape the garment to the body. The centre seam above the void has an unfinished edge, reminiscent of the traditional keriah, tearing.
Finally, there is another connection with the rituals of mourning and clothing, a mourner is not supposed to celebrate and so should not buy new clothes. As I explored in the last kittel, new clothes make us happy, they offer hope of a fresh new start. As a mourner, the old self has been ripped apart by loss, but when experiencing grief, it is too soon to know what your new, post-mourning, identity will be.