They say there’s a silver lining to every cloud. For Miriam K. Sokoloff, an experienced sewer and quilter who has taught the craft for over 40 years, the COVID cloud inspired creativity. Like everyone else at the height of the pandemic, Sokoloff found herself at home with time on her hands and she began sewing masks for herself and her husband. When the pandemic started to ease somewhat and Sokoloff slowly returned to her shul in Brookline, Massachusetts, she started matching her masks to her outfits using the stores of interesting fabrics she had at home from projects throughout the years. A happy discovery of some holiday-themed fabric became a fun mask for Sukkot, and another the inspiration for a Bereishit-themed mask of light and dark for her and her husband to wear to shul for that week’s parsha.
On a whim, she sent a Noah’s ark-themed mask in the mail to her daughter, Chava Traurig, a Teaneck resident and teacher at Yeshivat Noam. They were a hit with the Traurig family and soon after she got a call from her grandson exclaiming, “Savta, you could sell these masks!” and offering to help with the website. Sokoloff laughed it off but kept at her creative endeavor, producing the masks and shipping them off to Teaneck each week.
Traurig brought the masks into her class as a jumping-off point for discussion about the parsha and the students loved them and were excited to see what the mask would look like each week. “I could not have predicted the enthusiasm of her students who looked forward to the weekly mask ‘reveal,’ and how a small fabric mask became a tool in teaching parshat hashavua,” said Sokoloff.
Now that she had a fan club (and had to allow for mailing time), Sokoloff began to plan ahead, and she set herself the challenge of creating masks for all the parshiot using only the fabric she had on hand: a starry mask for Lech Lecha; a camel drinking for Chayei Sara; challah for Vayera; Moshe in his basket and the burning bush for Shemot; the plagues for Va’era; the splitting of the sea for Beshalach.
For some, the right fabric screamed out to her. For others, Sokoloff had to work a little harder, using scraps of fabric to create the scene she wanted or printing out coloring pages and using the outlines to lay out the scene she would then fill in with fabric.
“[It was] taking a whole Torah reading and translating it onto a small piece of fabric,” explained Sokoloff. “I let the fabric do all the talking.”
As the weeks went by, Sokoloff discovered that one fabric could have many interpretations: Red fabric could be shechin, or lentil soup or even blood.
Sokoloff shared, “The project brought me indescribable joy when I got up from the sewing machine. I didn’t enter a fabric store in over a year, though I bought some stuff online. To me, it was almost a perverse pleasure. I was thrilled to be able to turn ‘lemons into lemonade’ and come up with an idea that sparked joy during this terrible time.”
"My students were curious to see my parsha mask each Friday and excited to guess the connection to what they’re learning about the parsha. At some point they began making predictions of what would be found on next week’s mask and coming up with suggestions for alternative parsha mask designs," shared Traurig.
To preserve her work when, please God, the time for masks is over, Sokoloff plans to combine all the masks into one big parsha-mask quilt.
Sokoloff’s friend Suzi Fuld encouraged her to share her masks with the world and wrote a letter to the Jewish Children’s Museum of Brooklyn to gauge interest in displaying the collection. In her letter, titled “Learning in Disguise,” Fuld wrote: “We will all remember our months behind a mask. And the children in that classroom will always remember how learning was disguised (behind masks) as fun!” The pair also reached out to the YU Museum and the Jewish Museum of Maryland, but so far nothing has materialized.
In all, Sokoloff created 48 whimsical, fun and educational parsha masks, as well as a set for the chagim, enthusing that “it was really an amazing treat to be able to use my sewing and quilting talents to express and illustrate [these stories].”