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Pomegranate Guild > Historic Jewish Samplers

by Elizabeth Tarnove

Pomegranate Sampler by the author.

I have always loved samplers. Their quaint verses, stylized motifs and schoolgirl simplicity appeals to an antiquarian in my soul. And I always get a special kick when I find a sampler with a Hebrew alphabet or some other form of Jewish symbolism.

Jewish girls' samplers aren't always obvious to casual viewer. Because "Jewish families tended to live in cities or large towns" Jewish samplers were "on the whole, within the American mainstream," according to Anne Sebba. Sometimes a Hebrew alphabet or Jewish symbolism provided a clue to the maker's heritage, but often the sampler is only identified as Jewish because the maker was known to be Jewish. Sebba cited Rachel Seixas' sampler as "a typical early American sampler of silk embroidery on linen with a floral border enclosing a verse; but Rachael's (sic) Jewish ancestry is well known."

Finding Jewish samplers can be a sleuthing expedition. Bolton and Coe, for example, identify two samplers by the Gratz family, by a sister (Rachel) and cousin (Richea) of the famous Rebecca Gratz. While no sampler is recorded from Rebecca, it is evident she did do needlework and a cross stitch bookmark and needlepoint piece survive.

Since not many charts exist for Jewish Samplers, the choices are often to design our own or add a Judaic touch to a commercially available chart. My own first baby steps into designing included replacing New Testament verses in existing charts -- a step which made the sampler feel as if it were my own.


Here are some steps for non-designers to make a Jewish sampler:

• Add a Hebrew Alphabet. According to Grow and McGrail, this was the most distinguishing feature of the samplers made by Jewish Girls. All but one of the seven samplers in the Jewish Museum in New York contain a Hebrew alphabet.

• Change the verse. Many antique samplers contain religious verses and other verses which may not be compatible with your own ideas (like the one which urges girls to "yield to men, the higher honours of the pen" -- ick!) Bolton and Coe's book American Samplers includes a comprehensive list of authentic period sampler verses grouped into such categories as patriotism, death, education, Old and New Testament verses, friendship and virtue. You could also choose a favorite poem, favorite prayer, favorite quote, or write your own.

• Put in a symbol or two that have meaning to you. Many of the spot motifs in historical samplers had religious or heraldic significance-even the flowers selected had meaning. Averil Colby's classic, Samplers, Yesterday and Today, discusses the use and meaning of various symbols, some of which mean different things in Jewish usage. Here are a few examples of common symbolism used in samplers made by Jewish girls:


Object Traditional Meaning Jewish Symbolism
Deer Grace, speed Grace, speed
Dove Peace, purity Peace, purity
Grapes, Spies of Canaan Fertility, sacrifice, blood of Jesus Fertility, harvest, Israel
Lion Strength, royalty, England Strength, tribe of Judah, Judah Maccabee.
Peacock Vanity, pride Grace, beauty
Rose Love. Associated with England in heraldic use (e.g. Tudor rose). Perfection. Also associated with Shavuot.
Pomegranate Hope of Eternal Life. Life and fertility. Heraldic badge of Catherine of Aragon. Associated with good deeds, Torah crowns, and priestly robes. One of the seven species of Israel.
Sabbath Lamp   Shabbat.
Table & Chairs   Shabbat.
Three, groupings of The trinity Completeness, balance.
Tree Eternity, maturity, family Tree of Life, Torah

• Research on the meaning of names can yield more great ideas. You may use symbols for your own name, or for family members or recipients of embroidered gifts. Here are some Hebrew names, their meanings, and possible motifs suggested by them:


Name Meaning Symbol
Ariel, Ariella Lion(ess) of G-d Lion
Lilah Night Moon and Stars
Rachel Ewe lamb Lamb
Sarah Princess Crown
Tamar Date Palm Date Palm

• A biblical name might also suggest its own symbolism based on the story of its bearer. Rebecca and the well is one example as is Miriam and her tambourine. Names derived from the twelve sons of Jacob each carry the symbolism of the twelve tribes of Israel. For example, the tribe of Benjamin is symbolized by the wolf and the tribe of Dan is symbolized by a serpent and a set of scales.

• Some early samplers include the names or initials of one or more family members- sometimes recording several generations of births and deaths. Rachel Gratz's sampler included initials of her parents and a sister who had died in infancy.

Bolton, Ethel Stanwood, & Coe, Eva Johnston (1921). American Samplers. Boston, MA: Society of the Colonial Dames of America.
Colby, Averil (1964). Samplers, Yesterday and Today. London: Batsford.
Diamont, Anita (1989). What to Name Your Jewish Baby. New York: Summit Books.
Frankel, Ellen, and Teutsch, Betsy Platkin. (1992). The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
Grow, Judith, and McGrail, Elizabeth. (1974). Creating Historical Samplers Princeton, NJ: Pyne Press.
Jewish Women's Archive online exhibit about Rebecca Gratz:
Sebba, Anne (1979). Samplers: Five Centuries of a Gentle Craft. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Originally Posted: July 12, 2002
Last Updated: August 1, 2010

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