Ahavath Achim Quilt Panel Primary Source Description Continued

Equality & Inclusion — central themes of this quilt panel, the Ahavath Achim Synagogue, and the life of Alan Landis

The quilt panel memorializing Alan Landis was created by the historic Ahavath Achim synagogue of Atlanta (colloquially known as AA). In order to understand the full meaning of the square, you need to delve into the history of the Ahavath Achim Synagogue.

The way in which the AA community chooses to commemorate Alan Landis as a member of their community speaks volumes about Alan’s faith and the particular branch of Judaism that the AA synagogue subscribes to. In addition to the personal memorial of Alan on the panel, the AA community also honors Alan by expressing the values that are reflective of the faith that they shared with him.

“Every ritual, action or teaching is supposed to have many layers of meaning, significance and emanations of the divine. The AIDS Quilt is a similar endeavor.”

Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal of Ahavath Achim was quoted in an article in the Atlanta Jewish Times as saying that the Aids Quilt is a multilayered, multimodal living document, that even in its secularism, invokes the divine. I think this is why the synagogue decided to make the panel a reflection on Judaism as a whole, rather than just about Alan Landis’ life. The Jewish values represented on this quilt panel are part of an ancient Jewish idea, one that is actually featured on one of the panel: L’dor V’dor. From generation to generation.

Rabbi Rosenthal eulogized Alan Landis with the ‘Seven Jewish Values’ found on the panel. These values are comprehensive of Alan’s legacy and the quilt panel ensures that his memory will continue through the progressive, inclusive, loving values of the AA community, more than any personal achievement. The goal of this quilt panel, as with everything that the Ahavath Achim synagogue does, is to promote these religious values and remember that they are in an ancient cycle of generations.


AIDS has no boundaries

On the actual panel, there are eighteen squares in rows of six. Moving from right to left, as you would read Hebrew, the very first square on the panel addresses the AIDS crisis directly. It features an outline of a heart in one thin blood-red thick string with the words ‘AIDS has no boundaries’ stitched in thin black font inside the heart composing the foreground. Positioned behind the heart is background of a variety of children’s hand prints done in green, yellow, red, orange, and blue. The AA synagogue has a variety of advocacy programs for youth, and these handprints are the youngest members of the Ahavath Achim synagogue’s storied history of social activism. The synagogue has a wide swath of ways for members of the AA community to get involved in activism and advocacy work. There are programs that help end human trafficking, reduce gun violence, protect the earth against climate change, feed the homeless, and, of course, fund research and raise awareness of the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis, as well as fight for LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish circles.

Research Life

Another square that was eye catching was the seventeenth square (row three, five squares over). On the left and right sides of the square are the words ‘Research Life’ in all capitalized, shiny teal and silver stitch. In the middle of the square is the outline of a microscope, done in dark black stitch and an arrow pointing diagonally from the bottom left to the top right stitched in bright red thread. The prominence of science in the religious life of the Ahavath Achim synagogue is striking. Unlike some strains of conservative Judaism, Rabbi Rosenthal and the AA community embrace scientific discovery and promote its importance. The synagogue collects money every year on International AIDS Day, December 11th, to fund ongoing research in HIV/AIDS science. This square lies at the intersection of faith, science, social justice, and public health.

The spatial layout of the quilt panel is another way that the AA synagogue expresses these Jewish values. At the top of the panel are the words ‘Equality and Inclusion’, and each of the eighteen squares relate to these two themes in some way. As a multimodal document, the panel acts as a reflection on the kind of progressive Judaism that Rabbi Rosenthal and the AA family espouse. Each square offers a glimpse into the life that Jewish members are trying to create through the memorialization of Alan Landis, eighteen distinct touchstones into the creation of human flourishing AA is working towards. The spatial layout of these squares invites the viewer to dive completely into each specific square and learn about Jewish perspectives of inclusivity and equality through the celebration of Alan Landis’ life and the mourning of his death.

Ahavath Achim Quilt Panel Primary Source Description

The Quilt:

The quilt panel created to memorialize Alan Landis by the Ahavath Achim Synagogue

This particular panel of the AIDS Quilt was created by the Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Atlanta, in order to memorialize Alan Landis, who passed away in January of 2016. The panel features eighteen distinct squares in columns of three, with the words ‘Equality & Inclusion’ stitched in a shiny silver thread above the squares and Ahavath Achim Synagogue, Atlanta, Georgia, 5776/2016 below in the same thread

The quilt panel is three feet wide by six feet long, which is the standard size of a grave, and the background is black covered in thousands of faint white pinpricks and golden dots, potentially mimicking the night sky. The text at the top and bottom of the panel, as well as each of the squares is embroidered on.  Because of this embroidery, if you were to run your hand across the quilt it would feel like a series of small mountains with shallow valleys in between. The raised nature of each square heightens the sense of uniqueness and underlines the fact that this is not just one person’s memorial of Alan Landis, but eighteen distinct interpretations and comprehensions of the AIDS crisis itself and a statement of a robust Jewish faith. These eighteen squares all share a common creamy white background with very faint spirals forming the canvas upon which each mourner creates their memorial.

These squares were all created by a different member of the Synagogue and feature each individual member’s perspective of the AIDS crisis, their memory of Alan, their Jewish faith, and, in a more broad sense, the expression of important moral values such as inclusivity, justice, and love.

Because of the extremely high level of detail, I won’t go into depth on every single one of these squares. Instead I’ll focus on the squares that reveal an aspect of the Jewish faith that the makers of this quilt thought was relevant to the HIV/AIDS discussion.

These eighteen squares are arrayed in three rows of six, matching the specifications of the quilt panel itself. Because Hebrew is read right to left, then square one is the far right square on the first row, square six is the far left square on the first row square eight is the third square from the right on the second row, and so on.

Row One:

Square two: a portrayal of the beauty of humanity’s diversity

Starting with square two, you see a black and white stitched drawing of four faces of different races, one older Asian male, a black male, a white female, and a white male. The stitching of these figures is quite complex; every single detail, from the faces to the writing on this square is done entirely in the same monochrome black thread. Due to the raised nature of this material, its texture is rather rough if you ran your hand over it. Written at the top of the square is ‘B’tzelem Elohim’ and at the bottom is the translation of this phrase, ‘In God’s Image’. There is a small figure at the bottom right of the square whose back is facing the viewer looking at the faces.

Squares four and eleven: seven values central to progressive Judaism. ‘Respect’, ‘Peace in the Home’, In God’s Image’, ‘Communal Responsibility’, ‘Guarding One’s Use of Language’, ‘Love Your Neighbor As Yourself’, and ‘Solidarity

Moving to the right, squares four and eleven are meant to be examined together. These squares’ composition exhibits Jewish values. The words ‘Seven Jewish’ are at the top of square four, and ‘Values’ are at the bottom of square eleven, written in the same simple font that appears in the other squares, and pressed onto royal blue fabric to create contrast. All the fabric on these squares are scraps of material that have been stitched on to the panel. In between these words are seven strands of multicolored beads that hang off of the quilt with one letter on each bead, similar to how a child might have made a bracelet with a spelled out word. These bead strands are connected with a piece of twine and the two ends of the strands are stapled to the quilt itself. When you move the entire panel, the beads click together as they hit each other. The font of the beads is a chunky all-caps style and mostly black, but a few of the beads have lighter colored fonts like pale yellow and green for some of the darker bead backgrounds. For the strands that have multiple words, a shiny bright piece of metal separates the beads to make it easier to discern the actual words.

In succession, the bead strands spell out ‘Respect’, ‘Peace in the Home’, In God’s Image’, ‘Communal Responsibility’, ‘Guarding One’s Use of Language’, ‘Love Your Neighbor As Yourself’, and ‘Solidarity’. Next to each bead strand is the translation of the value in Hebrew, printed onto a cream colored rectangle to contrast with the dark spindly Hebrew characters. These seven values are pulled directly from an organization called Keshet. According to their About page, “Keshet is a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life. Led and supported by LGBTQ Jews and straight allies, Keshet cultivates the spirit and practice of inclusion in all parts of the Jewish community.” (Keshet Website). The inclusion of these values from Keshet are a reflection of the Ahavath Achim Synagogue’s views on the often polarizing issue of LGBTQ inclusion in religious circles, and offer a glimpse as to why they might be more sympathetic than some conservative religious groups.

Square six: A touching tribute to Alan Landis

The far left square in the first row is a more personal memorial of Alan Landis. It has a thick white border and a simple dark black background. There are several words written in different shades of light blue, ranging from a robin shell blue to a more sea-foam greenish-blue to a teal. The colors on this square are important because the color blue in all of its many shades are important to Judaism. My Jewish Learning, an informational website for Jews and those curious about Jewish heritage explains the significance of the color blue this way:

“Tractate Menahot of the Babylonian Talmud reports Rabbi Meir asking “Why is blue different from all other colors?” and then answering, “Because blue resembles the sea, and the sea resembles sky, and the sky resembles God’s Throne of Glory…as it is written: ‘Above the sky over their heads was the semblance of a throne, like sapphire in appearance…’”

Blue is supposed to represent not only divinity, but also equilibrium. These blue words are overlaid over each other, creating a 3D effect. The words in the background are ‘Family Man’, Gay Man’, ‘Accountant’, ‘Social Activist’, and ‘Inspiration’, with ‘Jew’, and ‘Friend’ written overtop. In small thin white cursive handwriting, inbetween ‘Family Man’ and ‘Gay Man’ is Alan Landis’ name, followed by ‘May 9, 1951-January. 24, 2016’. The writing speaks volumes through its subtlety and its simplicity about who Alan Landis was and what impact he had on the creator of this specific square.

Row Two:

Square eight: L’Chaim’, or ‘To Life!’

Moving to the next row, the second square from the right features a gilded necklace with three charms hanging off it, all of them Stars of David. The necklace is made out a shimmering golden stitch and the middle Star is made of the same material. The texture of this thread is rather scratchy and rough, whereas the material of the two Stars on the right and left is a darker golden color and is a smooth silky  the Hebrew spelling of ‘L’chaim’ and are In a cursive font, the words ‘L’Chiam’ are written above the necklace, with the translation ‘To Life!’ written below. This is a traditional Jewish toast used to celebrate the beauty of the gift of life, which is a sharp contrast to the inherent somberness of the AIDS quilt.

Square nine: L’dor V’dor’, or ‘from generation to generation’

The next square to the right expresses a similar sentiment. There are four stained glass windows with various Jewish symbology painted on, a menorah, a dreidel, a Star of David, and a Hebrew letter. These windows are created using multicolored patches of fabric all interweaving over each other in different patterns and material, and separated by thick black thread creating a collage effect. In between the second and third windows is a spindly olive tree that vaguely resembles a menorah with a long thin trunk made out of the same golden thread as the necklace from the square before and a horizontal spread of glimmering lime-green leaves that lay gently atop the stained glass windows. In Hebrew the words ‘L’dor V’dor’ are written at the top, with its translation, ‘from generation to generation’ written below. This is similar to the previous square in that they both express Jewish sayings and the familiar cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Row Three:

Square fifteen: love your neighbor as yourself

This last square, square fifteen, is rather simplistic in terms of visual and textual effect, but speaks oceans of volumes. It depicts a two-dimensional colorful scene with a church on the left, a synagogue in the middle, and a mosque on the right. Each of these buildings is done in a mixture of fabric crayon and colorful stitched thread details on the buildings. Because of the mixed nature of this square, it has a very unique texture; the parts of the quilt that are stitched are raised from the quilt and are soft, but the areas done in fabric crayon are rough to the touch. Above the buildings it says ‘LOVE YOUR’ in red fabric crayon and “NEIGHBOR’ in green and black fabric crayon. Below the buildings are flat two-dimensional shapes in the form of humans done in bright orange, light blue, red, and light purple fabric crayon, with ‘AS YOURSELF’ written in navy and black crayon.

The walls of the church are a dark shade of forest green with the frame of the church done in brown fabric crayon. The stitched lining of the roof of the church is a slightly different shade of green than the background of the church and at the top is a brown cross created entirely out of thread. There are three windows and an awning above a brown door made out of lumps of bright red, navy blue, and green thread with a golden thread cutting through it to give the impression of stained glass windows. The synagogue in the middle has a similar design philosophy, with a two dimensional black outline of the general shape of the structure, two navy pillars on either side, and the bright Carolina blue wall of the synagogue all done in fabric crayon. Just like the church, the details are all done in thread. There is an archway done in Carolina blue thread, and the dome caps of the twin pillars done in the same color, as well as a star surrounded by a circle. This emblem is created with a mixture of gold, Carolina blue, and black thread. The mosque is done in much the same way as the other two places of worship. A green rectangle forms the base with a ring of green thread outlining it, a border with beige and purple threaded triangles like a shark’s mouth in the middle, a bright yellow dome with half circle design accents in golden thread, and a half moon and star done in orange-yellow fabric marker on top. To the right of the central mosque structure is a red pillar with a threaded royal purple cap.

With all three of these buildings sharing similar design, albeit with different colors and shapes, as well as the tagline of this square being ‘Love Your Neighbor As Yourself’, it could be interpreted that the creator of this square, and more broadly the all of the collective creators of this panel wanted to draw parallels between the three Abrahamic religions in pursuit of greater spiritual harmony and less religious division for followers of these religions.

In their memorial of Alan Landis, the Ahavath Achim Synagogue presented a call to action for all religious people, regardless of creed to refocus the efforts of religious people on issues that actually matter, such as the AIDS crises and not petty religious squabbles.