Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The Jewish Museum has long been a favorite museum for me. My wife and I took our daughter to this particular exhibit because we knew she’d like it. The exhibit is entitled “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress from the Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.” It consists of many, many garments created and worn by Jews, from Moroccan wedding clothes to German prayer shawls to Yemenite amuletic (meant to protect the wearer) dresses. Accompanying the garments were placards explaining the folk traditions giving rise to the various garments. What I realized (again) after viewing the exhibition was how much I could learn about the culture of Jewish women, and Jewish culture in general, by looking at things, not texts.
The sacred texts and laws central to Jewish life, while they certainly discuss Jewish women, tend not to be created by or for Jewish women. This means many aspects of how Jewish women thought or acted (before the present day) are obscured. However, these garments were created by and often for Jewish women, and their shapes and symbols tell a great deal. For example, the Moroccan Jewish wedding clothes I mentioned were embroidered with spirals, representing (according to the accompanying written material) the spiral of life. These spirals were also found on Jewish tombstones. The spirals resembled, to me, the spirals I’d seen carved on stone at Newgrange and Knowth in Ireland—the ancient symbols of life and journey. I was amazed to see them in a Jewish context. Another dress that mixed Sephardic and Moroccan style also had spirals featured prominently.
The connection of weddings and mourning, of life and death, confronted me in other garments. In Uzbekistan, a beautiful mourning veil was included in the bride’s trousseau for when she would need it. Women of Morocco, Izmir, Bukhara, and Kurdistan held celebrations at the age of seventy or eighty to make their own shrouds. In Morocco and in a variety of Jewish cultures, mourning clothes were worn as or under wedding clothes, as a reminder of mortality even in the midst of joy. These representations of life as a journey encompassing birth and death, in which all of these stages are sacred, felt deeply resonant in terms of my own earth-based Jewish path. I might not have found these beliefs explained in the same way in a Jewish book, but encoded in these garments, I could find a reflection of my own feelings.
I also saw women’s protective practices at work in the garments. In a Yemenite amuletic garment symbols of the masculine and the feminine (triangles for the female, poles and salamanders for the male) were united in the embroidery—another ancient trope. Other amuletic garments were meant to protect children who had been ill. One protective gown contained a flowery four-branched symbol that seemed to mark the four directions. A Bagdadi baby’s gown, embroidered with a hamsa (hand of Fatima or Miriam), was meant to be worn during the protective ceremonies of the first eight days of life. These garments showed me the ritual work and beliefs of women, generally considered “superstition” by Jewish legal texts.
There is, in esoteric Jewish texts, a connection between the sacred feminine—the Shekhinah– and the Torah scroll. I was surprised to find this connection also present in the garments I saw. A purple velvet Turkish Jewish wedding dress, I learned, was meant to be turned into a Torah curtain later: as if the woman and the Torah were identically dressed. In Afghanistan, the scarves of deceased women were tied onto the Torah scroll as a way of memorializing them. The connection between women and the sacred, de-emphasized in Jewish law and made esoteric in Jewish mystical doctrine, appeared front and center in customs surrounding Jewish bridal gowns.
I also was able to discern the impact of sacred space on the garments. A Jerusalem wedding outfit without crown or jewelry showed the unique custom of asceticism at weddings practiced in Jerusalem in the 19th and early 20th centuries (also documented in the book Princess or Prisoner? Jewish Women in Jerusalem 1840-1914). This custom reflected a sense that the dwellers of the holy city should be held to a particular standard of modesty, but was also a way to avoid the evil eye—or to keep from shaming poor women. This particular garment reminded me that traditions are often explained in multiple ways, and that we cannot always know the original or “correct” reason for a particular ritual or custom. Things have to be interpreted, and can be interpreted in multiple ways, just as texts can.
The exhibit showed the vast diversity of Jews around the world—from a wedding sari in India to a New York high society wedding gown. It featured some men’s clothing as well as feminine-style garments—but what fascinated me most were the traditions that had been woven into the clothing. I would not have found these traditions discussed or even mentioned in a book of Jewish law, yet they were a part of what Jews wore on their bodies throughout the world. Showing them to my daughter gave me a sense of pride and satisfaction.
The exhibit reminded me of how important material culture is to understand a whole civilization—particularly if we want to include the lives of women in our understanding. Feminist methodology—theological and anthropological—has to learn about objects, not only words, if we are to tap into the lives of our woman-identified ancestors. And not only do we have to learn about objects, hut we have to demand that such artifacts hold relevance and authority. We have to see them as central rather than peripheral, if we are to see the experiences of women as central. The de-centering of books lets us re-center women’s lives. Therefore, the reading of artifacts, of things, is absolutely crucial, whether we are studying a city thousands of years old or a people of our own time. No culture—even the culture of the People of the Book—can be reduced to a book.
“Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress from the Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.” An Exhibition at The Jewish Museum (New York, NY).
The Jewish Wardrobe: From the Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Ed. Esther Juhasz (5 Continents Editions, 2012).
Shilo, Margalit. Princess or Prisoner? Jewish Women in Jerusalem 1840-1914 (Brandeis University, 2005).
The author wishes to thank the Jewish Museum for showing this wonderful collection.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org) and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org). She is the author of essays, poems, rituals and stories, and of seven books including Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess (with Taya Shere, 2015), and the new volume of poetry The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries (2016