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Speciwomen On view in San Francisco: Jewish diaspora through textiles

Nov. 9, 2018
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Currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, a little gem in San Francisco, is “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress,” from the Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The intimate and colorful exhibit looks at a collection of Jewish textiles and dress spanning centuries. The articles of clothing represent the true diversity and range within the Jewish Diaspora; Morocco, Denmark, Uzbekistan, India, and Ethiopia are only some of the countries represented in the exhibit. 

The show focuses on how Jews have used clothing both to assimilate and to distinguish themselves from the cultures they’ve lived alongside. The exhibit features a stunning off-white Saree, elaborately patterned and embroidered bodices, various wedding garments, a collection of delicate babies’ coats, and various headscarves and head coverings. There is plenty to look at, but also a ton of information on the pieces in the collection, their function, style, and what this all would mean to the Jewish wearer. Symbology, religion, and secular identity are stitched, dyed, and woven into each garment, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum brings all of these layers and nuances to the viewers’ attention. 

Complementing the pieces on display is a photo-book collection to peruse, and large historical images printed and projected around the room, showing the clothing worn on actual bodies, breathing life into the mannequins that are placed around the room. The exhibit also features an interactive “Textile Lab,” a separate room that encourages visitors to experiment with fabric draping, weaving, and a community embroidery project. It’s easy to lose an hour stitching away without even realizing after taking in so much inspiration from the colorful collection in the next room.

I grew up in a very reformed Jewish community in New Jersey. It seems that every year this part of my identity changes in its meaning and becomes more and more valuable to me. I have so loved looking into the Jewish history of New York City, Jewish art, and Judaism in film. The Jewish people are the archetype of a diasporic community, and I have found that this has complicated my understanding of “belonging” and “home.” It has made it harder for me to pinpoint what exactly it means to be Jewish. The more I learn about it the more definitions I find. I am starting to feel like this is exactly what is so special about Judaism. Getting to see this in the context of clothing was so special. Seeing Jewishness outside of the oh-so-common American or European context was such a welcome reminder of the diversity of our community. I sat in the textile lab and tried my hand at embroidery, losing myself. Since I visited this show, a terrible tragedy happened in Pittsburgh. Like so many people, I was shaken up by the senseless violence and hatred; it made me feel so vulnerable, so targeted. But I think back on these fabrics, these intricate garments. I think about the resilience of our community, our ability to find home, identity, and community wherever we go, and I feel so lucky to be Jewish.  

Veiled Meanings is open to the public until January 6, 2019 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, California. 

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