Dollmaker fashions rich tapestry of Jewish women

It wasn't until a New Hampshire widow returned to school at age 67 that thousands of Jewish women got their due respects in the annals of history.

During a spring slide show at Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond, that student, Esther Kamerling, shared the fruits of 14 years of research — 11 2-foot mannequins sporting the costumes of 18- to 20th-century Jewish women of the diaspora.

From her Yemenite bride, bedecked in layers of intricately sewn undergarments, jewel-studded gold coat and immense pearl-and-flower tiara, to the Kurdistani woman with her long coat, silk skullcap and turban, Kamerling misses no details.

The collection is a remarkably comprehensive depiction of international Jewish women.

Kamerling, now 84, took on the independent-study project when she noticed a plethora of history on male and rabbinic fashions but little on what Jewish women wore.

"It dawned on me that I could research the women," she said.

Creating miniature models of women wearing the fashions of their cultures and eras struck Kamerling as a challenging project. She hoped others would find the idea as interesting as she did. Before sewing even a stitch, she wrote to Jewish museums that might exhibit the models.

"No sooner had I sent out letters than the director of the Yeshiva University in New York called to say that the project was original and they wanted to be the first to exhibit it," she said.

However, finishing the models would not be so easy.

Researching fashions from different periods and countries required Kamerling to fly to libraries and museums around the United States and Israel. Travel, shipping, correspondence and construction of the models ultimately cost the fixed-income senior about $20,000.

Several grant applications appealing for funds proved fruitless, forcing Kamerling to dust off old skills to pay for her project. Fortunately, she had been schooled in costume design as a youth and later worked as a dressmaker and a doll seamstress. She resurrected the doll-repair business. Generous relatives also chipped in a little.

Her project was worth the sacrifices, Kamerling contends.

"This was supposed to be my contribution to education."

In addition to their cost, the research took much longer than Kamerling had bargained Reliable information on the obscure costumes was hard to find. Much of her information came from old travel diaries and crumbling photos.

Other information came thirdhand and from unlikely places. In Alaska, Kamerling discovered a book about a mysterious sect of cave-dwelling Jews from the mountains of Morocco. The author, a Hebrew University anthropologist, never journeyed to the caves but had interviewed cave-dweller emigres in Jaffa. The book's descriptions and illustrations of the women's dress left much to the imagination, Kamerling said.

"Sometimes I have to use my intuition and judgment as a dressmaker as to how to fit a garment," she added. "A traveler might have noted that the women wear green. Well, what kind of green? What was the texture? Do they wear it in the summer, winter and fall?"

Despite the challenges, Kamerling is satisfied that her 11 models based on women from Yemen, Morocco, Kurdistan, three regions of India, Libya, Europe and turn-of-the-century New York are as authentic as they can possibly be.

The models hold sentimental value for Kamerling, especially the Gibson girl with her white puffy sleeves, long flowing skirt and high-buttoned shoes. It depicts her own immigrant mother, who adopted this turn-of-the century style to assimilate.

The model-maker hopes her work will encourage people to recognize that Jewish culture is not a seamless garment.

She has visited Jewish community centers, classrooms and museums to talk about her research and show slides of the models. The actual models are on exhibit at the Yeshiva University museum, where student teachers study the models as part of their multicultural curriculum.

Kamerling would like to present her slide-show lecture at more elementary schools, as children are always eager to learn about the world beyond the playground.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.