A woman’s coat with a richly decorated lining from
Bukhara, Uzbekistan, late 19th century
A woman’s coat with a richly decorated lining from Bukhara, Uzbekistan, late 19th century

Dressing the diaspora: centuries of Jewish fashion at CJM

A visitor to the upcoming exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress, from the Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem,” might well marvel at the ornate designs, rich fabrics, intricate details and unusual configurations that have gone into the scores of items on display.

Take, for example, a Jewish girl’s amulet-laden dress from 1930s Yemen: an indigo-dyed, cotton garment with red stitching and cowrie shells, which were believed to possess mystical powers, along with an asymmetrical design — all elements that were meant to protect the child, who had been felled by smallpox.

Or a married Jewish woman’s early 20th-century ensemble from Salonika, Greece, home for hundreds of years to tens of thousands of Jews before the Nazis decimated the mostly Sephardic community. This ensemble features a compound-weave silk coat dress, a ribbed moiré silk sleeveless dress with chiné warp printing, a brocaded silk apron and a cotton chest apron with openwork embroidery and lace.

But while the abundant artistry and craft in the exhibit — which opens Thursday, Aug. 30  — are reason enough to delight attendees, the show’s visual narrative also may cause them to reflect on the social factors that are always involved in the ways we decide to dress … and even undress.

528 - Ha 001 - Blue satin Rabby coat 002
Hasidic rabbi’s silk Sabbath Coat, Jerusalem, 21st century

As CJM curator Heidi Rabben points out, “Veiled Meanings,” with approximately 65 articles of clothing from 24 countries, “is a historic story of the Jewish diaspora,” with a particular focus on garments from nations in Central Asia, the Mideast and North Africa.

Bay Area textile artist Barbara Shapiro, who served as a consultant to the CJM for the show, points out, for instance, that the provenance of the “Great Dress” — a traditional garment worn by Moroccan Jewish women in urban areas such as Rabat, Marrakech, Casablanca and, in this case, Fez — was Spain, from which many Jews fled in 1492 and 1502, after royal decrees as part of the Spanish Inquisition ordered them to convert to Catholicism or leave.

Though the dress in the exhibit dates back only to the early 20th century, “it is tailored in a post-Renaissance style,” Shapiro says, with the type of gilt-embroidered bodice that remained fashionable for centuries. It’s a reminder that many of the Jews of Morocco, who numbered some 250,000 to 350,000 before the founding of Israel in 1948, were descended from refugees who were forced to leave the Iberian Peninsula, or face death, in the late 15th century.

Jewish geography and history play a notable part in the show’s garments that hail from Uzbekistan, a primarily Muslim nation in Central Asia that was part of the Soviet Union. Many of the tens of thousands of Bukharan Jews — so named because they were largely clustered in the Uzbek city of Bukhara — had been merchants, traders and craftsmen along the Silk Road, the ancient trading route. They also figured prominently, and importantly, in the purveyance of a particular commodity — blue indigo dye — which they transported from India, where it was produced.

Just as Jews in Europe during the Middle Ages had been relegated to lowly positions as usurers — think Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” — Bukharan Jews in that era were solely responsible for trading and for cold-dyeing using indigo, a laborious and grimy process that their Muslim brethren eschewed as too “dirty,” Rabben and Shapiro point out.

027B - Bukhara Mouring Scarves 002
Women’s mourning scarves, Uzbekistan, early 20th century

The dye that was produced was used in a painstaking, multi-colored process called ikat, a Malay-Indonesian word meaning “tie” or “bind.” A cousin to techniques like batik and tie-dye, ikat differs in that the threads are dyed in selected areas before being woven into cloth. Many of the garment makers were Muslim, Rabben says, and the collaboration between Jews and Muslims in the production of textiles and clothing was one of those rare instances of partnerships between the two religious communities from the 800s to the 20th century.

“Veiled Meanings” was developed by curators at the Israel Museum for the CJM and the Jewish Museum in New York — the only two American institutions, to date, to have hosted this exhibition. Its thematic components address lifecycle events (birth, b’nai mitzvah, marriage and death) and the accommodations Jews made to survive, and thrive, in mostly Muslim countries. Jewish women in Herat, Afghanistan, for instance, wore a modified version of a chador and face veil, which are included in the show. (A chador is a large piece of cloth wrapped around the head and upper body, leaving only the face exposed.)

CJM curators and educators are particularly excited about another integral component of “Veiled Meanings”: a hands-on and interactive textile lab, developed by Fraidy Aber, the CJM’s director of education and civic engagement.

Titled simply “Textile Lab,” this endeavor will give visitors opportunities to work directly with the kinds of fabrics that are included in the show. In addition to two looms and a dedicated space for dressing mannequins, the lab will have a spooling video featuring Bay Area community members talking about the traditions of their family members from the Middle Eastern and North African nations represented in the exhibit.

Says Aber: “We want to elevate and honor their stories,” which are “not Ashke-normative,” or centered on the more commonly known and talked-about Jewish Ashkenazi traditions.

Woman wearing a pearled swalf in Fez, Morocco, 1930s.(Photo/J. Besancenot)
Woman wearing a pearled swalf in Fez, Morocco, 1930s (Photo/J. Besancenot)

One video participant, 31-year-old Jewish educator Adam Eilath, director of strategic initiatives at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, is descended maternally from the Jews of Nabeul, Tunisia. Eilath said he has devoted more than a decade to educating himself and others about Mizrahi Jewish traditions and narratives.

One of the stories he shares in the CJM exhibit is about his grandmother, who, living in Tunisia in the 1940s, dressed as a Muslim woman to go to the market, as the country was under Nazi control and Jews there were prohibited from entering public places. Recognizing the dangers and privations she faced, Eilath says “the Muslims were kind to her” and gave her extra food.

To pull everything together, the CJM worked with a variety of community partners on this exhibit, such as JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa and Be’Chol Lashon. JIMENA is an S.F.-based international nonprofit dedicated to preserving the culture and history of Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews who were displaced from their countries of origin, and Be’Chol Lashon is Bay Area nonprofit that promotes ethnic, racial and cultural inclusivity in the Jewish community. Other CJM partners for this exhibit included Britex Fabrics, the de Young Museum and the Museum of the African Diaspora.

Fortuitously, “Veiled Meanings” (Aug. 30 to Jan. 6) will overlap with the de Young’s “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” exhibit (Sept. 22 to Jan. 6). The CJM and deYoung are discussing joint programming opportunities, and the CJM will offer free admission to deYoung members through Oct. 31.

CJM educational and cultural programming in connection with “Veiled Meanings,” include a half-hour gallery chat on “Adornment and Costume,” led by Art to Wear jewelry maker Masha Archer and her daughter, Larissa, a writer, dancer and actress, at 12:30 p.m. Sept. 21. Check the CJM website for updates.

“Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress, from the Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem” Thursday, Aug. 30 through Jan. 6, 2019 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission Street, S.F. Included with admission. thecjm.org or (415) 655-7800

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.