The 400-year-old secrets and techniques of Italy’s Jewish feminists – Life & Tradition


In 1620, one Rachel Olivetti – the daughter of an aristocratic Italian Jewish household – was set to marry her fiancé Judah Leone, of the famend Montefiore lineage. Earlier than the pair wed, Olivetti determined to craft a gift for her betrothed’s household: an elaborate, hand-embroidered parochet (Torah ark curtain) created from wealthy materials in hues of darkish crimson and gold.

However Olivetti’s gesture didn’t finish there. In a feminist act that was virtually unthinkable for the time, she stitched a poem that ran proudly down the size of the parochet extolling the wedding as “an vital day for the Montefiores,” as a result of she, Rachel of the Olivetti clan, was coming into their household.

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5 centuries on, the daring and considerably self-congratulatory assertion – inscribed some 425 years earlier than ladies in Italy have been allowed to vote – can nonetheless be made out on the distinguished artifact Olivetti crafted.

Virtually absolutely intact, the Olivetti-Montefiore parochet hangs inside a dimly lit room within the coronary heart of Jerusalem. It’s one among a number of uncommon and historical centerpieces at present on show in “Warp & Weft: Girls as Custodians of Jewish Heritage in Italy,” on the Umberto Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Artwork. (The exhibition takes its title from a primary weaving method.)

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The exhibition chronicles the forgotten tales of Olivetti and numerous different Italian Jewish ladies like her who turned to the intricate artwork of embroidery and textile work to emancipate themselves.

Feminist thriller

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Olivetti was apparently not the one girl who dared signal her title on ceremonial textiles used for spiritual functions. Museum curator Anastazja Buttitta tells Haaretz that the oldest-known in Italy date again to the late 16th century – and each single one among them was signed by a lady.

Buttitta, who performed in depth analysis on the topic, says signed textiles have been produced primarily in Italian Jewish communities. “It stays a thriller why they did it, and why in Italy of all locations,” she says. “I feel perhaps they did it as a result of they knew how vital their function was within the ritual.”

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A stroll all through the exhibition’s 4 rooms, which function a spread of textile artifacts designed and produced by Italian Jewish ladies over the centuries, signifies that their contributions to their communities’ spiritual life was certainly vital.

Oftentimes, Buttitta explains, the ladies took on a regular basis clothes gadgets that they had no use for anymore and turned them into sensible spiritual objects – resembling parochot and meilim (Torah mantles) – that they then donated to their native synagogues.

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“That is one thing that was widespread in all of Europe – within the Christian world as effectively,” Buttitta says. “Since textiles have been extraordinarily costly, they have been by no means thrown away except they have been fully worn out. So what was usually completed was that attire or different gadgets of clothes have been reused and moved to the sacred place.”

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In Judaism, this observe has a particular time period: ha’ala bakodesh (“Rising to sanctity”). The curator clarifies that it means “the elevation into sanctity of a profane and mundane object. This elevation is unimaginable as a result of it was truly passing by means of ladies’s arms,” she notes.

Sustaining the financial system

Italian Jewish ladies weren’t simply offering helpful gadgets to their very own synagogues, Buttitta says. Additionally they had a vital function in shaping the financial system of their households, and generally their complete communities. “Italian Jews have been solely allowed a number of professions [around the 16th and 17th centuries], and one among them was to be textile retailers,” she says. “These ladies had quick access to textiles coming from throughout Europe, they usually have been essential to the financial system of their communities. In a while, through the 18th and 19th centuries, by means of embroidery and lace manufacturing they have been actually sustaining their households’ financial system and the communities’ financial system.”

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Buttitta, herself an Italian Jew, got here to Israel so as to connect with her Jewish roots and pursue her doctorate at Ben-Gurion College of the Negev, Be’er Sheva. In 2013 she wrote her dissertation on Renaissance jewellery in Venice, deciphering it from each a creative and social viewpoint.


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When she acquired the invitation to curate the Nahon Museum, she knew she wished to place collectively an exhibition that may current “a transparent and centered perspective on the function of Italian Jewish ladies. I didn’t wish to speak about Jewish Italian society normally; I knew I needed to deal with one particular topic. I knew that Italian Jewish ladies had a selected function, and that it was totally different from the Ashkenazi and Sephardi world.”

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Requested why Italian ladies appeared to have been extra professionally and financially unbiased than their Jewish contemporaries elsewhere in Europe, Buttitta suggests it was a results of the “humanistic society they lived in.”

However not everybody appreciated these ladies’s independence, the curator says: “It’s recognized there was a number of battle inside the Italian Jewish communities due to the feminine emancipation.”

Some ladies’s resourcefulness reached past the confines of their communities. One instance Buttitta cites, which she found by means of analysis performed by Luisa Levi D’Ancona (a analysis fellow on the European Discussion board within the Hebrew College), is the story of 19th-century philanthropists Virginia Nathan and Alice Franchetti: They based two skilled textile workshops for poor, Christian housewives in Tuscany.

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Girls’s affect differed in each Italian metropolis, Buttitta says. “Each Italian Jewish group is totally different from the others, as a result of each Italian metropolis was totally different when it comes to the society, the traditions, the fashion and the artwork. We all know that in Venice ladies had a vital function, for instance, and this influenced the Jewish Italian ladies in Venice.”

Deal with with care

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The exhibition additionally goals to offer a complete take a look at ladies’s rituals and obligations by telling the tales of their marriages, child-rearing work within the textile trade.

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Each artifact represents a private story. For instance, a small Torah mantle from Venice was signed in 1776 by a lady named Rivka Chefetz. “It’s created from French textile that was fashionable through the 1730s and 1740s. The meil could be very helpful for us to know a number of issues,” Buttitta says. “Due to it, we all know that this textile was reused about 30 years after it was created. It was in all probability not trendy anymore, so [Chefetz] gave it to the synagogue and thru ha’ala bakodesh, it turned a meil.”

Reveals like this mantle are too delicate to be on show for lengthy durations of time. Shoshana Mandel, the conservation skilled who labored with the Nahon Museum to refurbish a few of the gadgets, says that with textiles, “the principle damaging components are publicity to mild and moisture, in addition to the mistaken temperature.”

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The aim of her work is to “stop the deterioration of historical gadgets, to provide them an extended shelf life and to take care of their unique traits.” She does it “rigorously by means of stitching,” which Mandel says “requires the usage of related or similar supplies.”

The distinctive gadgets on present have been all salvaged from Italian Jewish communities after the Holocaust and transferred to Israel by Umberto Nahon – an Italian Zionist, born in 1905, who had immigrated to Obligatory Palestine in 1939.

Prof. Sergio Della Pergola, the top of the Affiliation of Italian Jews in Israel, tells Haaretz that Nahon had made it his mission to gather the Italian Jewish group’s eroding indicators of life. Della Pergola explains that the Italian Jewish group was at its peak earlier than World Struggle II. “Italian Jewry might be probably the most historical Jewish group repeatedly current within the West,” he asserts. “There have been Jews in Rome through the second century B.C.E. There have been Jews there and in lots of different components of the nation for the previous 22 centuries.”

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Previous to the battle, some 47,000 Italian Jews lived in Italy. At the moment, their quantity is estimated at round 25,000.


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“In 1939, the fascist regime launched legal guidelines that led to the expulsion of the Jews from universities, from the military, from commerce, from all of the professions. Many needed to discover a resolution,” Della Pergola explains. “A number of hundred got here to British [Mandatory] Palestine between 1939 and 1940, and amongst them have been some very outstanding figures. One among them was Umberto Nahon. He was very energetic within the Jewish Company, very near [first Israeli Prime Minister] David Ben-Gurion and [second Israeli Prime Minister] Moshe Sharett.”

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Finally, Nahon established his assortment – from textiles and Jewish manuscripts to ketubahs (Jewish marriage contracts) “that have been additionally signed by ladies, which isn’t in any respect a typical custom within the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities,” curator Buttitta stresses.

A residing museum

Essentially the most valuable merchandise in all the assortment is a synagogue inside from the 17th century, which Nahon had discovered deserted in a city 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Venice and shipped to Israel in components.

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In 1993, a nondescript piazza within the heart of Jerusalem was formally declared the grounds of a functioning synagogue for the Italian Jewish group, which has rights over the Nahon assortment and has made a number of contributions to it over time. This truth proves contentious for the museum some 26 years later, when it largely operates as a completely functioning museum on weekdays and opens its doorways as a synagogue on weekends and holidays.

“Almost all the gadgets within the assortment can theoretically be used for every day capabilities,” Della Pergola says. “We’ve got an settlement, an in depth contract, between the group and the museum by which the group has the correct to make use of the gadgets – offered they’re usable and never too fragile. So it’s a residing museum as a result of the gadgets will not be only for show, they’re being utilized by the general public after which put once more within the reservoir, which is well-guarded. It reveals that Judaism lives.”

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In response to Della Pergola, the area people in Jerusalem – which numbers about 1,000 members, a lot of whom are trendy Orthodox – is happy with the museum. He thinks the “Warp & Weft” exhibition precisely represents “that the function of girls has been vital inside the historic limitations of a rustic which is moderately masculine-dominated.”

In modern life in Italy and Israel, Italian Jewish ladies are “current on the general public scene and in civil life,” he continues. “We not too long ago had an aged Holocaust survivor, Liliana Segre, get appointed senator for all times. It’s a really prestigious appointment.”

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Yonit Kolb Reznitzki, the Israeli director of the Nahon Museum, believes the museum displays this spirit. “This can be a feminist museum. Many of the present workers are ladies, and I feel it’s not a coincidence. Our era – myself, Anastazja and others – is a era of go-getters. We don’t look forward to individuals to do issues for us, we exit and get them. I feel that’s one thing ladies in Italy already understood a few years in the past.”

Buttitta concurs. “I feel that what’s unimaginable is that we haven’t used, not even as soon as, the phrases ‘artists’ or ‘artifacts’ in our labels and texts. However all of the individuals who depart the exhibition say, ‘Wow, these ladies have been actual artists.’ I feel that is a very powerful factor about this exhibition: That it permits us to understand these ladies as artists, as professionals, at a time when ladies didn’t have many rights.”

“Warp & Weft” is on the Umberto Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Artwork, Jerusalem, by means of January 20.

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