Questions of Identity

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Costume from the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Introduction
The external appearance of Jews throughout the world evinces the constant tension between segregation and integration that has always characterized Jewish existence in the Diaspora. While Jewish law does not dictate an entire dress code, and Jews' attire along the centuries was similar to – indeed, sometimes indistinguishable from – that of the local population, some distinctive marks can be discerned in their clothing, such as the tzitzit (tassels attached to the corners of one's garment as prescribed in the Bible) or the use of Hebrew script. From the eighth century on in many Islamic countries, and later in Christian Europe until the modern era, Jews had to be recognized by their external appearance, and governmental restrictive decrees were issued in order to maintain this distinction. 

THE SELECTION

The ensembles of dress and jewelry on view here communicate individual as well as collective affiliations, thus offering a glimpse into a rich array of identities. Nevertheless, we have chosen to display the costumes and jewelry in separate galleries in order to stress the great extent of craftsmanship that went into their making.

The Israel Museum’s collection of Jewish dress and jewelry – one of the richest and most extensive in the world – was assembled over decades of field research conducted among the various communities. The bulk of the collection consists of costumes worn by Jews in Muslim lands from the late 19th until the middle of the 20th century. With the annihilation of many European Jewish communities during the Holocaust, it became almost impossible to research and collect clothes and jewelry from these communities. Modernization processes in the west and in the east eventually led to the disappearance of traditional dress.

Women's dress from Ioannina
First half of the 19th century

Algerian woman's ceremonial outfit
Mid-19th century

Groom's attire
Late 19th - early 20th century

Attire of a Bukharan woman
Late 19th – early 20th century

Georgian woman's attire
Late 19th century - Early 20th century

Festive woman's dress

Bosnia

Early 20th century

Outfit of a Jewish woman from Gabès

Early 20th century

Clothes of Rabbi Sassoon Kedoory, Last Chief Rabbi of Iraqi Jewry

Early 20th century

Woman's Festive Attire from Libya

Early to mid-20th century

Ethiopian woman’s attire
Mid-20th century

Woman's Attire from Northeastern Morocco

1940s

Bene Israel, Indian woman’s attire
Late 20th century

Dress Codes and Jewish Law
“You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself” (Deut. 22:12)The only positive biblical precept concerning dress is the commandment to wear fringes on the corners of one’s garment as a reminder of God’s laws: “And you shall look at [the tassel] and recall all the commandments of the Lord” (Num. 15: 39). At first tassels were attached to men’s outer garment; later, two distinct ritual garments evolved: the tallit, a shawl wrapped around the shoulders during prayers and important ceremonial events, and the tzitzit or tallit katan (“small tallit”), an undershirt worn all day. The fringes on the corners are made of four threads folded in two and knotted in numerical combinations representing the names of God. A variety of prayer shawls have been produced throughout the Jewish world.

Fringed Garment (Tallit Katan)

19th century

Another biblical precept concerning clothes is the prohibition of wearing a mixture of wool and linen (Deut. 22:11). Because compliance is not outwardly visible, this precept, though still kept by observant Jews, cannot serve as a way of identifying them.

Fringed Garment (Tallit Katan)

19th century

The Jewish practice of men and married women covering their heads does not derive from a biblical precept. Head coverings for married women became a religious obligation during the Mishnaic period, while men’s head covering only became a binding custom in the late 19th century.

Prayer Shawl (Tallit)

Early 20th century

Fringes (Tallit Katan)

Mid-20th century

Prayer Shawl (Tallit)

Late 19th – early 20th century

Prayer Shawl (Tallit)
Early 20th century

Prayer Shawl (Tallit)

Early 20th century

Head Covering for Men
The Israel Museum’s collection of Jewish dress and jewelry – one of the richest and most extensive in the world – was assembled over decades of field research conducted among the various communities. Head coverings for men are regarded as the sign of a God-fearing Jew. However, the mention of this practice in the Shulhan Arukh – the 16th-century code of Jewish law accepted by all Jewish communities – did not render it compulsory. Only in the 19th century did head coverings become a binding custom and men started to wear skullcaps.In the past, Jews in Christian and Muslim lands were required to wear hats identifying them as Jews. Sometimes their hats also indicated their status: Rabbis and community leaders were allowed to wear magnificent head coverings.In Israeli society, head coverings identify observant Jews, and the choice of head covering indicates affiliation with a particular socioreligious group. A case in point is the crocheted skullcap, which has become synonymous with the National Religious community.

Men’s Head Covering for Yom Kippur

19th century

Men’s head covering for Yom Kippur
Germany, 19th century
Silk velvet, metal-thread lacework in the Shpanyer arbet technique
Received through JRSO (Jewish Restitution Successor Organization)

Men's hat

Late 19th century

Men's Skullcap

Early 20th century

Men's Skullcap

Early 20th century

Men's Cap

Early 20th century

Men's Skullcap

Mid-20th century

Men's Skullcap (Yarmulke)

Mid-20th century

Rabbinical Hat
(ca. 1960)

Men's Hat

2010

Knitted Cap, (Yarmulke)

2010

Hair Covering for Women
There is no biblical precept commanding women to cover their hair, but according to Jewish law this is a basic requirement of modesty for married women. The Sages sought to restrain the temptations that a woman’s hair can arouse, and allowed a husband to divorce his wife unconditionally if she exposed her hair (Mishnah Ketubbot 7:6). It became a religious obligation in all Jewish communities for married women to cover their hair. Over time, the style of the head covering has taken many forms: hats, scarves, and wigs are variously employed. Some women cover every bit of hair; others allow the edges to show.   In the past, a woman’s head covering attested to her community affiliation and her place of residence. Today it distinguishes between observant and nonobservant women, and within religious circles it indicates group affiliation. 

Married Women's Festive Headgear (Kupkh or Shterntikhel)

18th-19th century

Women's head ornament (sarma)

Mid-19th century

Women's Bonnet

1840

Women's Headgear (Duka)

19th – early 20th century

Forehead Ornament (Swalf), used to conceal the hair

Early 20th century

Married women's headgear (karkush)
Early 20th century

Women's Cap

Early 20th century

Women's Cap

Early 20th century

Women's Head Covering (Kufiya)

Mid-20th century

Woman's headgear (mehdor)

Mid-20th century

Segregation and Integration: Jews and the Surrounding Society 
The dispersal of Jews around the world spawned an ongoing dialogue with their surroundings that influenced their dress. On the one hand, Jews sought to distinguish themselves through their attire, in keeping with the biblical injunction “Nor shall you follow their laws” (Lev. 18:3), which Maimonides interpreted as referring to clothing. On the other hand, Jews often adopted their neighbors’ style of dress. Beginning in the Middle Ages, most of the Muslim and Christian regimes under which Jews lived differentiated them by dress through laws designed to stress their inferiority and set them apart from the surrounding population. In the 19th century, in contrast, laws enacted in eastern Europe forbade the Jews to look different from others, thus forcing them to dress like their neighbors. With the advent of emancipation and modernization in Europe, two conflicting trends emerged. More and more Jews sought to integrate into the society around them, while others, for whom non-Jewish dress represented the danger of assimilation, remained fiercely conservative, maintaining their traditional distinctive apparel. Today, in the age of globalization, the laws of fashion govern most wardrobes. Only religious Jews are distinguished by their outward appearance, whether due to their head coverings or to an entire mode of dress, which reflects their particular religious affiliation.

Man’s hooded cape (Akhnif)

Late 19th – early 20th centuries)

Yellow Badge

1940s

Hassidic Sabbath Attire
Late 20th century

Bridal Gown

Late 20th century

(C) The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Credits: Story

Questions of Identity | Costume from the collections of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Chief Curator: The Jack, Joseph, & Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life: Daisy Raccah-Djivre
Curators: No'am Bar'am-Ben Yossef, and Efrat Assaf-Shapira

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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