Born in 1991, Tamar Paley is based in Tel Aviv, where she works as a jewelry designer and artist. “A Fringe of Her Own: A Collection of Ritual Objects for Women” began as Paley’s thesis project at the prestigious Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan. “People at school were taken aback when I first presented my idea for a thesis,” Paley told JewishBoston. “In Israel, most people associate religion with the right wing. I had to convince people that the ritual objects I intended to design were part of a feminist agenda and an agenda to bring awareness to liberal Judaism.”

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI), told JewishBoston over email that Paley’s work stands out “for its arresting beauty and also for its confident appropriation of a role in redefining Jewish material culture from a Jewish feminist perspective. It gives a concrete form to initiatives across the spectrum of Jewish practice to rethink ritual in ways that include and reflect women’s interests and experiences.”

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Paley recently spoke about her new exhibit, her connection to liberal Judaism and the significance of Jewish feminist ritual objects. She will be in residence at HBI from April 17-22.

Your creative focus has been on jewelry design. Why did you turn your attention to creating ritual objects?

Questions of Jewish identity have always been in the back of my mind. In Israel, being a progressive Jew, a Reform Jew, is not easy. For my thesis project, I wanted to use this platform to address subjects that were important to me and create something that reflected who I am. It wasn’t just about pure design and form. I wanted to shed light on feminist issues and freedom of religion in Israel. That’s how I decided to create ritual objects for women. I used my jewelry skills and love of texture, color and design to express my thoughts. 

What was your artistic process in making these objects?

It was very important to me that these be distinctly women’s objects. I didn’t want to take a tallit and make it pink or purple. I wanted to give these objects new forms by detaching them from male forms that we know. And yet I didn’t want to make them completely detached from Jewish heritage and tradition. I did a lot of research and read extensively about the history of these objects. Alongside the academic research, I surveyed 60 women, asking them about the relevance of these objects to them and how they perceived these objects. For example, I asked the following questions: “If you could create a ritual object, what would it be? What would the text be? What would be relevant to your spiritual experience?”

The two major takeaways from the answers were that women experience their spirituality in a very internal, personal way, as opposed to men, who experience it in a more communal way. Consequently, many of the texts in these feminist ritual objects are placed in either the inner pieces of the objects or in the body of the objects. Something that came up a lot in the answers is that women wanted the option to choose when to keep the text private and when they wished to expose it. My designs either expose the text, allow it to be partially seen or keep it private. 

Tamar Paley (Courtesy photo)
Tamar Paley (Courtesy photo)

How do these objects define or redefine Judaism for you?

I came to realize that there is no Jewish law that says we can’t change the form of ritual objects. No one is really experimenting with the form and material of ritual objects. I also came to understand that I can shape my Jewish identity through my perception of these objects. It was a huge revelation to realize that if I connected to the way traditional tefillin feel or are worn, I could take the liberty of reshaping the tefillin to reflect my personal experience.

What are some of the objects that make up “A Fringe of Her Own”?

The main ritual objects that are featured in the HBI exhibit are the tallit, tefillin and tzitzit. I interpret the tefillin as a bracelet. I take this almost violent act of wrapping straps on your arm that leave a mark on it and place the letter on the arm per the Torah’s instructions. But I give it an easier touch. My tefillin fit the body in an easier way and they don’t have this violent feel, which feels very masculine to me. I take the tefillin placed on the forehead and bring it down to the chest so that women can feel the object as more subtle and personal. Bringing the tefillin down to the chest is also more feminine. A woman feels less singled out and the object itself is less phallic. Within the pendant is the traditional text inside male tefillin that is exposed only to the person wearing it. 

What has been the response to these objects in Israel?

So far there has been positive feedback. I did prepare myself for more controversial reactions. I think the feedback shows that people are thirsty for a new way of expressing Judaism. If you do it in a sensitive and thoughtful way, you can get people on your side. There hasn’t been enough experimentation with feminist Jewish issues.  After viewing the objects, secular Israelis hopefully will see that spirituality is not only about which branch of Judaism you affiliate with—there are different ways of catering to one’s spirituality. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Tamar Paley’s work is on display at HBI’s Kniznik Gallery through June 2018 and is part of the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts at Brandeis University. For more information about Paley’s exhibition and the festival, click here.