Simona Di Nepi, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman curator of Judaica at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), first saw Tamar Paley’s work at the latter’s solo exhibition—“A Fringe of Her Own: A Collection of Ritual Objects for Women”—at Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. The 2018 show was an imaginative feminist interpretation of Jewish ritual objects.
Di Nepi and fellow curator Marietta Cambareri were excited at the prospect of acquiring Paley’s work for the MFA. “I was incredibly impressed with how thoughtful and well-researched Tamar’s work was,” Di Nepi told JewishBoston. “We had wanted to acquire contemporary feminist works of Judaica, and Tamar’s work was ideal.”
This is the first acquisition of Paley’s work by a major museum. Paley, who is 28, was born and raised in Jerusalem. Her parents are American, and that duality informs her work. “The context of this work is the direct result of my upbringing as a progressive Jew in Israel,” she told JewishBoston. “The work may not have happened if I were not living in the country. It represents my struggle as an Israeli woman and an artist.”
Paley said that once she reached high school, she became more aware of her religious identity and its minority status in Israel. That awareness inspired her to incorporate Jewish values and texts into her work. A jewelry designer by training, “A Fringe of Her Own” originated with Paley’s thesis at the prestigious Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan, Israel. “At the time, I wanted to focus on something very important to me,” she said. “Making ritual objects for women allowed me to highlight a feminist agenda with a liberal Judaism agenda through wearable objects like Judaica.” Paley added that her “pieces sit on the seam between jewelry and ritual object. They’re hybrids.”
Paley intentionally designed her ritual objects to allow the wearer to hide and then reveal the Jewish texts embedded in the jewelry. “I wanted to cater to a sense of intimacy,” she said. “A woman could use these pieces to feel connected to a bigger story regarding her heritage. The ability to hide the text at her discretion does not single her out or make a statement. She can simply be herself in this sacred act.”
Below are Paley’s descriptions of the pieces acquired by the MFA for its Judaica collection, as told to JewishBoston:
“A Sign Upon Your Hand” Arm Bracelet
“This piece, a crowd favorite, is an interpretation of the arm and hand tefillin. The Bible commands b’nei Israel [Jewish men] to wear tefillin on their arms and head. The tefillin are boxes imprinted with the Hebrew letter shin on them. The shin stands for God’s name. I took apart the box and the leather straps that are supposed to be wrapped around the arm and head and gave them a more feminine shape and feel.
“In researching this piece, I discovered that women have an ambivalent relationship with leather straps. The straps are aggressive and violent, and not a part of the feminine experience. I wanted to place the shin directly on the arm, which is a very literal translation of the biblical text. The parchment that is routinely inside the box is placed on the shin. The scroll is exposed, but the writing is still private. It’s visible so that it becomes a decorative element, but the text is still personal. The strings wrap the scroll and lay loose on the arm. It’s a contrast to the very rigid leather straps wrapped around the arm.”
“Between Sacred and Not” Pendant
“The tzitzit, or fringes, were the first ritual objects mentioned in biblical sources. We put fringes on the corners of our clothing. As a jewelry designer, the fringes were perfect to work with. I kept taking the square of the tallit where the tzitzit are tied and deconstructing and playing with them in different ways. In this pendant, I was thinking, ‘How far can I push from the original tzitzit?’ I decided to take one square and place a monumental square in the middle. The creation encompasses the same ritual, or command, to wear tefillin and tzitzit.
“I’m always thinking about the contemporary woman and what is relevant to her. What would a woman feel beautiful or empowered wearing? I took a garment from which I took one corner and put it in the center. The piece’s structure calls up a loom and refers to the fact that the textiles I created were hand-woven. Some people relate this work to the breastplate of the kohane, or high priest, which sits squarely in the middle of the torso. That was very much in the back of my mind as I was creating this piece.”
“Hamavdil” Neck Piece
“Hamavdil in Hebrew means, ‘The one who separates.’ In this piece, the text is written on the inside part of the garment, giving the wearer an intimate experience. It also provides the wearer with the power to decide when the text is revealed and when it stays private. The name of the piece was inspired by a biblical quote from Leviticus: ‘[He/she] who distinguishes between the sacred and the profane.’
“The ‘Hamavdil’ neck piece has blue and white and silver stripes, which is a direct reference to traditional objects. It also calls up the four corners with tsitsit. It carries the symbolism from the traditional object. The piece was designed to go with the ‘Between Sacred and Not’ pendant. They’re a set.
“With all my pieces, I’m questioning the notion of ritual objects having the power to transform us spiritually. I think about whether just wrapping ourselves or wearing a very small strap has the power and ability to transport us into a spiritual realm, and whether or not it marks a spiritual domain.”