Discover History, Art, Writings - Primary Sources from Biblical Times to the 21st Century Discover History, Art, Writings - Primary Sources from Biblical Times to the 21st Century

Elisheva Carlebach, editor of Confronting Modernity, 1750–1880, discusses gendered roles in Jewish life cycles (from the introduction to Volume 6 of The Posen Library).

For every stage of life from birth to death, for every life-cycle ritual, the embellished artifacts speak to the values their makers held dear. Jews all over the world sought every protection for children yet to be born and for newborns by invoking angelic names on amulets and ordering evil spirits, often embodied in the name Lilith, to stay away. Some amulets designated a specific child to be the beneficiary of special protection. Circumcision was practiced to represent the bond between God and male Jews since Abraham. Special seats, often beautifully decorated, were set aside at circumcision ceremonies for the invisible presence of Elijah. Special implements to care for the infant and adornments were created to commemorate the event. In Ashkenazic communities, mothers would embroider a cloth sash (wimple) with the new baby boy’s name and blessings for the future. When he was old enough to attend synagogue, he ceremonially brought the sash to serve as a Torah binder. The sermon for the bar mitzvah child coming of age cannot be captured by an object, but as photography grew in popularity, pictures of the bar mitzvah boy marked this rite of passage.

Marriages were celebrated with greater embellishment than any other life-cycle ritual. During his sojourn in Tangier, Morocco, the French painter Eugène Delacroix was moved by the way a Jewish mother lovingly prepared her daughter for marriage. His painting Saada, the Wife of Abraham Ben-Chimol and Préciada, One of Their Daughters (1832) immortalized the moment and captures a larger sense of the interior space as background for the rich life that unfolded within it. Delacroix’s visit to Tangier and his friendship with the Jews of the city gained him entry to a Jewish wedding that made a deep impression on him; he made a painting of it almost a decade later. A huppah (wedding canopy) represented the home that the newlyweds would build, as did the wedding sofa. The ketubah (marriage contract) emerged as a locus for artistic embellishment all over the Jewish world. Some were written on parchment with exquisite decoration and illustrations that referred to the bride and groom’s families.

The end of life’s journey, too, was invested with dignified ritual. Jewish shrouds and coffins were to be plain, as the soul journeyed into a world where wealth and material matters fell away. But the “holy society,” members of the community who attended to the dead and prepared them for burial, marked their work with lasting images. Even the implements they used to prepare the dead were specially marked. Finally, while poor and rural Jews could not always afford lasting markers, many Jews were able to set carved and engraved headstones that served as durable memorials to the departed. These became and remained platforms for artistic creativity, with traditional signs indicating priestly or Levite birth or the person’s occupation.

Elisheva Carlebach, editor of The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, Volume 6: Confronting Modernity, 1750–1880, is Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture, and Society and director, Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Columbia University.

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