Jews of the loom

Weaving imagery into carpets has been a Jewish art for centuries.

Nasser e-Din Jewish carpet 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Granta)
Nasser e-Din Jewish carpet 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Granta)
Persian carpets, Turkish carpets, Chinese carpets, Indian carpets – but Jewish carpets? What are they and why should we be interested in them? Why are they significant? These carpets, created by or for Jewish people, were often intended for religious or commemorative use.
Some, either in concealing their Jewish identification or by revealing it, tell us of the prevailing conditions of the Jewish community at the time. Others are simply functional artifacts. The greatest number of such carpets were made by Jewish charities to help Jews worldwide, many being directed to the Land of Israel.
Going further back in history and further afield in geography than the carpets of any other peoples, the importance of Jewish carpets is in their role as cultural chronicles.
The wool, the silk, the cotton, the dyes, the knots and the weavers may all vary, but it is the unity of the rich symbols and the purpose for which the carpets were made that create a compelling and cohesive identity.
Among those used for religious purposes was one 17th-century parochet – the cover for the synagogue ark – which featured a dome at the top representing the Crown of the Law; snakes or dragons as the cherubim guarding the Tablets of the Law; and a menorah in the central field. An arch atop a set of pillars indicates a gateway, for the center of the carpet is in the inscriptive cross-panel reciting the timeless invocation of Psalms 118:2: “This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous shall enter.”
Less complex religious rugs are the Kashan silk portraits of Moses. They may not appeal to the sophisticated palate of the aesthete but many Jewish carpets cannot be appreciated and should not be judged without reflecting on their rich messages and on the depth of thought and feeling they engender. These rugs, with their representations of Moses, are to be found and treasured in Jewish homes throughout the world.
In the synagogue, ritual rugs cover the reader’s desk, the dais and seats, and decorate the walls as evocative hangings. In the home such wall hangings are to be found both as directional pointers to Jerusalem for prayer and as reminders of the Divine omnipresence.
Some Jewish carpets were made to celebrate or commemorate a particular event such as the fine silk Kashan specially commissioned by Nasser e-Din, the shah of Persia (1848-1896) as a gift to his favorite Jewish doctor, to celebrate the doctor’s survival of a bungled assassination by rival doctors.
This carpet blends traditional Iranian rug designs, Qajar elements and rich material from the Hebrew Bible and folk sources. At the top of the central field, either side of the Crown and above the ark, are the symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel. Below is the Temple, its ornamental gate indicating contemporary Qajar influence and the foreshortening here, creating a sense of perspective as the view recedes, indicates European influence. In the lower half of the central field, on either side of the cherubim guarding the Tablets of the Law, are Aaron and Moses, and between the two guardian lions of Judah is a representation of the Western Wall.
The borders introduce us to other critically important biblical events. Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac and Joseph is being sold into slavery, Moses being discovered in the bulrushes, Elijah ascending to heaven and Noah’s Ark atop Mount Ararat.
Some Jewish carpets conceal their Jewish origin. For example, at first sight, the pleasing Tree of Life carpet would appear to be a classic Islamic silk Kashan. And it is. But in Hebrew hidden in the middle of the upper border is the name of the weaver, Miriam Assurian. It calls to mind a 15th-century Spanish carpet I’m currently working on with its numerous but discreet Jewish symbols and other elements, all pointing to it being woven by Marrano weavers for a noble Marrano family.
Sometimes the overt insignia of Jewish origin is material evidence telling us of the high skills of the Jewish weavers and designers and of their acceptance and worth in the host culture. A particular Ferahan is such an example for it is a really superb Islamic carpet that could have graced the grand mosque in Baghdad. The Arabic inscription in the upper border reads “By the order of Isma’il and Aba, Yahudi” – Yahudi means Jew. Their signature appears on many a majestic Ferahan and Kashan of the second half of the 19th century.
SOMETIMES, HOWEVER, the inscription raises more questions than it answers. As in a 19th-century Turkish Adam and Eve carpet, in the center of the upper borders, surrounded by two angels that come straight out of Christian art is a quotation in Kufic from the Koran. Then, right at the top, the Hebrew letters transliterate into the Judeo-German words “Der Sünderfall” – the Original Sin. Perhaps it tells us something of the confusion, of the crises of identity, suffered by some European Jews as to who or what they were? But some Jewish carpets are not so complicated, being simply straightforward functional artifacts originating in and part of a long established weaving tradition, as in a well-woven, high-altitude Sarab village runner made of lustrous wool and natural dyes.
The Hebrew inscription tells us it was woven in the autumn of 1895.
The majority of Jewish carpets extant today are those woven by Jewish charities helping both to support Jews in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel. The greatest numbers of these were made in the Bezalel Craft School in Jerusalem from 1905 to 1929 and later in its offshoots, the Marbadiah workshops.
The Bezalel school was designed as a training facility for Jewish craftsmen and women who would acquire a productive profession, it was also a laboratory forging a new Jewish identity into which ancient and modern meanings would be blended and a clarion call to the Jews of the ghetto to return to their land and become normal human beings rooted in the soil and enjoying the fruits of their labor.
The original Art Nouveau designs integrated both European and Oriental decorative approaches, blending biblical and contemporary imagery and handsome Hebrew calligraphy into a new Volkgeist (cultural identity).
The Song of Songs carpet is one of the finest of these. Under a canopy of a tall and broad palm tree bisecting a vibrant blue field, and so hinting at the outline of the Tablets of the Law, the central field displays a rich panoply of intertwining flora and fauna – deer, antelope ibex, peacocks, fountains and bunches of grapes; the two guard strips recite the lovely verse from the Song of Songs: “The blossoms have appeared in the Land, the time of singing has come....”
The need to give iconographic expression to profound feelings is manifested in the proclivity to portraiture in Jewish carpets. The rugs of Alliance Israelite Universelle – strictly speaking machine pile weaves – proclaim many of the pivotal figures in the foundation of the State of Israel. The Alliance was founded in France in 1860 to work for the emancipation of Jews and to fight anti-Semitism.
Over the years, setting up hundreds of schools, it educated hundreds of thousands of children in academic and vocational skills. Around the time of World War I, the Alliance school in Jerusalem produced idealized portraits of Theodor Herzl and other luminaries such as Max Nordau, the humanist philosopher and one of the intellectual founders of the return to the lands of the Bible.
What I also find particularly interesting about these weaves is the manner in which the artist has united two elements that are normally considered incompatible: The formal/ideological and the emotive – the former being a visual representation of fundamental tenets of faith and ideology, the latter being the expression of the artist’s personal feeling through a unique use of asymmetrical lines and non-naturalistic colors.
IN THE same way that Jewish rugs designed and woven in or for Islamic or Christian societies were influenced by their particular host cultures, so too did Jewish rugs adapt to the culture of Eastern Europe in the period 1926 to 1968 and yet retain their unique homogeneity.
The Organization for Rehabilitation through Training (ORT) was founded in St.
Petersburg 117 years ago to provide poor Jews with the work skills needed to escape the poverty and the persecution of Czarist Russia. One particular ORT carpet captures this adaptation to communist culture with its detailing and idealizing of industrial tools typical of Marxist art.
In 1948, still devastated by the war, Bulgaria was in need of the skills and resources displayed here. From left to right, we see factories, a tractor and a driver, a farmer sowing seeds, telephone lines, an engineer controlling a device above the hemisphere and another working a lathe, more factories and a woman at a sewing machine. A picture has survived of the five women, survivors of the camps, weaving that same carpet. The cartoon above the loom has been divided into three parts, each weaver has her own section and the carpet is integrated as a whole because they work line by line, laterally across the loom.
There are many Jewish rugs that provide poignant and material evidence of the Jewish experience over the millennia.
For example, there is a woolen spread or rug which had belonged to an Jewish soldier who, in the failed revolt against Rome in 132-135 CE, fled to a cave by the Dead Sea and died there, leaving his belongings to be uncovered in our time in the Cave of Letters.
Then there is the Yad Vashem carpet.
Woven out of scraps of wool and cotton in the Lodz Ghetto in 1942, we see a father and son working at a loom making uniforms for their Nazi masters.
Jewish carpets are unique material cultural chronicles and, saturated as so many of them are with prayers, tears and dreams of our forebears, offer us new insights and understandings into their lives and their worlds.