Here comes the … wedding dress


The inspiration for Mor Kfir’s wedding gown design — lace interwoven with embroidered, braided threads and silk chiffon fabric — was the tragic bride possessed by a devilish dybbuk in the classic 1928 Yiddish play starring Hanna Rovina at Habima National Theater of Israel.

For Yael Geisler, inspiration took the form of her Turkish-born grandmother’s dowry chest brimming with hand-embroidered tablecloths, napkins and linens. She tailored a gown of silk satin and delicate gold lace adorned with hand-embroidered oriental motifs.

These two dresses are part of a new exhibition, “Here Comes the Bride: Bridal Gowns Embroidering a Jewish Story,” at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, through the end of February 2014. From Tel Aviv, it will go on the international road, stopping first in Austria.

“Here Comes the Bride” results from a unique collaboration between Beit Hatfutsot (bh.org.il) and Ronen Levin’s third-year wedding-gown design students at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv.

Each of the 14 students received a sketchbook and access to the museum’s entire collection of synagogue models, Judaica, marriage contracts, musical instruments, embroidery, dowry chests and family photos, according to Irit Admoni Perlman, director of the museum’s Israel Friends organization and the innovator of the collaboration.

“Initially, we thought the synagogues would best connect them with the Jewish lifecycle traditions,” Perlman said. But many of these talented students delved deeper, as chronicled in their sketchbooks, which are part of the exhibition.

“Most of them started with one idea and ended with something else,” Perlman said. “At the end of the day, they all did something related to their roots.”

The exhibition of 13 bridal dresses, one henna ceremonial gown and one groom’s outfit reflect styles and traditions of Jewish communities in Yemen, Iraq, Turkey, Salonika, Spain, Poland, Germany, Morocco and Algiers. It was first debuted at the 2012 Tel Aviv Fashion Week and at an event of the Nadav Foundation, a Beit Hatfutsot supporter and cosponsor of the exhibition.

“There is nothing like this in the world,” Perlman said of the show, which opened in September.

Wedding gown by Chen Ariel Nachman, whose ancestors are from Greece. Photo ocurtesy of Israel21c

Tradition With a Modern Twist

In her sketchbook, Adi Bakshi explains that her crepe-and-organza creation copies the delicate woodcuts and thin silver cords on the oud and qanun, two traditional Middle Eastern stringed instruments that formed the soundtrack of her childhood in an Iraqi Jewish home.

Tiny horizontal silver beads are stitched in two lines down the bodice of Bakshi’s dress to evoke frets, while hand-cut leather insets join the front and back of the dress to mirror the woodcuts.

Delicate crochet embroidery incorporated into Hadar Brin’s voile gown evinces the meticulous scribal arts practiced by her great-grandfather in Poland, who hid a mezuzah upon the advent of World War II that was retrieved by her family 60 years later.

A replica of a wall of the El Transito Synagogue in Toledo, Spain, inspired Levi Shenhav.

“The synagogue’s design integrates elements from Islamic decorative art and from Christian painting styles, blended into Jewish traditional art and calligraphy. Together, these elements create stunning visual themes,” he writes. His white chiffon gown incorporates beaten copper leaves and flowers adorned with leather strips and light pearls, reminiscent of the synagogue’s structure.

Chen Ariel Nachman’s ancestors are from Thessaloniki, Greece, where Jewish women once adorned their heads with amulets embroidered with baroque pearls in the shape of the Tree of Life symbolizing the Torah and the cycle of life.

Twelfth-century wedding rings inspired this gown by Eyal Ran Meystal. Photo ocurtesy of Israel21c

“I tailored the gown from wrinkled chiffon embroidered with baroque pearls, lace and beads, sequin leather and ropes coiled with embroidery threads, reminiscent of the fringes adjoined to Jewish prayer shawls, wishing to create an organic and natural look,” he writes.

Twelfth-century German wedding rings in the shape of a house inspired Eyal Ron Meistal to incorporate the rings into the wedding gown he created.

“The gown borrows from the formal structure of the ring … tailored of wild silk embroidered with thread and beads with ornamentation borrowed from the ring. The silk organza strengthened with Plexiglas rods symbolizes the wedding canopy rods that adorn the bride’s veil.”

Shani Dahan and Shani Zimmerman together created a Moroccan-style bridal gown, henna dress and groom’s ensemble inspired by the Dahan family’s heirloom baby outfit used at circumcision ceremonies, as well as the traditional jalabiya robe used in the henna ceremony.

Perlman notes that the student designers used tradition as a springboard to design garments “with a modern twist.”

For example, Chen Meron fashioned a simple but revealing bridal gown inspired by the leather straps of the tefillin worn by Jewish men as a symbol of connecting to God and preserving Jewish identity through the trauma of the Holocaust that the Meron family survived.

Meron’s gown contrasts the masculine elements of tethering, binding and clasping the leather to the arms, with the feminine, flowing bridal gown tailored of heavy crepe fabric accented by pale leather straps embroidered with golden beads.

The Wedding Gown That Made History


Lilly Friedman doesn’t remember the last name of the woman who designed and sewed the wedding gown she wore when she walked down the aisle more than 60 years ago. But the grandmother of seven does recall that when she first told her fiancé Ludwig that she had always dreamed of being married in a white gown, he realized he had his work cut out for him.

For the tall, lanky 21-year-old who had survived hunger, disease and torture, this was a different kind of challenge. How was he ever going to find such a dress in Bergen-Belsen’s displaced person’s camp, where they felt grateful for the clothes on their backs?

Fate would intervene in the guise of a former German pilot who walked into the food distribution center where Ludwig worked, eager to make a trade for his worthless parachute. In exchange for two pounds of coffee beans and a couple of packs of cigarettes Friedman would have her wedding gown.

For two weeks Miriam the seamstress worked under the curious eyes of her fellow DPs, carefully fashioning the six parachute panels into a simple, long-sleeved gown with a rolled collar and a fitted waist that tied in the back with a bow. When the dress was completed she sewed the leftover material into a matching shirt for the groom.

Lilly Friedman
Lilly and Ludwig Friedman on
their wedding day, Jan. 27, 1946.

A white wedding gown may have seemed like a frivolous request in the surreal environment of the camps, but for Friedman the dress symbolized the innocent, normal life she and her family had once led before the world descended into madness. Friedman and her siblings were raised in a Torah-observant home in the small town of Zarica, Czechoslovakia, where her father was a melamed (teacher), respected and well liked by the young yeshiva students he taught in nearby Irsheva.

He and his two sons were marked for extermination immediately upon arriving at Auschwitz. For Friedman and her sisters it was only their first stop on their long journey of persecution, which included Plashof, Neustadt, Gross-Rosen and finally Bergen-Belsen.

Four hundred people marched 15 miles in the snow to the town of Celle on January 27, 1946, to attend Lilly and Ludwig’s wedding. The town synagogue, damaged and desecrated, had been lovingly renovated by the DPs with the meager materials available to them. When a sefer Torah arrived from England, they converted an old kitchen cabinet into a makeshift Aron Kodesh.

“My sisters and I lost everything. Our parents. Our two brothers. Our homes. The most important thing was to build a new home,” Friedman said.

Six months later, Friedman’s gown was in great demand. Her sister Ilona wore the dress when she married Max Traeger. After that came her cousin Rosie.

How many brides wore Friedman’s dress? “I stopped counting after 17,” she said.

Lilly Friedman
The three sisters are pictured with their
families standing in front of a cattle car
like the one used to transport them to Auschwitz.

When President Harry Truman finally permitted the 100,000 Jews who had been languishing in DP camps since the end of the war to emigrate in 1948, the gown accompanied Friedman across the ocean to America. Unable to part with her dress, it lay at the bottom of her bedroom closet for the next 50 years, “not even good enough for a garage sale. I was happy when it found such a good home.”

Home was the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

When Friedman’s niece, a volunteer, told museum officials about her aunt’s dress, they immediately recognized its historical significance and displayed the gown in a specially designed showcase, guaranteed to preserve it for 500 years.

But Friedman’s dress had one more journey to make — the Bergen-Belsen museum, which opened on Oct. 28, 2007. The German government invited Friedman and her sisters to be their guests for the grand opening. Although they initially declined the invitation, the family finally traveled to Hanover the following year with their children, their grandchildren and extended families to view the extraordinary exhibit created for the wedding dress made from a parachute.

Friedman’s family, who were all familiar with the stories about the wedding in Celle, were eager to visit the synagogue. They found the building had been completely renovated and modernized. But when they pulled aside the handsome curtain they were astounded to find that the Aron Kodesh, made from a kitchen cabinet, had remained untouched as a testament to the profound faith of the survivors. As Friedman stood on the bimah once again, she beckoned to her granddaughter, Jackie, to stand beside her where she was once a kallah (bride).

“It was an emotional trip. We cried a lot,” she said.

Two weeks later, the woman who had once stood trembling before the selective eyes of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele returned home and witnessed the marriage of her granddaughter.

The three Lax sisters, Lilly, Ilona and Eva, who together survived Auschwitz, a forced labor camp, a death march and Bergen-Belsen have remained close and today live within walking distance of each other in Brooklyn. As mere teenagers they managed to outwit and outlive a monstrous killing machine, then went on to marry, have children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and were ultimately honored by the country that had earmarked them for extinction.

As young brides, they had stood underneath the chuppah and recited the blessings that their ancestors had been saying for thousands of years. In doing so, they chose to honor the legacy of those who had perished by choosing life.

Helen Zegerman Schwimmer, the author of “Like The Stars of The Heavens,” is online at helenschwimmer.com.

 

The dress, the ring, the registry and the rest


Once upon a time, Teresa Strasser was The Jewish Journal’s award-winning singles columnist. Then she met Daniel. Next week the two will wed. In the series below, Strasser charts her journey from “I will” to “I do.” And we’re sure they’ll live happily ever after . . .

Two months after I met Daniel, we sat on his bed late at night and I said, “If we ever get married, let’s just go to city hall like Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Big weddings freak me out. I don’t like lots of people staring at me, I don’t like inconveniencing people because it’s ‘my special day,’ and I hate waste. The idea of spending $50,000 on a party is just no-can-do.”

He agreed on all fronts. We had a disgusting conversation about how we are truly soulmates. Recreating any part of that chat would be so cloying you would feel like you just snorted butter cream frosting off a wedding cake. Suffice to say, we were simpatico.

It was easy to talk big before we got engaged this past Valentine’s Day.

It turns out that parents, no matter how groovy and liberal (in my case), don’t love the idea of raising a daughter only to miss out on this rite of passage.

His parents lost their only daughter, Lynn, in a car accident 10 years ago. Could I rob them of this major milestone, after they missed out on so many by losing their child when she was only 30? Did I want to join his family with the clear communication that I’m a selfish badass too cool for a real wedding and, by the way, I’m stealing your son? I couldn’t say, “I don’t” to a communal “I do.”

We settled on a small ceremony, just 15 of us, at a casino chapel in Vegas. That feels right. Monroe and DiMaggio got divorced anyway.

With an actual wedding ceremony in the offing, I was going to have to wear something, and my anxiety about this was manifesting itself in a series of nightmares.

The one time I flipped through a bridal magazine, I saw an article called, “Ten Wedding Dresses Under $900.” Most of my cars have been under $900, and I don’t drive them for one day and convince myself my daughter will drive them again — for one day — in 30 years.

Brides persuade themselves, their tailors, their trainers and their pocketbooks that this must be the best they will ever look in their lives. This moment that is supposed to be about eternal union is more about capturing eternal beauty in a photo that’s going to be mounted in the living room so everyone can silently think, “Man, she used to be a lot thinner.”

What to wear was a small question compared to the larger quandary that was emerging: I wondered how we could include Lynn, Daniel’s sister, into our ceremony.

It’s not like anyone was going to not notice her absence, these big occasions being a time you most miss those who have passed. I was sure it was going to bring back memories of her wedding just a few years before she died. I struggled for a way to invite the sister-in-law I would never meet to her little brother’s wedding. I thought about the smashing of the glass (which they offer in Vegas for a few extra bucks, by the way) and how among myriad explanations for this tradition my favorite has always been that it’s important to remember sadness at the height of personal joy.

When I first started dating Daniel, I caught myself staring at framed pictures of his sister, looking regal and reserved, with Daniel’s eyes and nose. I knew they were very close, but Daniel, being similarly reserved, didn’t talk about her much.

This brings me back to the question of the gown.

Somehow, the idea of me wearing Lynn’s wedding dress came up in conversation. Daniel said his mother still had the gown, sitting in a box in her closet.

I didn’t want his family to be traumatized or freaked out by the idea, but when he ran it by them they were thrilled, and I felt so completely embraced. And that’s how it is that I agreed to wear a dress I had never seen, that was worn more than a decade ago.

When that giant package came in the mail, I wasn’t totally immune to bridal vanity. I said a silent prayer that I would look decent in the dress and that I would have no trouble squeezing into it. Daniel helped me step into his sister’s gown, a perfectly preserved ivory satin confection with a high neckline and two tasteful bows in back. It had dainty satin cuffs at the end of fragile mesh sleeves. Though she was taller, it fit almost perfectly with a pair of heels.

The trend in bridal gowns today is overtly sexy, conjuring images of someone standing behind a velvet rope rather than walking down an aisle.

From the pictures I’ve now seen, the conservative style suited Lynn perfectly, and it fits me somehow too. I might be the most out-of-style bride you will see this June wedding season, or maybe I’ll just look like a fashion renegade, or maybe I just don’t care, because my sister-in-law will be at my wedding in spirit, and satin and silk and bows.

Daniel and I don’t disagree on much, but he insists that wearing the dress was my idea. He’s wrong: I have a very clear memory of him asking me to wear her dress. We have joke fights about this all the time, but the truth is this: If it wasn’t his idea and it wasn’t mine, maybe it was hers.

Can Artwork Mend Fences?


Before the Beirut airport closed during Israel’s recent war with Hezbollah, a shipment of pillows, shawls and jackets sewn by Palestinian women living in Beirut refugee camps was sent off to Los Angeles’ Craft and Folk Art Museum.

These objects, all exquisitely ornamented, were destined to become part of the exhibition, “Sovereign Threads: A History of Palestinian Embroidery,” where they would share space with richly decorated fare dating from 1830 to the 1940s. The show opened last month as Israel fought Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas near the Gaza Strip border.

While images of bombed cities and wounded and suffering victims on all sides dominated the news, “Threads” offered a different window into the region: a rare opportunity to view Palestinian embroidery, considered among the finest in the world, in what is perhaps the first show of its kind in Los Angeles.

On display are gowns embellished with vivid crimsons and detailed geometrical designs, symbolizing a girl’s maturation and readiness for marriage (muted clothing is reserved for matrons).

A married woman’s headdress from 1930s Bethlehem sports a tall, conical cap studded with Ottoman coins, coral beads and silken embroidery — all connected to the delicate silver jewelry that was intended to hang over her dress.

Other gowns glow with wide swathes of multicolored, iridescent silk or cotton cloth, covered with stitching so vibrant it appears to undulate. The colors include magentas, oranges, reds and golds; the meticulous patterns resemble Cyprus trees, double-edged combs or acanthus leaves and cups (symbolizing health and happiness), among other designs. Five circles on chest pieces from the once-Christian city of Ramallah represent Jesus and the four Apostles.

Additional new works are for sale in the museum’s gift shop, with all proceeds to go toward human services in Palestinian refugee camps, museum director Maryna Hrushetska told The Journal.

“Threads” (which closes on Oct. 8) has proven so popular, she added, that museum attendance is up more than 25 percent. It’s the latest success for an official who has helped put her once-imperiled institution on the map on Wilshire Boulevard’s Museum Row, with well-received exhibitions, such as the current “Tigers and Jaguars: L.A.’s Asian-Latino Art Phenomenon” (through Oct. 29), which burst stereotypes about folk art. “Sovereign Threads” follows suit — but it weaves a story that may raise eyebrows for some in the Jewish community.While the show does not overtly refer to the recent fighting near the Gaza Strip, or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, it subtly but unmistakably depicts the conflict from the Palestinian point of view.

The exhibition begins with a map of the region that makes no mention of Israel (it notes “Palestinian subdivisions according to the British Mandate,” 1917-1948). A timeline in the show does not mention the ancient Israelite kingdoms, or the subsequent (and significant) Jewish presence in the Holy Land. Nor does it describe Arab offensives that precipitated at least two wars, as described by an analyst for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The omissions are significant, several analysts explained.

“All this effectively deligitimizes the historical Jewish presence in the land of Israel,” said Yehudit Barsky, director of the division on the Middle East and international terrorism for the American Jewish Committee.

Barsky added that one exhibition sponsor, the A.M. Qattan Foundation also funds organizations such as the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee and Orient House, “the symbol of Palestinian aspirations for autonomy and solidarity in Israeli Occupied Jerusalem,” according to the Web site, orienthouse.org.Even the title of the exhibition — and Hrushetska’s take on it — suggests it crosses cultural boundaries into the realm of advocacy for the Palestinians and their cause.

“The term ‘sovereign’ describes self-rule, autonomy, and independence — all still painfully absent for Palestinians in the political sphere,” Hrushetska wrote in the “Threads” brochure. “However, from a cultural perspective, the term takes on a more comprehensive meaning…. The costumes and embroidery on display are living records of Palestinian ‘cultural sovereignty’…. As they revive a culture in peril, the Palestinian women who create contemporary embroidery in refugee camps are also preserving their own imperiled dignity.”

When asked whether the show is biased, Hrushetska doesn’t entirely say no. She ties “Threads” to a continuing debate among curators over what has come to be called “the politics of representation”: Just who gets to tell a people’s story?The debate emerged in sharp focus when museums attempted to describe Native American history from a United States perspective some years ago, Hrushetska said.

“As a curatorial policy, if I’m going to show somebody’s culture, I will show it from their perspective — that’s the only authentic way,” Hrushetska said. “If we did a history of Israeli embroidery, how would the Jewish community feel if Palestinians narrated it?”

Hrushetska, who grew up in Chicago and is in her late 30s, is quick to acknowledge that she is an unconventional museum director. Her background is in international relations, not art history or museum management. She believes that most people mistakenly view folk art as “quaint, nostalgic or something their grandparents used to do.”

She wishes to help reframe traditional art in a contemporary, relevant light, while promoting cross-cultural understanding in Los Angeles and around the globe.

Yet such issues were far from her mind when she caught her first glimpse of Palestinian textiles 18 months ago, around the time she arrived at the museum. The setting was the ultramodern Venice home of 75-year-old artist Huguette Caland — daughter of Lebanon’s first president, Bishara al Khuri — who is known for her own artwork, as well as for opening her home to salons frequented by Los Angeles’ cultural community. In a corner of Caland’s vast studio, Hrushetska spotted a brown velvet chaise lounge covered with pillows embroidered by Palestinian women in Beirut refugee camps.

Hrushetska, a Ukrainian American who grew up in a house filled with her grandmother’s embroidery, immediately assumed the pillows were Ukrainian.”Even though I consider myself a globalist, I defaulted to my own heritage,” she said.

But she learned that her connection wasn’t completely off mark: Eastern Orthodox Christians (including Ukrainians) reportedly made pilgrimages to Bethlehem, via Ramallah, from the 15th century onward. Some purchased embroidery samples as souvenirs of the Holy Land, which later entered the visual language of Ukrainian decor.

Caland told Hrushetska her pillows were created in workshops sponsored by the Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps (best known by its Arabic language acronym, INAASH), a United Nations non-governmental organization co-founded by Caland in 1969. INAASH provides refugee women with embroidery materials so they can supplement their incomes through international sale of their handiwork, Caland said.

“Because I’m very sensitive to the plight of women in conflict and war, I decided we need to show this work,'” Hrushetska told The Journal. She believes the work deserves to be shown, as well, because “Palestinian embroidery and costumes are known as some of the most beautiful in the folk art world.”

Through Caland and other Arab American contacts, Hrushetska obtained funding for the exhibition (she declines to name the amount) and a curator, Hanan Karaman Munayyer, who has studied and collected Palestinian costumes (along with her husband, Farah) since 1987.

The exhibition concludes with a video depicting women sewing in an INAASH workshop: “Our financial situation is hardly bearable, that’s why we are working,” one participant says on camera.

“After six or seven hours, I can hardly hold the needle,” another woman says.The museum gift shop has already sold almost $15,000 worth of their handiwork, Hrushetska said; a number of items remain for sale, although the embroiderers ceased working during the recent fighting and were unable to send additional fare while the Beirut airport was closed. (It has now reopened.)

So how can prospective buyers be sure their money will not fund anti-Israel causes? Hrushetska responds that INAASH is recognized as a U.N.-sanctioned organization. (The group did sign onto a letter calling for the Palestinian right of return, according to the Web site administered by Al-Awda — The Palestinian Right of Return Coalition.)

When asked if “Threads” could be perceived as unfair, even irresponsible during a time when Israel is at war with Hamas and Hezbollah, Hrushetska emphasized that the show was conceived long before the current crisis.

“But enough of this,” she added. “I know the history of the region, and this and that U.N. resolution, and I’m tired of it. These conflicts will only diminish when we start to humanize each other…. I think that this is an important exhibition for people to see so they start to humanize Palestinians.

“This show is not about the history of blame,” she added. “It’s about recognizing the dire situation that these women are in, not making a judgment on how they got there. It’s saying, ‘These women deserve to be recognized, because they’ve created something beautiful and relevant.'”

A panel discussion, “Culture, Conflict and Identity,” in conjunction with the “Threads” exhibition, will take place Sept. 17 at the Goethe-Institute, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, Los Angeles. (323) 937-4230.