A Jewishing Cloth: Torah Binder Revisited
PhD thesis abstract

Goldsmiths, School of Design
Supervisors: Prof. Janis Jefferies, Terry Rosenberg

The thesis investigates 19th century circumcision binder or “Jewishing cloth” from Germany, ceremonial Torah scroll wrapping, which documented male births. Images on the seams of those artefacts are addressed as identity reflections, providing an example of 1836 embroidered binder from Bavaria. Beyond their technical aspect, the seams acted as a marginal and transitional territory less burdened with the traditional figurative schemes common in binders. Those embroideries consciously play around with conventional image of a tree of life, transposing the concern with life, birth and fertility into a concern with a cultural identity in the wake of Jewish emancipation.

Concentration on a single artefact aims to chart its “biography”, wherein its “original” status, ritual function and relating aesthetic conception are juxtaposed with its contemporary status as a museum artefact. Critical reflection suggests that museal staging depoliticised the binder, refusing to recognize its contemporaneous position, ignoring its singularity as a contradictory and non-univocal repository of modern Jewish identity hi/stories beyond, if related to, maleness and religion. Through this reflection I expand on the contemporary resonance of Torah binders, when they are used as a reference in textile art-practices investigating binders’ history and making. The general framework for this investigation is appropriation of traditional textile formats in contemporary textile practices, which makes way for “re-actualisation” or re-politicising of artefacts, opening an “extended field” of critique directed towards the museum, as well as towards the social and political domains that shape it.

At the same time and in relation to the museum, this move is also directed towards exploration and critique of solidified categories within contemporary art itself especially in its attitudes to dubious and gender-loaded domains such as craft and textiles. In the thesis those concerns are positioned in the Israeli art context and reflected through my own textile practice and a “biographical” account of it. Through its practice-based and written components this investigation simultaneously reflects upon and inspires creation of new works, where contemporary female hi/stories of Jewishness in Israel are staged as embodied autobiographies, interplaying text and stitch. In this way the thesis, alongside its contribution to the history of Jewish textiles and contemporary textile practice, aims to unfold intertwined and interrelated “biographies” of research and textile practice.

Conceptually, the constantly shifting and twining position of cloth in between the historical and the contemporary accounts, in between practice and research in the thesis, is addressed through the figure of Derridean subjectile. Halfway between rightful object and raw material cloth oscillates in its function and in the way it works. In this oscillation cloth vacates its “intrinsic” position, making up a stage for identities other than her own, identities which nevertheless remain hooked into, encoded into the cloth’s structure. A seemingly vacant stage, a figure of presupposed absence, enables for singular, shifting and changeable, prothean presences to surface and dissolve on both sides of the cloth.

Torah binder:
Torah binder is a long and narrow (up to 3.5 m. to 20 cm) cloth band which wraps the Torah scroll to prevent its unrolling, when the scroll is not in use. Binders from German-speaking European communities were used to be made from a cloth or a swaddling band that covered or furnished underneath the male child during the circumcision ceremony (earliest surviving sample is from 1659). It is often said that the cloth could carry a spot of blood or absorb urine, hence its Hebrew name of “Tora’s nappy”. After the ceremony, the cloth was torn into four stripes, sewn together and embroidered or painted with names of the child and his father, date of birth and a blessing recited during the circumcision ceremony, stating: ”May God bring him to Huppah (wedding), Torah (sacred learning) and good deeds, amen, selah”. The inscription has often been written on the cloth by a local scribe. The binder was donated to the synagogue on the boys’ first visitation, sometimes between one and three years of age.

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