Spanish Work: Translating the Magnes Collection

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Friday September 21 2012

As if on an “autopilot” of sorts, I have been continuously adapting (and at times, translating) collection information created over the decades at The Magnes from a German-dominated view of Jewish life to a more, how can I say, ecumenical one. (That is to say, one that reflects a more current state of Jewish studies worldwide).

Many items in The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life were in fact described with German, or German-inspired, terms, and at times this was reflected in their catalog records.

Some of the German-influenced descriptors go back to the role of German Jews in the San Francisco Bay Area community. A name in the “Lilienthal Wimpel,” for example, appears in the embroidered Hebrew text of this beautiful ritual textile as “leyb” (Leon, in Yiddish and Judeo-German), but in all catalog records, acquisition files, and in the Lilienthal Family Record itself, the person that the name refers to is called “Loeb”‘ (Leon, in German). This is a reflection of the adaptation of Jewish culture (and Jewish names) to German-speaking culture in Germany and beyond at the time of the Emancipation.

Here is the wimpel (a textile used to bind the Torah Scrolls, inscribed in honor of a newborn male child):

"Lilienthal" Wimpel (Torah Binder) (Germany, 1814) [80.83_11]

Many more catalog records bear instead the influence of Ruth Eis, the founding Judaica Curator of the Judah L. Magnes Museum. Born in Germany, and educated under the cultural stream of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (the 19th-century critical approach to the study of Judaism and Jewish life). Ruth Eis’ most recent gift to the collection includes three wonderfully preserved East-European prayer shawl neckbands (called in Yiddish ‘atores, from the Hebrew ‘atarot), described by the curator-donor as Spanier Arbeit (understood as “Spanish work”) to indicate the special technique of weaving gold and silver thread used to create these ritual garments. These German words made me a bit more conscious of the labor of translation I have been semi-consciously performing over the years. They also sent me on a little quest.

In 1996, The Magnes devoted an exhibition to “Spanier Arbeit” weavings (see here). A quick online search for these words will immediately show that this is a unique case.
However, in the context of the study of Jewish life, this designation is nothing but the Germanization of a similar Yiddish expression, shpanyer arbet, used to indicate the very same technique.

One can read about shpanyer arbet in the fabulous YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, under the entries on “Dress” and, more specifically, “Shpanyer Arbet“. The information in the encyclopedia is excellent, and includes detailed explanations of the technical aspects of weaving that characterize the neckbands, as well as interesting ideas on the etymology of this Yiddish expression (does it really mean “from Spain”?).

The online collections of the Israel Museum include a few fine examples of shpanyer arbet prayer shawl neckbands (which can be found by searching for “prayer shaw,” “atara,” or “shpanyer arbet” via the oh so wonderful IMAGE Search Engine). None are available via the online search tools of the Jewish Museum in New York.

The catalog records of The Magnes collection list seven prayer shawls with neckbands made in this technique (but I am sure that there are more in the collection that were not described at all). In these records, the German expression was at times modified to accommodate English readers. It thus became “spanier work.” ;-)

[83-24-2] Tallit (Germany 1785-1950)

By addressing these records and changing the descriptive text, the prayer shawls in our collection will certainly become more “findable” to future researchers.

As a partial disclaimer, I should probably add that this quest has nothing to do with my last name (which means “Spanish” in Italian), even though I guess that we could agree on calling all of the above Spanish work

Francesco Spagnolo
‘erev shabbat shuvah 5773



  1. The English “prayer shawl” refers to the Hebrew tallit (pl. talitot) and to the Yiddish tales (pl. talesim); in colloquial American English, Jews often say tallis, a derivation from the Yiddish word tales, to refer to a prayer shawl;
  2. The English “neckband” refers to the Hebrew ‘atarah (pl. ‘atarot) and to the Yiddish atore (pl. atores).
Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • StumbleUpon
  • email
  • PDF

Filed under: Collections andExhibitions andResearch

2 Comments for 'Spanish Work: Translating the Magnes Collection'

    Jeremy Potash
    December 28, 2012 | 11:10 am

    I am concerned by Mr. Espagnola’s effort here (and perhaps elsewhere) to translate a well established Jewish object descriptor into what he describes as more ecumenical language because it is Germanic. In this case: the style of weaving described in the past at the Magnes and elsewhere as Spanier Arbeit. A simple translation of this as “Spanish work” does not suggest the nuances / characteristics of this particular style of uniquely Jewish weaving, long described as “spanier arbeit” or Yiddish equivalents. For example, please see (she also wrote the Yivo description with a somewhat conflicted tenor) or (the correct address for the Ita Aber article). I am certainly not a German or Yiddish expert or an expert in museum descriptors, but I watched and learned from Ruth Eis for four decades, observing her prodigious scholarship, her care to check and cross check and cross reference using international resources before she committed to the language of description. And when she didn’t know, she was the first to admit it.

    Finally, as this post suggests that spanier arbeit is difficult to find on line (viz. “In 1996, The Magnes devoted an exhibition to “Spanier Arbeit” weavings (see here). A quick online search for these words will immediately show that this is a unique case.”) and my own quick online research finds that there remains a lot of uncertainty about the craft — and a lot to learn for scholars — perhaps it would be useful to cover all bases:
    Spanier Arbeit/Shpanyer Macher/shpanyer arbet/“Spanish Work”.

    December 28, 2012 | 11:33 am

    Thank you, Jeremy Potash, for reading this post. Especially this week, when we all mourn Ruth Eis, who passed away just a few days ago. A page on the Magnes webside includes some video of her reminiscing about collecting for the Magnes, and is available here. Ruth’s legacy remains an essential building block of The Magnes Collection, to whom she and her family continued to contribute until the very last day, as my blog post .

    Let me reassure you immediately, though: you do not need to be concerned about the changing descriptors. The expression, “Spanish work,” was a pun (also on my own last name, “Spagnolo”–not “Espagnola”–which means “Spanish” in Italian…) used in the title of the post, and not the suggestion that “Spanier Arbeit” would be changed into “Spanish work.” Quite the opposite! Updated catalog descriptions will now include both “Spanier Arbeit” and the more accurate “shpanyer arbet.” The latter, which is the more commonly used Yiddish equivalent, was missing altogether from previous descriptions (along with “Spanier Arbeit”), and will now be included in all relevant records, placing the catalog of The Magnes in the excellent company of YIVO, the Israel Museum, and others.

    Bringing the catalog records back to Ruth’s descriptor (the German “Spanier Arbeit”), adding the Yiddish (“shpanyer arbet”) and eliminating the confusion generated by “Spanier work” is in fact a way to ensure that Ruth Eis’ scholarship continues to benefit the community of scholars that is now working with The Magnes Collection at UC Berkeley and beyond. (Follow the activities of the faculty and graduate student working group here).

    Francesco Spagnolo

Leave a comment



Information for comment users
Line and paragraph breaks are implemented automatically. Your e-mail address is never displayed. Please consider what you're posting.

Use the buttons below to customise your comment.

RSS feed for comments on this post |


Additional comments powered by BackType