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):
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.” ;-)
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…
‘erev shabbat shuvah 5773
- 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;
- The English “neckband” refers to the Hebrew ‘atarah (pl. ‘atarot) and to the Yiddish atore (pl. atores).