November 13, 2018

A Fringe of Her Own: An Interview with Tamar Paley

Editor’s Note: Judith Rosenbaum, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, interviewed Tamar Paley, an Israeli artist and jewelry designer, about her project, A Fringe of Her Own: A Collection of Ritual Objects for Women currently on view at the Kniznick Gallery at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute in Waltham, Massachusetts.Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Women’s Archive. You can read the original article in its entirety here.

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in Jerusalem in a very progressive community. As a teen, I began to understand that my experience was unusual. The fact that I had a bat mitzvah in which I read from the Torah and made my own tallit––these were not things that other girls were doing. For my friends and me, the uniqueness of our experience as Progressive Jews in Israel became a big part of our identities.

Ever since high school, Judaism has been part of my art. I was an art major in high school and even then, I would be creating pieces and suddenly incorporating all kinds of biblical verses. When I started to study jewelry design, I kind of kept my religious identity on the down low. My school, Shankar, is a very secular, liberal, artsy place where we just didn’t talk about Judaism.

As I was approaching my final year of school and starting to think about my thesis project, I decided I wanted to use this opportunity to say something about issues that matter to me. And it just hit me: I’m going to make ritual objects for women. I’d get to talk about feminism and women’s issues and religious pluralism, and I’d do it through objects that connect to the body. That tied together everything I’d been studying about jewelry design and using different materials and Jewish text and all these things that I love. It was just perfect.

Some of my teachers, though, were surprised. They said, “Oh, you’re religious? How did we not know that? And if you’re not religious, why do you care about ritual objects?” I explained that these are issues that I think about and care about a lot. I’m not religious in the way that they understand that identity, but I do feel deeply connected to Judaism––it’s a big part of my life. It felt like I was coming out as a Progressive Jewish woman.

How do you understand the relationship between jewelry and ritual objects?

I like the connection between ritual objects and silversmithing. It goes way back––kiddush cups and candlesticks and menorahs and all that. So the craft within this field of ritual objects has always been there. But the objects that I chose to work with were mainly those that you wear: tallit (prayer shawl), tzizit (ritual fringes), and tefillin (phylacteries). I chose these pieces because they are the most controversial for women. The ritual objects that we use in the home are a little less gendered and more widely used among women. But we still have a hard time with the ones that are worn in public and on the body. And that really tied in with jewelry: how does this object that I choose to wear affect me and how I am choosing to present myself? How can I wear it and where can I wear it?

"CHEST TEFILLIN"

Silver 925, Lucite, Printed textile, gold foil, printed parchment. Photographed by Ya Studio – Yasmin & Arye Photographers

 

From a technical perspective, I took apart these ritual objects and rebuilt them to be modern and desirable––something that a woman would see and want to wear. I wanted to take away the controversy surrounding these objects. For me personally––even as a woman who grew up in a really progressive environment––I have a hard time wearing a kippah or putting on tefillin, so I wanted to understand my own discomfort and offer some alternatives.

What was your process in creating the objects?

I started from the conceptual: if women had a say in the creation of these ritual objects, how would they look and feel? I began by trying to figure out how women around me today are experiencing their spirituality. And as a jewelry designer, I was also thinking about how this material feels on the body, where it is worn, what are the gestures that come with wearing this object.

I wanted to give a voice to all the different ways that women in my life are experiencing their Judaism. And I wanted to reevaluate what these objects mean and find out what’s relevant about them. So I sent out a questionnaire of ten questions to women in my network. I tried to get as wide a range of answers as possible. Receiving their responses was amazing! I was so overwhelmed and moved by everything these women wrote. The biggest takeaway was that many women experience their Judaism in a private, inner way. I asked the question “If you could create a ritual object for yourself, what would it be?” A lot of women said it would be something they could keep private or expose at their will. So that’s why I started to create containers for the texts, and to focus on inner parts of the body, like the inner arm. For example, on the tallit piece ––where the text of the atara (the collar) is usually on the outside, in my piece it’s on the inside. I also played with typography so that the text wouldn’t be immediately legible.

All the texts that I use are pieces that women sent to me. Many are texts about gratitude and thankfulness, and also a lot of texts about guarding or protecting––which is really interesting considering the rise of #MeToo. It was also important to me to change all the text into language that was gendered feminine.

I thought a lot about the material, too. I searched for sources that dictated the requirements for the materials of ritual objects––you know, that would say, “this needs to be made out of leather” and have these specific dimensions. But I didn’t find many of those. The original texts say things like “it should be a sign on your hand and a sign between your eyes” but we don’t necessarily have more guidelines for what it should look like. So that gave me permission to make changes. Maybe leather straps aren’t relevant anymore, in a time when not everyone is comfortable wearing leather.

Am I changing the essence of these ritual objects by changing their form? Can I feel more comfortable with the meaning of an object just by redesigning it? These were the questions I asked myself as a designer. Maybe if I altered the shape or the material, I could allow someone to reconnect with these objects. It may sound kitschy, but I believe I can make social change through my design.

To continue reading, click here.

“A Fringe of Her Own” is on exhibit at the Kniznick Gallery at Brandeis through June 22, 2018

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