Israel Museum Opens Women’s Gallery

Twenty-five years after the Israel Museum of Jerusalem brought the Vittorio Veneto Synagogue to its premises, the museum staff has finally utilized the previously closed women’s gallery to house its first permanent exhibit of women’s Judaica. Officially opened in April of this year, “A Woman of Valor” features ceremonial objects, books, manuscripts, textiles and paintings. The collection reflects the role of the women in Judaism: their contributions to communal life, women’s literature and personal religious duties.

The exhibit is the brainchild of an entire cast of women. Sponsored by Rella Feldman and family in memory of Isar Levenstein, The Israel Museum Skirball Department of Judaica organized the project through the efforts of associate curator Daisy Raccah-Djiure, exhibition supervisor Iris Fish of and intern Tami Shadhi. There are no men serving in the administration of the Judaica Department.

In general, the exhibit seeks to portray aspects of both public and private lives of Jewish women and their love of Judaism in an attempt to remove the popular belief that Jewish women were historically only active at home caring for their families. The displays feature, for example, numerous ceremonial objects commissioned by women such as alms boxes, torah crowns, mantels, and finials, together with siddurim (prayer books), books of techinot (supplications) and the tzena u’rena (expanded Yiddish versions of the weekly Torah portions).

Also on view is the will of one Yemenite woman, Simhah daughter of David Siani, instructing that upon her death, her jewels are to be used to commission a new sefer torah to be donated to her synagogue. Museum visitors also see examples of the special attention Jewish women world over have given to Shabbat and holiday items such as tablecloths, candlesticks and even articles of clothing like the silk and velvet bonnet of a 19th century American Jewish woman. Of particular interest is a miniature keys casket, designed as a wedding present in 16th century Italy. The work, considered a Judaica masterpiece, depicts the women’s mitzvot (commandments) of challah, niddah, and hadlakat nerot — the separating of a portion of bread in remembrance of the sacrifices in the Temple, maintaining the laws of ritual purity, and lighting Shabbat and holiday candles, respectively.

Although the exhibit is quite small, due to the limitations of the size of the women’s gallery, it is a fair representation of women. Since the synagogue is no longer used for prayer services — in fact, it is filled with the sounds of baroque period music — it is easily accessible to both men and women through an external staircase leading to the lobby before the main synagogue doors. Along with the wide assortment of museum pieces are several photographs showing North American women clothed in ritual garments conducting a torah service. A woman’s kippah (skullcap), lent by Rabbi Shoshana Laemmle, is displayed beside the rabbinic s’micha (ordination) certificate of Hebrew Union College 1985 graduate Rabbi Karyn D. Keoar. According to Raccah-Djiure, the museum staff “felt obligated to remind the public that change has occurred and is happening now. Today things once forbidden are possible!’

Highlights of the exhibit also include unusual pieces demonstrating little known facts of the Jewish women’s experience. It is not common knowledge, for instance, that European community leaders endorsed Jewish women to serve as shochetot (ritual slaughterers). One of the “jewels in the crown” of the exhibit, tells Raccah-Djiure, is the slaughtering certificate of Bella Donna Gallichi, dated 1684 in Sienna, Italy. “We can assume that granting women this right was common practice in Italy, but it is not well documented’,’ states Raccah-Djiure. The 1890 certificate of Elvira Finzi reveals that the practice continued until recent times.

“The challenge of the exhibit is that it is very small’,’ adds Raccah-Djiure, “but it opens a way to emphasize the importance of the activities of Jewish women!