The 14 students enrolled in an advanced-level bridal gown design course held their first day of classes at a rather unusual site: at Beit Hatfutsot – the Museum of the Jewish People’s permanent exhibit of synagogues from around the world.
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All third-year students at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, the students were given the following assignment: Choose one synagogue replica from the collection to serve as the inspiration for your year-end project.
“We decided to start out here in the museum,” says Ronen Levin, their instructor, “because we figured it would be a good way of connecting them to their own Jewish stories.”
The creations inspired by that visit will be on display in a special exhibit opening at Beit Hatfutsot on Wednesday titled “Here Comes the Bride,” which runs through April 2014. After that, the plan is to turn it into a traveling exhibit that will be showcased in Jewish museums around the world.
“The gowns, in a way, provided the alibi for telling the stories of many vanished Jewish communities,” says Neta Harel, from Beit Hatfutsot, who curated the exhibit together with Levin. “We saw this project as a way of preserving the Jewish story but, at the same time, making it part of the contemporary discourse.”
The once thriving Jewish communities of Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, Turkey, Greece, and Spain are all represented in the exhibit, as are those of Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Czechoslovakia.
The show includes 13 bridal gowns, a dress for the traditional pre-wedding henna ceremony and a groom’s suit. Each display also includes a glass showcase that contains the sketches, photographs and fabric samples that inspired the creations, which span the gamut of “wearable attire to conceptual art,” as Harel notes.
It marks a first-time collaboration between the museum and the school of design; the project was initiated by the Israel Friends of Beit Hatfutsot as part of its ongoing effort to draw younger crowds to its premises.
After their initial visit to the museum, the fashion design students were instructed to go home, collect their family stories, poke around their attics for artifacts and old photos, and start drawing some sketches, bearing in mind the architectural themes of the synagogue replicas they had chosen.
Many of the creations were clearly influenced more by personal family stories and cultural traditions than by the synagogues. The bridal gown design by Adi Bakshi, for example, draws inspiration from two musical instruments – the oud and the kanun – used in Iraq, where her family once lived. Oriental-style woodcuts with thin silver chords are used as decorative elements in her organza bridal gown, which is embroidered with beads and hand-cut leather.
Hadar Brin’s family came from the city of Lodz in Poland, where as she recently learned, her late grandfather had removed the mezuzah at the entrance to their home during the Holocaust, hidden it inside the wall of their apartment, and later brought it with him to Israel. The bridal gown she designed incorporates the motif of the mezuzah and the Jewish art form of microcalligraphy, which uses tiny Hebrew letters reminiscent of those appearing in the parchment contained inside the mezuzah, to form representational, geometric and abstract designs.
Yael Geisler came up with her idea while rummaging through her Turkish-born grandmother’s dowry chest containing tablecloths, napkins, linens and silverware. In the accompanying explanation to her exhibit, Geisler writes: “My grandmother’s home in Izmir had previously been a synagogue. After immigrating to Israel with my grandfather, the house was demolished and all the memories were lost. The dowry chest is a testimony to a lifetime lost.” Made of satin fabric, her bridal gown incorporates delicate gold lace and hand-embroidered Oriental motifs.
While doing research on his family roots in Thessaloniki, Greece, Chen Ariel learned that the tree of life was a common motif of Jewish artwork and jewelry in that community. The gown he designed from wrinkled chiffon, embroidered with lace and pearls has an intricately designed replica of the tree of life emerging from its mid-section.
Chen Meron drew her inspiration from the Jewish tradition of laying tefillin as a symbol of man’s connection with God. “As a person who was brought up in a family of Holocaust survivors, originally from Poland and Czechoslovakia, I was always preoccupied with the question: How were my people able to preserve their Jewish identity in the Diaspora,” she writes in the accompanying explanation. “In designing this gown, I chose to contrast the very masculine tefillin-laying ceremony, which includes elements of tethering, binding and clasping the leather to the arms, and the bridal gown, a symbol of femininity that I designed as a tallit, a prayer shawl flowing with the grace and elegance of a royal cloak.” The gown, made of heavy crepe, is adorned with pale leather straps embroidered with golden beads that evoke tefillin.
For Maya Leibovitch, the bridal gown design project provided a way of telling the story of her grandmother, who after surviving the Holocaust, journeyed through a host of countries, beginning with Ukraine and eventually ending up in Israel in the 1970s. Leibovitch’s gown, crafted from silk chiffon, makes use of a traditional Ukrainian shirt, decorated with black-and-white embroidery. To symbolize the many winters her grandmother spent in the colder parts of Europe, she attached an applique of fur to the back of the dress.
Other gowns featured in the exhibit, however, draw their inspiration from broader Jewish themes rather than personal family stories. Levi Shenhav, for example, was so taken by the replica of the El Transito Synagogue in Toledo, Spain, which he discovered on that first visit to the museum, that he used its architectural design as a motif in his white chiffon gown, which incorporates leaves and flowers made of beaten copper. The mythological character Leah’le from “The Dybbuk,” played by legendary Israeli actress Hanna Rovina, served as the muse for Mor Kfir’s Victorian-style bridal gown made from lace interwoven with braided threads and silk chiffon.
And at least one student couldn’t resist injecting some self-deprecating humor into her piece. Dafi Albi’s bridal gown drew on the life stories of her grandmother and five of her grandmother’s sisters -- “young, pretty and educated women who lived in Warsaw prior to World War II,” according to the accompanying explanation. Tailored from brocade cloth, it evokes the elegant fashions of Europe in the first half of the 20th century. The crocheted embroidery on the dress, writes Albi, was inspired by the embroidered napkins displayed on furniture around her grandmother’s home, in what she describes as “a wink toward the humorous stereotype of the Jewish-Polish woman’s character.”