By Shelley A. Sackett
MARCH 29, 2018 – Two summers ago, Tamar Paley started thinking about what she wanted to focus on for her senior thesis project at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan.
As one whose work is inspired as much by her own life and opinions as by form and materials, she decided to use the thesis platform as a way to bring attention to two matters she cares strongly about – feminism and gender inequality – and the “non-recognition of progressive Judaism from Israeli authorities,” the 26-year-old said by email from Tel Aviv.
Paley came up with the idea to create feminine Jewish ritual items based on but totally different from those traditionally reserved for men, including tefillin, tzitzit, and tallit. Her collection, “A Fringe of Her Own,” calls on her talent for jewelry making with delicate, inventive, and exquisite pieces specifically for women.
Soon after finishing her studies, she ran across an open call for the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s artist-in-residence program and submitted her work for consideration. She was selected from 30 applicants, and “A Fringe of Her Own” is now on display at HBI’s Kniznick Gallery at the Women’s Studies Research Center in Waltham through June. This is Paley’s first solo show and the first US exhibition of her work.
Initially, her peers and professors at Shenkar were unenthusiastic about her proposal. “This is not ‘mainstream’ in Israel and more than that, it is a subject of deep controversy that has led to confusion and identity questions,” she said. Once she explained what she wanted to do and why, “they got it. The support was amazing and opened up a new realm of discussion beyond design and into worlds of faith and femininity.”
Growing up in a reform/progressive Jewish community, Paley was part of a group that accepted women as religiously equal to men when it came to participating in what mainstream Israeli Judaism considers exclusively male.
“In Israel, everything is political, so women wearing a tallit or using tefillin feels like a very bold statement, sometimes even scary and uncomfortable,” she said.
Even among other progressive Israeli women, using and seeing tallit and tefillin on women doesn’t always feel natural. “They still feel like they culturally belong to men,” Paley said.
At Brandeis, her bold, innovative work was welcome.
The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s mission is to support “fresh ways of thinking about Jews and gender world-wise,” and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, Shulamit Reinharz director of the institute.
“We are excited by the challenging beauty of her work and by the role that dialogue with women in the progressive movements in Israel played in her design process,” Joffe added, noting Paley will continue that conversation with women in the region through lectures and workshops.
The groundbreaking exhibit builds on Paley’s belief that jewelry can make a strong social statement while reflecting beauty and aesthetics. She deconstructs traditional patriarchal Jewish ritual objects and redesigns them to reflect a feminine consciousness using material such as German silver, handwoven textiles, found objects, gold foil, printed parchment, Lucite, and printed silk.
The results are breathtaking in their symbolism, feminine energy, and exceptional craftsmanship. The combination of graceful silverwork, delicate fringe, and carefully chosen snippets of text against a backdrop of elegant yet bold blue textile creates wearable objects with religious and spiritual significance and beauty.
“A Fringe of Her Own” garnered Paley a prestigious American-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship. She also presented the collection at the world-renowned Marzee International Graduation Show in the Netherlands.
Joffe hopes visitors take away awareness that Israeli women are part of a vibrant art scene that is exploring contemporary issues of Jewish identity. Paley hopes for something a little deeper.
“I want attendees to leave with the notion that religion is in our hands, literally, and it is our responsibility to design and reflect our needs and beliefs,” she said. “I hope I can be a voice for some women out there, at least hopefully the friends I grew up with, and that this will encourage them to be proud of who they are and to fight for what they believe in.”
The Kniznick Gallery is located on the Brandeis University campus in the Epstein Building, 515 South St., Waltham. The exhibit is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with special weekend hours April 15 and 22. For more information, visit brandeis.edu/hbi/arts.