The external appearance of Jews throughout the world evinces the constant tension between segregation and integration that has always characterized Jewish existence in the Diaspora. While Jewish law does not dictate an entire dress code, and Jews’ attire along the centuries was similar to that of the local population, some distinctive marks can be discerned in their clothing, such as the tzitzit (tassels attached to the corners of one’s garment as prescribed in the Bible) or the use of Hebrew script. In many Islamic countries from the eighth century on, and later in Christian Europe until the modern era, Jews had to be recognized by their external appearance, and governmental restrictive decrees were issued in order to maintain this distinction.
The ensembles of dress and jewelry on view here communicate collective as well as individual affiliations, thus offering a glimpse into a rich array of identities while touching upon such complex issues as segregation, intercultural relations, modesty, and modernization. Nevertheless, we have chosen to display the costumes and jewelry in separate galleries in order to stress the great extent of craftsmanship that went into their making.
The Israel Museum’s collection of Jewish dress and jewelry – one of the richest and most extensive in the world – was assembled over decades of field research conducted among the various communities. The bulk of the collection consists of costumes worn by Jews in Muslim lands from the late 19th until the middle of the 20th century, and represents a link to numerous communities, some of which are now extinct or greatly diminished. With the annihilation of many European Jewish communities during the Holocaust, it became almost impossible to research and collect clothes and jewelry from these communities. Modernization processes in the west and in the east eventually led to the disappearance of traditional dress.