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The Stories Our Textiles Tell

On faith, family, and fabric.

A red and white scarf textile with Hebrew text
An 18th century tablecloth from the Yeshiva University Museum’s “Uncommon Threads” exhibit.
Photo: Yeshiva University Museum

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In December 1941, on the last night of Hanukkah, soldiers under the orders of Nazi Germany invaded Zabaltov, the Polish shtetl my grandparents lived in. My grandmother, then 26, escaped mass shootings by hiding under her bed for a few days and then fleeing to the streets. She bumped into another survivor from her town — a stranger, really — who would later become her husband, and my grandfather. The pair was eventually found by a Polish farmer, who hid them and ten others in a pit inside his barn.

The Jews in hiding would come out briefly during nightfall, and the stronger ones, like my grandfather, would gather food. My grandfather would wrap my grandmother’s portion in a dark green scarf and pass it down to her gently. Years later, after they were married and had immigrated to Brooklyn, my grandmother would continue to cherish that scarf, using it only on Friday nights to cover her hair when lighting Shabbat candles. After she died in 2004, the scarf was passed down to her youngest daughter.

While my aunt is the rightful inheritor of the scarf, my sisters and I fantasize about owning it one day and using it for our own religious rituals. I can vividly recall one heated Shabbat meal where we explained to our father how much it meant to us. Yes, it’s “just a piece of material,” we conceded, but our family’s story is entangled in its fibers.

As special as that green scarf is to my family, there are so many sacred garments woven into our faith. Religion might come from a place on high, but it is carried out in an earthly manner, which is why rituals are often accompanied by beautiful material objects. It’s why the musallah, the Muslim prayer mat, is richly embroidered with Islamic symbols; it’s why the ceremonial clothing worn in Mormon temples must be white; it’s why Catholic priests wear brightly colored vestments, each hue corresponding to the season’s liturgical color.

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, having recently visited Yeshiva University Museum’s exhibit Uncommon Threads, which is on view through April and features a glorious array of exquisite clothing and textiles from Jewish life. There’s a delicate lace circumcision gown from 1898, a regal 19th century wedding dress from Turkey made of maroon Ottoman velvet and adorned with silver thread, a silk matzah cover from the Hasidic region of Galicia.

On the surface, these pieces seem purely practical, like my grandmother’s green scarf. But they have a life of their own; this is why we care so much for them in the first place. They simultaneously retain external beauty and tell a deeper story of love, faith, and devotion. “Jews have always attached great meaning to garments and textiles,” Bonni-Dara Michaels, the museum’s collections curator, told me. “These bring the Jewish past vividly alive.” By using and preserving these objects, their memories live on.