A treasury of sacred cloth

By Simon Rocker, November 20, 2008
An 18th-century circumsion jacket

An 18th-century circumsion jacket

When you think of prize Judaica, what probably comes to mind are antique books or the silver bells and breastplates that adorn a Sefer Torah. But a new Jewish Museum exhibition that has just opened in London features another type of religious artistry - the mantles in which the Torah is dressed.

Some of the "sacred textiles" that have been in the possession of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation for three centuries have gone on display at the historic Bevis Marks Synagogue in the East End.

Apart from the mantles - or cloaks, as they are known among the Sephardi community - there are other fabric pieces such as mappot, which are used to cover the scroll during interludes between reading, or a gilded linen jacket believed to have worn by the Reverend David de Sola at his circumcision at the end of the 18th century.

Some exhibits, which had lain fading in the dark for many years, are now being shown for the first time since conservation. "We have had to raise a lot of money to have the work done by professional conservators," said Estelle Levy, a member of the congregation's vestments committee who has herself produced embroidered mantles for the community. "The livery companies have been very generous to us because they see it as part of the heritage of the city."

Although some of the congregation's more than 100 antique pieces are now beyond repair, the conservators still have "plenty more to do," she says.

Some of the ornate mantles are enormous, resembling ballgowns that have been cut off at the waist. In their silk finery, they are splendid examples of hiddur mitzvah, the concept of beautifying a ritual object.
One mantle, donated to Ramsgate Synagogue in 1833, was made from the wedding dress of Judith, Lady Montefiore, wife of Sir Moses. The gift was apparently in gratitude to God for her marriage.

Another mantle bears the initials of Moses Lopez Pereira, the first Baron Aguilar, who grew up in a family descended from conversos (forced converts to Christianity) but who reverted to Judaism in Vienna in 1722. He came to London with his 14 children in 1757.

A decorated tefillin bag has special interest For Bevis Marks curator, Maurice Bitton: it has been handed down through his family from 18th century Morocco. "Every boy in the Bitton family," he said, "has used it on his barmitzvah down the generations."

Hidden Treasures, Sacred Textiles is open until mid-March from 11 am to 1pm on weekdays, and 10.30 am to 12.30pm Sundays

Last updated: 2:32pm, November 27 2008