Photos by Richard McBee.
Ita Aber: A Jewish Woman’s Life in Art
By Richard McBee
Ita Aber presents an enviable paradigm for the late 20th century Jewish artist. Driven by curiosity, intelligence and good fortune, she has worked tirelessly over her sixty-year career in nurturing three invaluable foundations of a Jewish artist: A deep and abiding love of Judaism, a fascination with Jewish history and a devotion to the heritage of Jewish art itself. They continue to be the cornerstones of her creativity.
Blessed by providence to enter the world as a child of polyglot immigrant family, her home life provided an extremely diverse childhood. Her parents arrived in Montreal as young children in the first decade of the 20th century. Her father’s mother, originally from Turkey, had taught embroidery to the children of Romanian royalty. From this grandmother alone, Mindel, Ita’s fate was cast. Her mother’s father had worked his plum orchard in Poland to produce Slivovitz and ended up quite successful trading in metals in Montreal, hence her mother grew up as a privileged daughter of a wealthy family. The common denominator on both sides of Ita’s family was a hands-on creativity and drive to be successful in the New World. Moreover, their Montreal neighborhood was a melting pot of the Jewish diaspora, widely diverse specimens from far-flung Jewish communities, all living side by side in relative harmony. Diversity, leisure and entitlement proved to be extremely fruitful for abundant art-making.
English, Hebrew, Yiddish and French were the home languages that Ita learned to think and dream in. The Montreal Hebrew Academy in the 1940’s exposed her to the basics of Torah learning including the Talmud that was taught to boys and girls alike. Her childhood Jewish education became a passport to the myriad world of Jewish ideas and practice that fueled her artwork for decades to come.
The Baron Byng High School, full of bright Jewish kids, became the nurturing garden of her art education when Ann Savage, teacher and well-known Canadian artist, took her out of Latin class to teach her printmaking and other art-making techniques. After high school her professional education came in equal parts from college-level courses, life experience and years of apprenticeships with masters in her many interests.
Many women married and had children in the 1950’s and did not go to college. So too Aber. Only later did she finally get an undergraduate degree at Empire State College, State University of New York, specializing in individualized courses of study perfect for her multifaceted interests. Aber was inextricably drawn to the textile arts and, therefore, while her children were growing she took a wide array of courses in Jewish history, archaeology, art and textile conservation at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. The Institute of Fine Art – New York University was another place she studied textile conservation, not to mention her studies with the highly respected Cora Ginsburg uptown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ginsberg was a particularly important teacher since she was a “pioneer authority, collector, and dealer of antique costumes and textiles. She was so important that today every public collection of costumes or textiles features something from her. In the 1920’s when she started in the field, antique textiles were seen as mere accessories to decoration.” Because of her influence “textiles are now understood as important artifacts in all cultures and often one of the primary ways of understanding the lives of individuals whose history did not become recorded, particularly women.”  From Aber’s subsequent work it is obvious how much of an influence this teacher had on her.
In these years she studied with a broad range of scholars, all of them masters in their fields, including: Rachel Wischnitzer for ancient synagogues; Bezalel Narkiss for history of Jewish art, Yom Tov Assis for Jewish history, Shalom Sabar for ethnography, Mayer Rabinowitz for Jewish history and Gabrielle Sed-Rajna for Jewish art history.
Initially her stint at the Hudson River Museum as curator of decorative arts from 1969 -1971 satisfied her interest in decorative art. But then upon seeing the general disarray of textile materials there and in other institutions she decided something had to be done about it. She organized the textile study room at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1972, and subsequently served as a guest curator there in 1976 while teaching Judaic needlework in the Museum for 10 years.
As adjunct curator of collections at Park Avenue Synagogue, New York from 1980-2003; curator at Hebrew Home for the Aged, Riverdale, New York from 1989-1994, and a member of the advisory board of the Museum, Hebrew Home in Riverdale, New York until the present she continues to make the preservation and presentation of Judaic textiles her life-long educational crusade.
Over the years she has mastered the interdisciplinary field of creating fabric art. Her abilities include the diverse skills of embroidering, beadwork, sewing, appliqué, silkscreen, jewelry design, weaving, painting, sculpture and assemblage. The range of her talents is reflected in the wide array of artwork and Judaic objects she has produced. From wall hangings, jewelry and sculpture to Torah & matzoh covers, beaded mezuzah cases, Miriam Cups, ethrog boxes and Purim masks, there is practically no area of Judaica or three dimensional art missing in her career. Reflecting the range and quality of her work, Aber’s artworks are included in the collections of The Brooklyn Museum, Yeshiva University Museum, The Jewish Museum, New York, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Museum of Art and Design, New York, the Newark Museum, Smithsonian Institute and the Israel Museum. Her experience as a conservator, art historian, curator and teacher was early evidenced in her 1979 book The Art of Judaic Needlework: Traditional and Contemporary Designs (Scribner).
The Art of Judaic Needlework
While at first glance The Art of Judaic Needlework looks like how-to-do-craft manual, it is in fact a much richer cultural textbook. Setting out the history of Jewish textiles from Biblical texts, antiquity, the Middle Ages to contemporary times, Aber creates a sweeping context for individual and community projects as well as holiday-specific art and Judaic textile works. Examples of historic fabric art as well as contemporary fabric works, including her own, are reproduced at each juncture appropriate to the projects to further inform and inspire those interested in Judaic needlework. This textbook offers a vital option to Jewish men and women who wish to use fabric art to express themselves, adorn and/or create ritual objects, and create communal ritual objects rather than depend upon generically designed machine-made Judaica. It gives Jews the tools to build their communities by being visually creative in the living context of their Judaism and simultaneously connect to a 3,000 year old tradition.
For Aber the history and traditions of Jewish art are paramount. She believes they firmly ground the artist in the creative ways and means of the Jewish people and empower the artist to fully explore their own creativity in the context of what has gone before. To help further that goal she was the founder of the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework at her dinning room table in 1976. The Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Textiles, Toronto is an offshoot of the original organization.
Her early sensitivity to Jewish history, filtered through a feminist perspective, led to Aber’s assertion in the 1970’s that in the ancient Roman world observant Jews distinguished their clothing by gender signs. Since the commonly worn pallium was a unisex cloak this became necessary because of the Biblical prohibition (Deuteronomy 22:5) of a man wearing a woman’s garment and vice-versa. The Jews marked the women’s garment with the Greek letter gamma and the men’s garments with an eta to make this clear. This distinction was noted by Yigael Yadin in fragments of clothing found at Masada (73 CE) on the skeleton of a woman. There he found 37 different colors of stripes on the garments but concluded that the gendered garments were distinguished by these respective Greek letters. The clearest examples of ancient gendered clothing is seen in the synagogue murals at Dura Europos, 235 CE, in which all of the men wearing the pallium are seen bearing the letter eta in the scenes of Ezekiel – Resurrection of the Dead; Triumph of Mordechai; Ark among the Philistines; Moses leading the Exodus; Moses and the Miraculous Well; Abraham, Moses and the Burning Bush and Joshua Reading the Law. In the scene of Pharaoh’s daughter rescuing Moses the women are wearing cloaks clearly bearing the Greek letter eta, signifying a woman’s garment. Aber’s studies in this subject not only raised consciousness about gender distinctions in ancient Israel but also deeply influenced her own art.
These two iconic shapes are found in many of Aber’s works from the 1980’s onward. Aber has taken these Greek symbol/letters, and used them as ways to talk about male and female roles in Judaism. Perhaps the most provocative work in this series, Eta Tefillin (1983) (fig.1), is shocking in its simplicity and assertion. In this piece, the eta, which looks like an upright “H”, has been sheathed in black satin kapotah fabric (Hasidic long jacket) and bound with a pasul (invalid) pair of tefillin. As is typical of Aber’s methodology, she was concerned about the proper usage of a ceremonial holy object, even one ritually unfit, in a mundane context. Therefore she asked the late Gerer Rebbi z’l to rule on the permissibility of such usage. He maintained it was permissible. What has been accomplished with this very unusual work of art is that the artist has defined the idealized Jewish male, embodied by the Greek letter used by ancient Jews, as symbolically clothed in a mitzvah. His very physicality is a platform for serving God. By incorporating these religious objects themselves, the kapotah and tefillin, into her work of art, she has fused the religious act and the artistic act into one event. This powerful Conceptual work bridges the distinctions between Judaism, gender and art in one fell swoop.
Jewish Women’s Ritual Garments
Aber’s interest in gender issues continues to surface throughout her career. In 2002 she wrote an analysis of Ritual Garments for Jewish Women in The Paper Pomegranate magazine of the organization she helped found back in 1976. She maintains that the contemporary women’s prayer garments are mistakenly based on men’s prayer garments and have ignored the rich history of women’s prayer garments that extend at least to the 18th century. Unfortunately “just as Jews were most often written out of history, Jewish women were written out of Jewish history.” Aber makes it her job of writing them back in.
She traces not only the use of Greek letters to distinguish male from female Jewish garments in antiquity, but also a German tradition of a women’s burial garment, a tunic or scapular that echoes the form of a tallit katan. Remarkably, it was also worn over their garments on Yom Kippur to denote the solemn purity of the day. She describes one currently at the Israel Museum. A similar garment identified as a Jewish woman’s prayer vest, quilted inside for warmth: “finely decorated …of silk brocade and lace…[that] had four ritual fringes at the four corners,” probably from 19th century Germany, was inspected by her at the Jewish Museum in New York. Finally she describes the woman’s prayer garments she started making in the 1970’s, many subsequently commissioned. Many of Aber’s versions had the ancient women’s symbol, the Greek Gamma, on all four corners to simultaneously link with the Jewish past and satisfy the halachic present. 
In one of her early Women’s Tallit (fig. 2) Aber created a fine silk four-cornered prayer garment modeled on patterns deduced from ancient archeological finds. This garment had four corners to accommodate ritual fringe. At each corner was a large decorative Gamma, decisively designating the garment for women only. As an added historical trope she attached an atarah, or neckband, embroidered with a contemporary silk Spanier Arbeit incorporating two “alephs” of her name which was embroidered by Gilda Joan Hecht.
Aber’s incorporation Spanier Arbeit (Spanish work) in one of her creations is typical of her multifaceted approach to artwork. For Aber, the more aspects of Jewish history and culture an object can utilize, the more richly Jewish it is. Spanier Arbeit is a traditional Jewish craft of “geflochtena (puffy) silver threadwork” that originated in Spain before 1492 and was traditionally executed by Jews for both Jewish and Christian objects throughout Europe. Aber documented the history of this craft for contemporary audiences in the Jewish Press on March 30, 2005. This kind of silver ornamentation for tallit collars, skullcaps, hats for women as well as brusttukes or modesty panels worn by women over their bosoms especially flourished in 19th century Poland until the Holocaust decimated the ranks of these skilled Jewish craftsmen. While it is making a comeback among some Chassidic needleworkers, Aber has continually championed its use and history as an example of “one of the great examples of Jewish textile creativity…a splendid example of hiddur mitzvah.” Examples of Spanier Arbeit were shown in Jewish Styles: Home, School and Shul, an exhibition curated by Aber at the Judaica Museum, Hebrew Home in Riverdale, N.Y. in February 2004.
Amulets and Jewelry
Ita Aber is a great proponent of jewelry as personal expression. She comments that originally jewelry was used for many different purposes: promoting and protecting health, warding off evil spirits, promoting livelihood, protecting the unborn and, perhaps most relevant, attracting the opposite sex. Many of these amulet-like functions still operate on some level today. As a woman chooses what jewelry to wear she asks herself, “What do I feel like today?” perhaps meaning what do I want my jewelry to do for me today?
The amulet, a spiritual tool to influence the world around us, was traditionally fashioned and used by women. It is an important theme that runs through Aber’s work, conflating jewelry as ornament with the function of spiritual agent. As Ita considered this art form over the years she recently began to fashion beaded cases much like those for amulets but here used for mezuzot (fig. 3). Their bright reflective colors and alluring beaded textures draw us to them; make us want to touch them to appreciate their pure sensuality. In their unique appeal Aber has turned the commonplace ritual “sign” into a sensual object, luring the viewer to touch the mezuzah for pleasure, thereby expanding the mitzvah. She has effectively invented a rich new form for mezuzah cases.
Some of her jewelry incorporates the Gamma shape as a body ornament. One large piece, Gamma Ornament (early 1980’s) (fig. 4), trimmed in red is actually a large necklace. This object’s central panel is quilted in red with the two ‘arms’ of the gamma festooned with tiny Bedouin coins as a proclamation of financial and sexual independence.
One of my personal favorites of Aber’s jewelry is the Esther/Vashti Pendants (1987) (fig. 5). The three-dimensional inverted triangle of sterling silver and gold sports three slender pendants of its own, supporting three tiny bells. Inside the triangle beads likewise make noise when shaken echoing traditional Purim noisemakers. Examples of this edition of 20 wearable sculptures are in the collections of the Cooper Hewitt National Museum of Design, New York, the Israel Museum and several others. The use of classic female form of the inverted triangle proclaims the common femininity of Esther and Vashti and subliminal narrative links between women often thought of as polar opposites. In this piece of jewelry Aber recast the two main female characters of the Megillah in deeply unexpected ways; suggesting that both characters used their sexuality as a means to assert their power over King Ahasuerus, one triumphant and the other fatally flawed.
Aber’s fascination with all forms of Jewish craftwork has led her to investigate many backwaters of Jewish textile craft, yielding not only fascinating historical insights, but also new and vibrant materials for contemporary Jewish artists. Fishscale embroidery is one example. In her article for Jewish Art, 1986-87, she described some examples on this little known craft seen on matzoh covers from Eastern Europe. Fishscales as a medium of craftwork are found in nineteenth century America, Europe and the Middle East as a poor-man’s pearl and mother of pearl. Evidently since the 17th century fishscale essence was placed in tiny hollow glass spheres to create the first faux pearls. Once shaped and embroidered, their opulence is as beguiling as their humble origin. The fishscales themselves, once thoroughly washed, then cut, shaped or serrated and finally stitched down against one another, are utilized to create intricate floral designs in Judaica and much favored in many kinds of folk art such as hat and muff decorations and bridal bouquets. Their utility is simply expressed as an inexpensive and readily available medium. Aber informs us “fishscales are generally taken from a sturdy fish. Carp fishscales are tough and young carp fishscales are excellent.” Of course carp is a prime ingredient of gefilte fish, a staple for Eastern European Shabbos meals. Readily at hand, fishscales were a natural medium in Jewish craftwork and were used widely.  Likewise throughout Aber’s career they appear, primarily in wall hangings and her own matzah covers.
Wit as Aesthetic
Aber cannot resist the artistic potential of found or everyday objects as a possible medium of artistic expression. As a child coming of age during the Second World War the ethic of “waste not – want not” is deeply embedded in her psyche. Everything is fit for use; everything not consumed can be reused. El Al – First Class (2004) (fig. 6) is a perfect example. Her intriguing necklace of blue plastic translucent abstract shapes strung together with blue and black beads intrigues by its exotic color and promises to jingle as it moves with its wearer. Only after we are told that the pieces are actually shoehorns once routinely given to first class passengers on El Al do we fully appreciate the wit and ingenuity of Aber’s art. This Aber jewelry at first seduces us with a truly powerful aesthetic, conjuring an esoteric sculpture, and then deflates us with the knowledge of its commercial crassness. The simplicity and humor of its execution elevates it into a postmodern expression of pure Pop art.
Wall Hanging (1988) (fig. 7) plays with the familiar shapes of a Torah mantle and manipulates the shapes and texture into what could be recognized as the face of a veiled woman, just about as transgressive a notion imposed on this holy object possible. Except that it is simultaneously insightful. Not only is the Torah normally considered in the feminine, but it is universally understood to express veiled meanings. The purple cotton satin is decorated with gold plated sterling silver paillettes (sequins) applied to encircle the ‘eyes’ and two ‘eye-holes.’ A large round field of concentric gold sequins covers the ‘veil’ that descend from the eyes completing a rich, colorful image that operates simultaneously as a Torah mantle and a face.
Horns of a Dilemma
One of the defining aspects of Aber’s art is a passion for Jewish history, especially the ancient as it relates to gender. We have seen how gender signs, i.e. Greek letters that identify Jewish gender from antiquity, have shaped many aspects of her art. An equally compelling symbol for Aber is the heart shape derived heart-shaped columns found in ancient synagogues. It is another example of her emphasis on ancient Jewish symbols that became potent elements in her 20th century work.
Many ancient Middle Eastern altars including Jewish ones had pronounced corners. They are mentioned in the Torah many times as karnot or corners. A keren is also Hebrew for horn, thus the terminology, horned altars. Parenthetically, the word also means to radiate or shine. The confusion between the two meanings led to Jerome’s Vulgate rendering of Exodus 34:35; Moses’ face shining, to be mistranslated as Moses’ face had horns.
Based on Lee Levine’s 1981 book, “Ancient Synagogues” that mentions many “heart-sectioned” corner columns as typical in ancient synagogues, Aber deduced, in light of comments by Bezalel Narkiss, that this peculiar shape was derived from a rendering of conjoined corners of the horned altars. These heart-shaped columns were found at the end corners of long aisles, usually “facing the place where the portable ark was rolled in.”
For Aber this shape, the prototypical heart shape, became a talisman pointing to holiness and sanctity. Over the years she has used this motif to varying success. The inherent problem with this usage is that in modern commercialized society, hearts and especially red hearts, have a rather superficial connotation, i.e, love and Valentines. Regardless of titles and explanations, it is almost impossible to supplant a public symbol with a private interpretation of an ancient shape. In one of her more recent works though, Cojoined Hearts (2009) (fig. 8), Aber has explored their placement in a deep blue square, each heart shape in the corner facing into the center to create a kind of force-field of spiritual energy. A deep red vortex superimposed over the hearts spirals out from the center to echo their spiritual role in ancient synagogues. Here the combination of two symbolic forces gain traction to create a new contemporary meaning.
Ita Aber’s lifetime of artwork has
followed a remarkably constant course. Immersion in Jewish history and material culture has led to artworks that reinterpret ancient symbols for contemporary meanings. Sometimes her work has led to bold statements about gender relationships, other times they produce whimsical comments about contemporary society and faith. Regardless, whatever approach she utilizes, Aber brings a fresh creative eye to the dynamic possibilities of making Jewish art in our time.
Richard McBee, November 8, 2011
Fig.1. Ita Aber, Eta Tefillin, 1983, Kapotah fabric & pasul tefillin, 18” x 12”, Private Collection (Photo: McBee)
Fig.2. Ita Aber, Women’s Tallit, 1977, silk garment and spanier arbiet (Gilda Joan Hecht), 26” x 32”, Collection of the artist, (Photo: McBee)
Fig. 3. Ita Abr, Beaded Mezuzot, 2010, beaded work, 3 ½” x 1 ½” (average size), Collection of the artist (Photo: McBee)
Fig 4. Ita Aber, Gamma Ornament, early 1980’s, quilting and coins, 8” x 12 ½”, Collection of the artist (Photo: McBee)
Fig. 5. Ita Aber, Esther/Vashti Pendants, 1987, silverwork edition of 20, 3 ½” x 5”, Collections; Cooper Hewitt, National Museum of Design, NY, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem (Photo: McBee)
Fig 6. Ita Aber, El Al – First Class, 2004, plastic and beads assemblage, 21” x 4”, Collection of the artist (Photo: McBee)
Fig 7. Ita Aber, Wall Hanging, 1988, cotton satin, gold plated sterling silver paillettes, 20 ½” x 11 ¾”, Private Collection (Photo: McBee)
Fig 8. Ita Aber, Cojoined Hearts, 2009, paint, applique, quilt and embroidery, 22” x 24”, Collection of the artist (Photo: Aber)
 Ita Aber, The Art of Judaic Needlework (Charles Scribners & Sons, 1979)
 Yigael Yadin, Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealot’s Last Stand (Welcome Rain, 1998 – reissue of 1966 edition)
 Gabrielle Sed-Rajna, Ancient Jewish Art (Chartwell Books, Inc, 1985) 62-86
Ita Aber, “Ritual Garments for Jewish Women,” The Paper Pomegranate (Autumn, 2002)
 Ita Aber, “Spanier Arbeit Lives” The Jewish Press – Jewish Arts, March 30, 2005
 Interview with author, 2007
 Ita Aber, “Jewish Fishscale Embroidery on Mazzah Bags Form Eastern Europe” Jewish Art 12/13 (1986/1987): 285-289
 Ita Aber, “Liberated Altars” unpublished paper, (ca. 2000)