The German-Jewish Wimpel: Wrapped Wishes, Nearly Forgotten

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wimpel center.JPG


A wimpel is a long, narrow sash--typically seven inches high and at least seven feet long--most often made in linen and used to bind the scrolls of the Torah. Traditionally, wimpels were made from the cloth used to swaddle a baby boy during the Jewish covenantal ceremony of circumcision (called brit milah in Hebrew and commonly referred to as a bris). After the ceremony, the cloth was cleaned and cut into strips that were sewn together to make the sash, which then was then decorated with elaborate needlework or paint. This decoration included a Hebrew inscription based on the following formula: "May God bless this young boy [child's name], son of [father's name], born under the good star on the day of [day of the month] in [month] in [year]. May God raise him to a life of Torah, chuppah [wedding canopy], and good deeds. Amen." Traditional decorative motifs for wimpels included birds and other animals, images of bride and groom, and the Torah scroll.


Torah scroll.JPG                                       Torah scroll and yad (pointer)
                            The Leon J. and Julia S. Obermayer Collection
                               Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia
                                            Photo: Carol Perloff


Wimpels originated as a German-Jewish ritual object, although Italian Jews developed a closely related form called a mappa. In the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries (the period to which most surviving wimpels date), completed wimpels were stored at the local synagogue, thereby serving as a census of the congregation. An individual boy's wimpel was used to bind the Torah scroll during his bar mitzvah ceremony (which marks the coming of age in Jewish religious life) at age 13. The wimpel was also incorporated into the chuppah used during Jewish marriage ceremonies. In this way, the wimpel followed the individual for whom it was made through three life-cycle events: birth, coming of age, and marriage (with the implication that this marriage will produce children, and the cycle will begin anew). Wimpels were material representations of a family's hopes and dreams for their child, the new life they have brought into the world, a life bound to the study of Torah, ethical behavior, and the continuation of the Jewish community.


Jewish ceremonial objects have been remarkable in their continuity and persistence. Menorahs; mezuzahs; Sabbath lamps and candlesticks; finials, crowns, and breastplates for the decoration of the Torah scroll; the pointer, or yad, used while reading the Torah--among numerous other ritual forms--have been constant and consistent elements of Jewish religious life for centuries, even millennia. The wimpel, however, fell out of common use beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. It remains a rather obscure form today, although the most recent decades have seen a tentative, slow-building revival of interest in the wimpel.  


Why did the wimpel nearly disappear? Germany (or, more accurately, German-speaking states and principalities--Germany was unified into a single nation in 1871) was the leading center for Jewish enlightenment and commitment to modernization and assimilation into the broader society from the late-eighteenth-century until the decimation of German Jewry in the Holocaust. German-Jewish efforts toward modernization produced and were embodied in Reform Judaism, which emphasized ethical behavior over ritual and whose rabbis applied contemporary modes of critical scholarship to the study of Torah. Some 250,000 German Jews immigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century, bringing with them the ideal and ideas of Reform. Among numerous innovations large and small, Reform Judaism rejected kashrut (ritual laws pertaining to food); promoted "vernacular" language (German or English) over Hebrew as the language of prayer; and understood and disseminated the idea of Judaism as a religion (for example, it became common for German Jews to describe themselves as "Germans of the Mosaic persuasion") rather than the beliefs and practices of one specific people, a people previously discussed in racial and national terms.


For these reasons, Reform Judaism was a perfect and preferred fit for the United States' German-dominated Jewish community in the nineteenth century. A small but vocal faction of Reform rabbis and lay leaders questioned the necessity and appropriateness of circumcision; individual bar mitzvah ceremonies for 13-year-old boys were replaced with group confirmations for boys and girls at the age of 15 or 16; and the chuppah no longer graced wedding ceremonies in many or most American Reform temples. These changes in the understanding and practice of ritual rendered the wimpel obsolete.


Philadelphia's Reform Congregation Rodeph Shalom, of which I am a member, holds the distinction of being the oldest Ashkenazi congregation in the Western hemisphere. Ashkenaz is the Hebrew name for Germany, and Ashkenazim are the Yiddish and German speaking Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Rodeph Shalom dates its founding to the establishment of a minyan (prayer group, or more specifically, the quorum of ten men required by Orthodox Judaism for public prayer and chanting Torah) in 1795. The congregation was incorporated officially in 1802 as the "German Hebrew Society Rodeph Shalom." In highlighting its German-ness, the new congregation distinguished itself from the city's existing congregation, Mikveh Israel, which was founded in the 1740s by--and operated according to the distinctive rites of--Sephardi Jews (Sepharad is the Hebrew name for Spain). The descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497, Sephardim were the first to establish Jewish communities in what was to become the United States.


Despite its long history and overt German-ness, there's no extant evidence indicating that the early members of Rodeph Shalom made wimpels. What Rodeph Shalom does have, however, is several fine examples of nineteenth-century European wimpels--including the one illustrating this post--in The Leon J. and Julia S. Obermayer Collection of Jewish Ceremonial Art, which was presented to the congregation in 1985. An extensive selection of highlights from the Obermayer collection is permanently installed in the synagogue's richly decorated entry foyer.


With the successful assimilation of American Jews and the increased appreciation of pluralism and multiculturalism that's marked American society from the 1960s to the present, American Jews--including Reform Jews--have grown more comfortable with Jewish rituals and ritual objects. The Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit, a seminal publication first issued in 1973, promoted--in keeping with the era's youthful, countercultural sensibilities--a hands-on and informal approach to Judaism and a crafty, make-it-yourself approach to Judaica. Although most American Jews remain unaware of the wimpel, amateur and professional craftspeople are exploring the form. As part of an initiative called Synagogue 3000--a cross-denominational effort to reinvigorate and renew Jewish congregational life for the 21st century--the Conservative and Reform Jewish movements have launched The Wimpel Project (see with the goal of reviving this little-known but symbolically rich form. Typically, contemporary wimpels such as those created through The Wimpel Project are egalitarian--they are created for boys and girls, and include the names of both parents. Their inscriptions are not limited to the formulaic Hebrew prayer; their decoration ventures far beyond the bounds of traditional motifs; and they are created in celebration of a broad range of life-cycle events, from brit milah and baby-naming to bar and bat mitzvah, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays--any and all of life's milestone events.


At my synagogue, Rodeph Shalom, a group of women--inspired by the wimpels displayed in the Obermayer collection--created a wimpel in the late 1980s honoring a prominent member of the congregation by memorializing his late father and son. This coming winter, the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art (PMJA)--which is part of and housed at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, and of which I am a curator--will present Wimpel! Wrapped Wishes, an invitational exhibition featuring wimpels and wimpel-inspired art created by twelve artists of varied backgrounds (just six of the twelve artists are of Jewish heritage and only two were familiar with wimpels previously). The artists contributing to Wimpel! Wrapped Wishes were given the following creative and conceptual charge:    


The purpose of this exhibition is to provide a forum for artists of diverse approaches and cultural backgrounds to explore the wimpel, interpret it, create metaphors, comment, celebrate, critique, cross cultures, imagine, translate--to make it yours. Among the subjects suggested by the wimple are identity; core sensibilities, values, and worldviews, and how they are expressed and lived; parenting; gender; marriage (recognizing, in light of the society-wide debate over same-sex marriage, that this is a particularly timely topic); and more. Most essentially, we hope this will be an exhibition about the future: what do we wish for today's children? How do we express our hopes and dreams for the next generation?


Wimpel! Wrapped Wishes is scheduled to open at the PMJA on December 17, 2009. The artist's submissions have not yet arrived at the museum. The full import and impact of this particular chapter in the wimpel's unsteady history remains unknown. Our hopes remain in the future.


Illustration at top of entry

Torah Binder (detail). Germany, 1833. Undyed linen, painted. Congregation Rodeph Shalom: The Leon J. and Julia S. Obermayer Collection. Photograph: Carol Perloff


Translation of primary inscription: "Eliezer Lipman Rafael, son of the venerable Rabbi Yizchak Sekel, born in good luck, after the holy Sabbath, Sunday at daybreak, 17 days in the month of Kislev, 5593. May the Almighty raise him to Torah, chupah, and to good deeds. Amen."


Anndee Hochman, Rodeph Shalom: Two Centuries of Seeking Peace (Philadelphia: Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 1995)


Stephen S. Kayser, Jewish Ceremonial Art (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955)


Norman L. Kleeblatt (with contributions by Elizabeth Cats, Rabbi Alan Fuchs, Susan A. Popkin, and Joan F. Thalheimer), The Leon J. and Julia S. Obermayer Collection at Congregation Rodeph Shalom (Philadelphia: Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 1988)


Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, Sharon Strassfeld, The First Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973)


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Matt - this is fascinating! I am curious, for those who are embracing this tradition for girls, are they being used in naming ceremonies or are they just created for an infant? Can't wait to check out the exhibition when it opens!

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