«Wimples are great for telling stories»

Seven questions to Dinah Ehrenfreund

The Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land pre­ser­ves hundreds of wimp­les from the 17th to the 20th cen­tu­ries. In «Birth Cul­tu­re. Jewish Arti­facts from Rural Switz­er­land and Envi­rons» (Schwa­be 2022), the Museum’s latest publi­ca­ti­on, cura­tor Dinah Ehren­freund explains what Torah bin­ders can tell us about chan­ging times.

Nao­mi Lubrich: Dinah, you are an expert on wimp­les. What are they?

Dinah Ehren­freund: Wimp­les are bin­ders that wrap the Torah scroll and pro­tect the parch­ment. Once bound, the Torah scroll is cover­ed with a man­t­le and ador­ned with sil­ver jewel­ry. Torah wimp­les are wide­spread in syn­ago­gues and pray­er rooms. In Ger­man-spea­king Ash­ke­n­az, a spe­cial tra­di­ti­on deve­lo­ped, which was to inscri­be the bin­der with a boy’s name, bir­th­day and the bles­sing from the cir­cumcis­i­on lit­ur­gy: «As he was intro­du­ced into the coven­ant, so may he be led to the Torah, to mar­ria­ge, and to good deeds. Amen. Sela.» The oldest wimp­les date back to the 16th cen­tu­ry. Intri­guin­gly, the cloth band is made from the boy’s cir­cumcis­i­on dia­per. The rec­tan­gu­lar cloth is cut into four strips, sewn tog­e­ther leng­thwi­se, inscri­bed and embro­ide­red or pain­ted – and later dona­ted to the synagogue.

NL: Who could afford to dona­te such a wimp­le to their community?

DE: While a small num­ber of wealt­hy fami­lies dona­ted Torah curta­ins or sil­ver uten­sils, a gre­at num­ber of fami­lies in the Swiss rural com­mu­ni­ties con­tri­bu­ted a wimp­le when a son was born. In the 19th cen­tu­ry, wimp­les were not expen­si­ve gifts. They were a per­so­nal dona­ti­on to the com­mu­ni­ty and a way for each boy to be remembered.

NL: Who has stu­di­ed the Swiss wimples? 

DE: Flo­rence Gug­gen­heim-Grün­berg (1898–1989) was the first scho­lar after 1945 to sys­te­ma­ti­cal­ly stu­dy an inven­to­ry of syn­ago­gue wimp­les. She was a distin­gu­is­hed expert on Jewish folk­lo­re in Switz­er­land at that time. From today’s per­spec­ti­ve, her view of Jewish folk­lo­re was nost­al­gic, see­ing wimp­le-making as a thing of the past. She bare­ly noted that wimp­les were still made in her era, albeit less fre­quent­ly. Later, Peter Stein con­duc­ted a stu­dy of wimp­le-making in the 20th cen­tu­ry, which show­ed that the­re was and still is a vibrant wimp­le culture.

NL: Wimp­les were made for boys – do they also docu­ment the lives of women?

DE: Not real­ly. Men per­for­med all acts of wor­ship in ortho­dox Juda­ism, and pre-modern docu­ments almost exclu­si­ve­ly record men as heads of fami­lies. Wimp­les are mate­ri­al tes­ti­mo­nies of a male-domi­na­ted socie­ty. Alt­hough women gave birth to child­ren and hel­ped make the wimp­les, their names were not recorded.

NL: Many wimp­les are illus­tra­ted. What are the motifs?

DE: The Torah scroll is the most com­mon illus­tra­ti­on. It illus­tra­tes the pur­po­se, both prac­ti­cal and ide­al. Ano­ther com­mon sym­bol is the chup­pah, the wed­ding cano­py. The 18th cen­tu­ry wimp­les refer to zodiac signs, in words and images. Ano­ther image is the ser­pen­ti­ne eight on its side, which sym­bo­li­zes eter­ni­ty. It appears on wimp­les from Alsace. You can also find the ser­pen­ti­ne eight on Chris­ti­an bap­tis­mal cards. It stands for the wish for a long life.

NL: Have you detec­ted any Swiss par­ti­cu­la­ri­ty in the Jewish Museum’s coll­ec­tion?

DE: It depends on the cen­tu­ry. Par­ti­cu­lar­ly the 17th cen­tu­ry wimp­les from Len­gnau are simi­lar to Alsa­ti­an and Ger­man wimp­les. But the­re is one distin­gu­is­hing fea­ture from the mid-19th cen­tu­ry which spans a wide area in Switz­er­land: On the­se wimp­les, the let­ters alter­na­te bet­ween a Gothic script and a semi-cur­si­ve modern script. From 1865 onwards, a par­ti­cu­lar­ly note­wor­t­hy ico­no­gra­phic fea­ture appears on this «Swiss type.» Abo­ve the Hebrew date of birth, a band of script pro­vi­des the name, date and place of birth, or home­town, in Latin let­ters. Switz­er­land for­t­u­na­te­ly kept and still keeps important his­to­ri­cal sources in exis­ting com­mu­ni­ties and archives.

NL: Wimp­le-making today is beco­ming a lost art.

DE: True. For indi­vi­du­als and for the com­mu­ni­ty, wimp­le-making used to be much more important. Ide­al­ly, a syn­ago­gue would keep the wimp­les of all the men in a con­gre­ga­ti­on over a long peri­od of time as evi­dence of its size and importance. The more wimp­les a com­mu­ni­ty had and the older they were, the more signi­fi­cant the com­mu­ni­ty was. When the sta­te began docu­men­ting the births, the wimp­les lost in signi­fi­can­ce, around 1900. Today, some fami­lies still make wimp­les. For others, it has litt­le signi­fi­can­ce and for still others, they are com­ple­te­ly unknown. In any case, wimp­les are good for tel­ling inte­res­t­ing stories!

NL: Thank you very much, Dinah.

verfasst am 14.02.2023