Don’t Tread on Me
What makes a carpet Jewish?
A Kashan Pictorial Silk Rug, 1850s, depicting King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
Jews may be “the people of the book,” but their relationship to textiles predates the book itself. In Exodus, God provides detailed instructions for the creation of a rug-like partition to be woven of turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool and linen; embellished with cherubs; and hung in the portable sanctuary that accompanied the Israelites as they wandered through the desert. Wherever they settled and dispersed, Jews never lost their knack for textile production.
As early as the first century A.D., Baruch Albalia, a prince of Judea and expert silk weaver, was sent by Titus, the Roman general who conquered Jerusalem, to develop the textile industry in Spain. When the Jews were expelled from there in 1492, many of them found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, where for centuries the dyers, weavers, and traders among them built a reputation for creating the most extraordinary carpets in the world. Anecdotal evidence of Jewish textile expertise abounds: from ledgers revealing that in the Hungarian town of Nagykoros, most of the carpets purchased between 1630 and 1682 came from Jewish sellers, to records of the Pope granting a patent for silk manufacturing to the Italian Jew Meir Magino around the same time. Across cultures, it seems, Jews were famous craftsman before they established their reputation as merchants, and while fabricating designs for their gentile neighbors, they also created some fascinating pieces for themselves.
Yet rugs and carpets (a distinction purely of size) are hardly the first things that come to mind when considering Judaica. This may reflect their scarcity, compared with more common and easily portable objects like Kiddush cups and menorahs. Or it may reflect their relatively folksy character, sometimes bordering on kitsch—an aesthetic linked to the limitations of a medium defined by stitches rather than brushstrokes, and alternately hung like tapestries or walked upon. But it also stems from the misconception that Judaic examples were anomalies among Oriental and European carpets.
Anton Felton, a British collector-turned-scholar, challenged that misconception with his 1997 book Jewish Carpets. “Everyone thought I was mad, but I spent 50 years proving my point,” says Felton, who acquired his first piece while moonlighting as a bookkeeper for London carpet dealers in the 1960s. That piece—a silk rug from Kashan (circa 1850s) depicting King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba surrounded by symbols of the 12 tribes and episodes from Jewish history—so intrigued Felton that he convinced his employer to let him work it off rather than sell it to either of the parties vying for it: then-chief Rabbi Israel Brodie and philanthropist Sir Isaac Wilson.
He went on to scour the world in search of Jewish carpets, accumulating some 60 for his personal trove and researching more than 200 in public and private holdings. The one that started it all—and, Felton says, brought him “back to Judaism”—was the star among 18 lots of rugs and carpets from his collection featured in Sotheby’s December 17th Judaica sale; it fetched $23,750. (This annual Judaica auction usually features only one or two, if any, rugs and carpets, so despite the fact that only six of the 18 lots sold, it was a major event.)
Who would have thought a rug could be an object of Jewish faith? Felton makes a strong case for Jewish carpets as a distinctive category, rather than—as he recalls being suggested to him during his years of research—“abominations that cropped up by chance at the interface of two cultures.” Much was no doubt lost over time, but those examples that can be tracked down offer tremendous insight into Jewish history and iconography. “I don’t just look at a Jewish carpet, I try to look through it,” Felton explains. “I ask, what was the culture that produced it? What did it mean to the people who owned it and looked at it?” But all this very serious research raises the question: what really makes a carpet Jewish?
Taking a broad view, the field encompasses secular pieces by Jewish artisans, along with works by non-Jews used in Jewish settings (like a purely decorative carpet used to adorn a synagogue). Getting more specific, they feature inherently Jewish motifs: stars of David, menorahs, torah crowns, biblical scenes, views of Jerusalem, and Hebrew writing. There also seems to be a spiritual aspect to these decorative works, most obviously in devotional textiles such as the sheviti (a textual reminder of the divine presence) and mizrach (to indicate the Eastern direction for prayer), mounted at home and in synagogues. Workshops established in the 20th century, meanwhile, found carpet design a surprisingly suitable medium for promoting social change.
The Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, founded by Boris Schatz in Jerusalem in 1906, and its offshoot, Marbadiah (in existence from 1920 to 1931), were influential in melding Oriental and European carpet traditions with imagery that tied Jewish identity to the budding homeland. The resulting works account for the vast majority of existing Jewish carpets—and also the bulk of the group in Sotheby’s sale. In some pieces, the Judaic elements are subtle, while others that feature biblical passages or images of Jerusalem put forward the possibility of a modern Jewish nation in an ancient land.
Around the same time, charitable institutions like the Alliance Israelite Universelle (founded by French Jews in 1860 to foster social mobility and combat anti-Semitism) and the socialist-minded Organization for Rehabilitation Through Training (founded two decades later in St. Petersburg with the goal of alleviating poverty) employed and trained Jewish carpet-makers throughout the world. Sotheby’s auction included a series of chenille rugs made by the Alliance featuring portraits of Zionist figures like Theodore Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Lord Balfour, and Sir Herbert Samuel—the first practicing Jew to become a British cabinet minister and later High Commissioner under the British Mandate of Palestine. These idealized depictions feature richly hued red and gold tones and elaborate Oriental borders, but primarily serve as wonderful historical documents—almost like commemorative postage stamps—which may explain why they failed to sell.
While these later examples aren’t the pinnacle of carpet-making, they hold their own against most contemporaneous examples. Similarly, more luxurious—but much rarer—earlier Jewish carpets from Persia and Turkey are indistinguishable from their Islamic counterparts in style, if not in substance. In the West as early as the 10th century, the rise of the church led to the creation of the guild system, shutting Jews out of creative professions. But in the major carpet production regions of the East, they were sought out for their trade secrets and skill. This explains the striking similarities between Jewish and Islamic carpets; experts presume that they were largely commissioned and made by the same workshops and individuals. Case in point: a circa-1920 Kashan silk rug featuring an elaborate depiction of the binding of Isaac was offered in Sotheby’s general carpet auction this past June. The non-Jewish consignor had acquired it purely for its aesthetic appeal and relevance to his broader Persian carpet collection, but it sparked aggressive bidding and surpassed its conservative $5,000–$7,000 estimate to fetch $20,000 from a Jewish buyer. Perhaps it also helps answer the more basic if less central question of why so many carpet dealers in New York, Los Angeles, London, and other international cities are Jews of Persian and Turkish descent. Craftsmanship apparently paved the way for trade.
“I looked at all the major places where carpets were woven in the Mediterranean and all the major Jewish settlements, and blow me down if 99 percent of the time they aren’t the same,” Anton Felton remarks. Even as the definition of home has proved impermanent, carpets have remained an integral form of Jewish artistic and religious expression—not to mention a quintessentially Jewish livelihood.