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Synagogue curtain from Kolín (1630), decorated using a rare textile method

Staff at the Jewish Museum in Prague have recently been examining several synagogue curtains whose inscriptions contain the complete blessing that is recited during the circumcision ritual. Of most interest in terms of technique employed is a synagogue curtain (inventory number JMP 023.686) that came to the museum from the collection point of Kolín (located 55 km east of Prague); its embroidered dedicatory inscription gives the date 1822. The central field of this curtain was sewn together out of 21 narrow textile bands on which the circumcision blessing was woven using the now little-known technique of tablet weaving. This item is made of brown silk atlas with a small flower pattern. The fabric corresponds in terms of period to the date given in the dedicatory inscription: “Donated and restored by means of the noble Joseph, son of the learned prince Judah Leib Saudek, of blessed memory, and his wife, paní Hayyah, daughter of David Saudek, of blessed memory, on behalf of their sons (children), whom they received for life, wealth and honour, according to the minor era (the date in the chronogram is 582 = 1822).” From the formulation of the dedicatory inscription, it is clear that this textile was repaired or altered in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Our attention is drawn to the central field consisting of 21 woven textual bands, each of which was originally woven separately; the divides between the individual parts of the text comprise woven motifs of rosettes, stylized ornaments and Stars of David. Considering that the Hebrew text is without mistakes and that the letters have precise shapes, it may be assumed that the inscription bands were made in the Jewish milieu.
While the above curtain was being disassembled, an earlier curtain was discovered underneath it. This other curtain is made of blue silk atlas and has been preserved in almost compact form. The upper part contains a Hebrew dedicatory inscription of two lines which employs an appliqué of yellow silk: “A gift of the leader Reuven, Community Elder, son of Joseph, of blessed memory, (in the year) 390 according to the minor era (= 1630). Restored here in the holy community of Kolín (in the year) 'and truth' according to the minor era (the date in the chronogram is 447 = 1687).” The decorative design of the curtain also corresponds to the date; along the sides, the oblong central field is framed by a pair of columns which have been executed using the appliqué of yellow silk. Another inscription band has been preserved in this (now empty) central field (on the basis of the traces that have been found, however, we know that this is the original location of the text of the circumcision blessing, comprised of woven bands which were subsequently transferred to the later curtain); this inscription not only confirms the date of the set of unique textual bands but also convincingly identifies the name of the Jewish client for whom the item was made. The inscription that is woven on this band reads as follows: “Reuven, son of Joseph Plaut, may he live for many good days.” It is clear, then, that this set of bands dates from around 1630 and was probably made in Germany. The date of the earlier curtain is also confirmed by the uniquely preserved bobbin lace of the reticella type which frames the curtain: this can also be dated back to the first third of the seventeenth century.
Archive research has also brought to light the other circumstances behind the acquisition of the earlier curtain that is decorated with bands, which is only touched upon briefly here (more detailed information can be found in an article published in the journal Judaica Bohemiae XLV, 1, 2010). The wealthy Jewish merchant Reuven Plaut moved from Germany to the town of Kolín in central Bohemia in about 1620, probably as a consequence of the large-scale migrations in the wake of the Thirty Year War. It was in Kolín, 1630, that Plaut donated this synagogue curtain, perhaps on the occasion of his wedding or of the birth of a son from his first marriage. For the central part of the curtain, he arranged to have the text of the circumcision blessing inscribed using the then unusual technique of tablet weaving and to add a similarly executed band with his personal name. Plaut’s curtain was considered to be of such rarity that it was reworked several times and, until the present day, was concealed under a later synagogue textile from Kolín. The donor’s unusual first name and surname did not become established in Kolín. Initially he was referred to here by the epithet “German”; after his death, an epithet derived from his personal name, “Rubin”, was used for his sons. This is how the foundations were laid for the “Rubin family”, which was among the most important in Kolín in the latter half of the seventeenth century and the first quarter of the eighteenth.

1) Whole – synagogue curtain (inventory number JMP 023.686) in the condition it was in when discovered. The upper part includes the inscription field with the text of the dedication from 1822; the central inscription field (with the text of the blessing that is recited during the circumcision ritual) is executed using a unique textile method.

2) Detail – central inscription field (with the text of the blessing that is recited during the circumcision ritual) of the synagogue curtain in in the condition it was in when discovered.

3) Whole – synagogue curtain (inventory number JMP 023.686) after removal of the later layer and after removal of the central inscription field. The upper part includes the dedicatory inscriptions from 1630 and 1687; the central inscription field contains a previously concealed woven band with the dedicatory text.

4) Detail – inscription bands made using the technique of tablet weaving.

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