Ethnology is the branch of anthropology that deals with the comparative cultures of various peoples, including their distribution, characteristics, folkways, etc. At the Miller Museum, Jewish ethnology is interpreted several different ways. Ritual and ceremonial objects representing Jews in different parts of the world are part of the permanent collection. While Jewish religious beliefs are universal, no matter where Jews have lived, the form of objects used to ornament the Torah scrolls, and of objects associated with life cycle and calendar celebrations adopt the artistic styles of the host society.

Jews are broadly divided into three subcultures: Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Mizrachim. These three groups are further divided into smaller geographical groups based upon their own self-designation. Generally, the Ashkenazim are the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe, although in the most narrow sense, it refers to Germany and German Jews.

In the 15th and 16th centuries Jews from the Germanic centers of Mainz and Worms emigrated to Eastern Europe. The cultural centers of Ashkenazic Jewry shifted to Bohemia, Moravia, Poland and Lithuania. One of the most distinguishing features of these Jews at that time was their use of a Judeo-Germanic language (Yiddish). One of the greatest losses in the Holocaust was the wholesale destruction of Yiddishkeit, the distinct cultural expression of the Eastern European Jewry.

The Sephardim are, in the most specific definition, Jews of Spanish or Portuguese origin. The Encyclopedia Judaica states “The term Sephardim is often erroneously used for other Jews of non-Ashkenazi origin.” At the time of the Inquisition, approximately 250,000 Jews fled from Spain in response to a decree which expelled Jews who did not convert to Christianity. This edict remained in force until 1968. The majority of Jews went to North Africa, Italy and the Ottoman Empire. In the Ottoman Empire they settled predominantly in Istanbul and Salonica. They took with them the language and folk customs of Spain.

In the 17th century, a second Diaspora left the Iberian Peninsula, that of the Marranos or Jews who professed Catholicism while secretly maintaining their Jewish religion. Amsterdam became the center where these exiles settled. Other communities of Sephardim settled in France, England and the Americas. The language spoken by the Sephardic Jews is known loosely as Judeo-Spanish or Ladino, more currently as Judezmo. Their culture, although flavored by the lands the Sephardim have lived in for over 400 years, is distinctly Spanish.

The tendency now is to say that Mizrachim are “the rest.” Outside of the realm of Ashkenazim and Sephardim a wide range of Jewry with a variety of cultural attributes exists. It is more accurate to refer to each group distinctly by their own terminology, or by their country of origin. However, the term Mizrachim (Oriental) is an acceptable one for general reference use. So, Jews from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Ethiopia and Bokhara, among other places, fall into this general category.


Two halachic (legal) precepts govern the dress of traditional Jews. They are: chukath hagoyim which admonishes Jews not to follow the ways and customs of their neighbors (Jewish attire, however, generally followed styles worn by Christian and Muslim neighbors) and sha’tanez laws which forbid the mixing of wool and linen in the same garment.

Nonetheless, regional variation exists in daily dress, festive costume and items used in daily prayer. The white color of the prayer shawl (tallit) is not requisite; the Museum owns both black and gray wool prayer shawls from Yemen. The stipulation that married women cover their hair is also not a legal sanction, but has been adopted as custom in many locations.

Men’s head coverings are prescribed in the Shulchan Aruch. Today this takes the form of a skullcap (kippah) or the more elaborate streimel of the Hasidic Jew. Whatever the form, the act of covering the head symbolizes Jewish piety.

Generally, Jewish costume is markedly traditional, almost anachronistic or “out of style.” This is evidenced in the Hasidic costume and the Moroccan Great Dress. Only two features of daily wear can be traced to the ancient Israelites. These are the side-locks (peoth) and the fringes (tzitzioth, pl.) of the prayer-shawl. Both of these are obligatory for Hasidic men.


Hasidism is a religious movement which gave rise to a pattern of communal life and leadership as well as a particular social outlook. This movement emerged in the second half of the 18th century. Ecstasy, mass enthusiasm, group cohesion and charismatic leadership of one kind or another are the distinguishing features of this sect.

The Hasidic movement began in southeastern Poland-Lithuania in the mid-18th century. It grew out of a popular demand for a more emotional religion than that provided by Talmudic scholarship. Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba’al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) who lived between 1700 and 1760, is credited with founding the movement. He began as a popular healer, then became a leader of Hasidic circles (mystic groups which followed a distinct ascetic lifestyle). The Ba’al Shem Tov stressed the value of devotion and humility in religious observance, rather than learning. He taught that God is present in all things, that every manifestation of life is divine and, therefore, contains actual or potential good.

After his death, Hasidism was spread by the Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciples to Byelorussia, Lithuania, Galicia (later part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and Central Poland. Hasidic groups also emigrated to Israel, settling primarily in Tiberias.

Early 19th century Hasidism is marked by diversity in outlook and the development of dynasties and courts. Among the emphases of the movement was the establishment of schools of theology. The Hasidic movement was not unopposed; it was strongly questioned and derided, not only among Jewish communities, but also by secular authorities. By the mid-19th century, however, Hasidism became the way of life for large numbers of Jews in the Ukraine, Galicia and Central Poland, as well as in Byelorussia, Lithuania and Hungary. In the late 19th century, with mass emigration, it was spread to Israel, Western Europe and America. Several Hasidic communities exist in Israel today and in the United States, where the most active center is in Brooklyn, New York.

The streimel, or fur-trimmed hat, is worn at the most important holiday and ceremonial celebrations, particularly by Jews from Galicia. The wearer’s wealth could be measured by the number of sable or mink tails making up the rim.


The Bokharan Jews lived in Russian Central Asia, in places later called the Uzbek and Tadzhik Republics. They were mainly concentrated in the cities of Samarkand, Tashkent and Bokhara. (The designation of these Jews as “Bokharan” derives from the name of that ancient Silk Road city.) The earliest documentation of Jews in this area is found in a 13th century Arabian chronicle which recorded the threat to Jews and Christians by a Muslim fanatic. Until the 16th century, the Bokharan Jews formed a single community with the Jews of Persia and Afghanistan. In the 16th century, a separate Bokharan government (khanate) was established. Jewish residence was restricted to a special quarter; Jews were required to wear a distinguishing badge and pay a special tax. In the mid 18th century, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, many Jews converted to Islam.

In the second half of the 19th century, some of the regions of the Bokharan khanate, Tashkent and Samarkand in particular, were incorporated into czarist Russia. At that time, Jews moved to the Russian areas of Turkmenia (Turkestan) because of more lenient official attitudes towards them. Brutal pogroms and the imposition of restrictions towards the end of the century eliminated this movement.

Many prerevolutionary Bokharan Jews were involved in the textile industry, manufacturing and dyeing cloth. The majority of these businesses were ruined by the Russian Revolution—in 1920, the Red Army conquered Bokhara and established it as a People’s Soviet Republic.

Jewish emigration from Bokhara, mostly of wealthy merchants, began in the second half of the 19th century. By the turn of that century, approximately 180 families had settled in Jerusalem. At that time, 20,000 Jews lived in the Bokharan khanate alone. Today, after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, an entity comprising fifteen republics, has been established and the majority of the Jewish population has emigrated to Israel.

The kippah above is an example of the richly decorative quality of Bokharan costumes.


The Indian objects in the Miller Museum Collection are from Cochin, a city on the Malabar (Southwestern) Coast of India, although Cochin was not the only Jewish community in the sub-continent. According to legends, Jews have resided there since the period of the destruction of the Second Temple. The earliest evidence of a Jewish presence is a set of copper plates, written in the Tamil language, which refers to the settlement of Jews in Cranganore, a town north of Cochin, on the Malabar Coast. They date between 970 and 1035 C.E. Cochin, in the state of Kerala, is a location from which pepper, spices and other products of Southern India are exported. The city came into existence in 1341 at the area of a newly formed port. The Angadi synagogue, the oldest, was built in 1344. The second synagogue was constructed about 150 years later, in 1489.

Among the Jews of Cochin were Paradesi (foreigners) exiles who settled there from Cranganore in the early 16th century. They were later joined by Jews from Aleppo (Syria), Holland and Germany. The Paradesi synagogue was founded and built in 1568 and later enlarged in 1761.

After 1948, when India gained independence from Great Britain, Jews suffered economically from nationalization and “Indianization.” Although there was no outright discrimination, Jewish businesses declined because Jews had not been active supporters of statehood. With the establishment of the State of Israel, large-scale emigration of Jews began. The peak years were between 1949 and 1950. By 1970, approximately 23,000 Jews from India had settled in Israel.

The Miller Museum Collection contains several articles of clothing from festivities held in the Cochin Synagogue during the 20th century.


The earliest evidence of a Jewish presence in Morocco is on tombstones dated 2nd Century C.E., found in the north of the country. As early as the 6th and 7th centuries, the Moroccan Jewish community increased as a result of incursions of Spanish Jews and mass conversions of Berber tribes. There seems to have been fairly regular movement—economic, intellectual and spiritual—between the communities of Morocco and Spain until the period of the Inquisition. Until recent times, there was a large and developed Jewish community—over 10,000 Jews once lived in Morocco. The Jews of Morocco have preserved the widest variety of styles in costume compared to other Jewish groups. Urban dress is characterized by the use of velvets, brocades and silks. The most distinctive Moroccan Jewish costume is the “Great Dress” or Kswat el Kebira, which was worn by Jewish women in northern Spanish Morocco, in the city of Tetuan in particular. Jewish needlewomen of Tetuan were renowned for these ornately embroidered wedding dresses.

The origins of the Great Dress are traced to the costume worn by Jews in Spain at the time of the Expulsion (15th century). It exists in several colors, with evidence of regional variation. It is given to a bride by her father for wear at the wedding activities and other festive occasions. It is first worn at a pre-nuptial ceremony, the henna ceremony. The Great Dress has five parts. They are: 1) jeltita, a velvet wrap skirt, with bands of gold embroidery; 2) gonbaiz, an open top with short sleeves; 3) punta/ktel, a plastron worn inside the gonbaiz; 4) kmam, wide muslin sleeves worn over the shoulders like a shawl and 5) hezam, a girdle/belt of gold lamé.


A sizable Jewish community existed in Yemen, on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. Yemenite costumes in the Miller Museum are from San’a, where the style of dress was distinct from that of rural Jews as well as from Muslim neighbors. Yemenite Jews retained their traditional costumes until the mid-20th century, when they immigrated to Israel.

Pictured are two women’s garments from the Yemenite culture: an antari, a black satin-finished cotton tunic or dress, and embroidered leggings. Leggings were the most characteristic piece of Yemenite dress, with ornamentation indicating the age and marital status of the wearer. Old, worn-out leggings were worn during menstruation.


This 1984 Marriam Cramer photograph from the Miller Museum Collection depicts costumes from perhaps the most interesting of all the scattered Jewish communities throughout the world—Ethiopia. It is not known how or when this Jewish community got to Ethiopia, but they were certainly there by Roman times. Jews lived in that part of Africa so long ago that, when the Jewish people elsewhere in the world—in Palestine and Babylon—developed the Talmud (the group oral traditions recorded in writing relating to the Torah) the Ethiopian Jews never received it—they were just too far away. In addition, they seem to have eventually lost their Hebrew, although Hebrew education is a very important part of every Jewish community. However, they continued to use the Hebrew Bible and, at some distant time, they translated it into their own language. They also continued to celebrate Jewish festivals, to read the Torah in their own language and to consider themselves Jews. Today, most of the Ethiopian Jewish population has immigrated to Israel.


Amulets have been used by people of many cultures as a means of warding off evil. The custom of wearing pieces of paper, parchment or metal inscribed with charms or formulas to protect the wearer is an ancient one.

The Museum owns a number of amulets, magical charms from Jewish communities of a century or so ago, mostly from the Near East. Although Jewish communities have not generally been associated with these magical charms, they were a custom in the recent past. The rabbis rather reluctantly allowed the making of these amulets as long as the words on them and the characters named were only those named in the Bible or of authentic religious texts or actual Biblical quotes—then they felt it was permissible. The amulet pictured is from Morocco.

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