How a Jewish female textile artist folded her identities into a challah cover

By Emma Cieslik
Ita Aber

Food plays a critical role in many Jewish religious festivities, such as challah bread at weekly Shabbat services or holidays. Whether baked into two long braids or a round domed crown, this bread, doused in shiny egg wash, is also covered with fabric for religious and functional purposes. Given the fabric’s importance, these challah covers often reflect the varied identities of their creators, as is the case for this challah cover created by Ita Aber, which is now part of the museum’s collection. This challah cover speaks to Aber’s inseparable identities as both a Jewish and American woman who values and celebrates both parts of herself in her textile art.

Two photos of Ita Aber’s Challah cover made with a red, white, and blue United States flag design. The cover also features a small bead map of Israel with six glass pointed stars.
Ita Aber’s Challah cover made with a red, white, and blue United States flag design. Additional glass stars were sewn onto the fabric star field to add a reflective, decorative touch in the light of the Shabbat candles. (1997.0047.01)

Aber (born Herschcovich), is a Jewish textile artist and activist whose 60-year career drew heavily on her interest in Jewish history, heritage, and practice. Born in Montreal, Canada on May 27, 1932, to Fannie Zabitsky and Tudick Hershcovich, her grandparents were German, Polish, Russian, and Romanian Bukhara. She grew up in a small Orthodox Jewish community, and began studying at the Montreal Hebrew Academy, later renamed the United Talmud Torahs of Montreal, in 1938, where she learned English, Hebrew, French, and Yiddish. Her multilingual education would later enable her work as a visa and immigration officer in Montreal and in New York City.

Two challah bread recipes
Just like their covers, challah bread recipes differ based on tradition, shown in these two challah bread recipes in American product cookbooks in the Archives Center’s Cookbook Collection. Look closer at the recipes and notice the differences in the instructions. Although the two recipes have nearly identical ingredients, their techniques are different, an indication of how challah breadmaking changed with the introduction of home breadmaking machines. Despite these differences, the result is the same eggy bread. Left: The Bread Oven Recipe Booklet, Welbilt, Archives Center Cookbook Collection. Right: Gut Shabbos Challeh recipe in the Festive Manna 1966 Cookbook, by Miriam Field and Standard Brands Incorporated, markers of Planters Oil, Archives Center Cookbook Collection. (AC 0510-0000002-04 and AC 0510-0000001-04)

Growing up, Aber felt the intimate effects of World War II, as she reflected in an artist statement. She was traumatized by accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust delivered through her family’s shortwave radio, “I was forever wakeful and worried … the anxiety and the memories linger indelibly.”

Reflecting on the period between 1939 and 1945, she wrote, “we knew that the Holocaust was happening, but the Jewish community was a tiny minority, and we could not influence the powers in Ottawa who were very antisemitic.” Aber explained that the Canadian government largely followed the example of the United States, preventing Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust and Nazi violence from entering the country. Only a few young Jewish German men were allowed into Montreal in 1941, and they were initially forced to live on an island outside the city.  

The local Jewish community mobilized to meet the young men’s needs, and Aber’s experiences with anti-semitism and Jewish community solidarity during World War II likely impacted the distinctly Jewish textile art she created after moving to New York City on April 24, 1954. She started off living with her sister and brother-in-law in Brooklyn. She had worked as a visa and immigration officer at the Consulate General of Israel in Montreal for two years until she transferred to the consulate in New York.  

In December of the same year, she married Joshua Aber and moved with him to Columbus, Georgia, while he served in the U.S. Army. As she was not a naturalized U.S. citizen, she could not work on a military post, so instead, in her own words, she “stayed home and painted and baked nonedible bread.”

The couple later moved to Mamaroneck, New York, in September 1955, where Ita Aber studied textile conservation at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center and began curating and conserving textiles at the Jewish Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Yeshiva University Museum. She also produced a variety of textile works, which can now be found in the collections of the Yeshiva University Museum, The Jewish Museum, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and the National Museum of American History, among many others.

Aber had long pursued textile arts, producing her first challah cover using pre-stamped fabric in 1954, the same year she moved to the United States. She used her skills in beadwork, embroidery, silkscreen, painting, assemblage, and weaving to reimagine traditional Jewish textiles. Torah covers, beaded mezuzah cases, Purim masks, and, in this case, a challah cover: these objects became her art in new and groundbreaking ways.  

For example, she often incorporated her focus on feminism and Jewish female resistance into her works. In an artist statement, she remarked that earlier in her career, “the word artist seemed a put down, particularly to Jewish women, whose artwork had been virtually ignored.” She wrote widely about uplifting female leadership in Jewish communities, and incorporated feminist motifs, including birth control emblems, into her work.

Ita Aber
 “Ita Aber Couching Yemenite Gold Thread on 24 Silk Mesh.” Courtesy of the Archives of American Art (22717)

The challah cover in the museum’s collection speaks to Aber’s exploration into how her Jewish and American identities intersect. The cover is made of an American flag-patterned fabric, including white stars on dark navy-blue fabric next to thick red and white stripes, all surrounded by a starred and striped trim. Embroidered onto the fabric is a bead map of Israel with six glass pointed stars, tying in the Star of David. As an immigrant, Aber experienced firsthand how her Jewish and American identities collided and comingled in interesting and fascinating ways.

The fusion of American and Jewish symbolism is a common thread throughout her artwork. In one work titled “Ode to the Patriot Missiles” or “Desert Storm,” in her Patriotic Series, a sand and brown-colored Star of David stands against a segment of a red, white, and blue striped and starred American flag. This red, white, and blue challah cover is an interesting piece in its functionality and reference to unrecognized female Jewish labor and creativity, as well as the continuation of Jewish traditions, like baking and breaking challah, in the United States.

Photograph of the artwork “Ode to the Patriot Missiles”
Photograph of “Ode to the Patriot Missiles” or “Desert Storm,” in her Patriotic Series, Red, White and Blue Design, Ita H. Aber papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Challah is an integral part of Jewish identity and custom, giving meaning to the objects that surround its making, covering, and breaking. Aber was intentional in creating an object whose American identity cannot exist without acknowledging its religious one, just as Aber’s textiles cannot exist without also acknowledging her Jewish heritage and religion.   

Emma Cieslik (she/her) is an intern in the museum’s Office of Curatorial Affairs, working with the new Center for the Understanding of Religion in American History. She is a graduate of Ball State University with a degree in public history, biology, and anthropology, and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Museum Studies at George Washington University.