Jewish Art Makeover

A women’s tefillin set with a beaded velvet box and blue satin straps.

A silver "Kiddush" cup in which ceremonial wine passes through a delicately crafted silver net formed from the Hebrew word for "blessed."

A sukkah with brightly painted walls made of the long, plastic

strips found in industrial-sized refrigerators — and furnished with stools and a mirrored table symbolizing the self-reflection expected during the High Holy Days.

This is not your parents’ Judaica.

For years, Jewish ritual objects and Jewish fine arts have occupied very different domains.

Ceremonial objects, mostly produced by artisans, often mimicked traditional styles and — while beautiful and useful — were not necessarily cutting-edge artistically.

Jewish fine arts pieces, in contrast, have generally been more about aesthetics and ideas than ritual function.

But partly due to the encouragement of several Jewish institutions, numerous Jewish and non-Jewish artists are using their skills and creativity to reinterpret items used in Jewish worship.

"There’s more blurring of the lines between art and functional Judaica," said Susan Braunstein, curator of archaeology and Judaica for the Jewish Museum in New York.

The Jewish Museum recently created a staff position focusing on "contemporary ceremonial art," and is seeking artists who are "working within tradition but pushing the boundaries," Braunstein said.

The Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion recently marked the seminary’s 125th anniversary by inviting 153 artists to create "contemporary and innovative works of Jewish ceremonial art," according to the catalog for the resulting exhibition.

Since 1994, the Spertus Museum of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago has sponsored biennial competitions focusing on specific ceremonial objects. The Jewish Museum San Francisco also sponsors competitions for Jewish ritual objects.

A new national project — called "Avoda: Objects of the Spirit" — reaches out to young Jewish artists with workshops in which they create avant-garde ceremonial objects.

Spertus — which gets 150 to 180 entrants for each competition — has offered prizes for Torah scroll covers, Chanukah menorahs, seder plates and Havdalah spice boxes, and has created exhibits of the top pieces. The next competition will be for mezuzot.

"The people who designed them are not just artisans; they’re architects, they’re designers and, as a result, the pieces we receive are extremely unusual and avant-garde, even ones where they’re basing the designs on traditional ideas," said Olga Weiss, Spertus’ curator for special exhibitions.

In the HUC exhibit — which will become a permanent feature with rotating artwork — pieces included Torah scrolls, tzedakah boxes, spice boxes for Havdalah, mezuzot, seder plates, matzah covers and chuppot, or wedding canopies.

The new pieces experiment with a variety of materials, ranging from fabric, gems, wood and silver to old Jewish National Fund tins and — in the case of a Miriam’s cup, for a new feminist Passover ritual — a pomegranate skin.

Many also offer a modern spin on Jewish rituals.

For example, an embroidered and painted matzah cover created by Judy Chicago of New Mexico — who is nationally known for her feminist art — has images of three women in the hagaddah, personalities who generally don’t get a lot of attention in the retelling of the "Exodus" story. A sukkah has wooden chairs painted and decorated with objects that symbolize biblical heroines such as Esther and Sarah.

A feather and candle for use in checking the home for foods that cannot be eaten during Passover sits in a silver tractor reminiscent of those used on kibbutzim.

While most artists created new versions of existing ritual objects, some developed pieces for new rituals.

Ayana Friedman of Jerusalem created "Deborah’s Throne," a chair covered with crimson velvet, for baby girls to sit on during the simchat bat, or girls’ naming ceremony, a relatively new ritual. Friedman, who also created the blue velvet women’s tefillin, describes the piece as "the feminist response to the ‘Elijah’s Throne’ on which baby boys are circumcised."

Michael Berkowitz of New York made a large purple and black paper cut amulet to protect those around it from "madness" and depression.

"The artists are not trying to replicate and simply reiterate the forms of the past, which is what you basically find for the most part in a lot of high-priced Jewish shops," said Jean Bloch Rosensaft, exhibitions director for HUC.

"They’re trying to make Judaica that speaks to the consciousness of our own time."

Berkowitz, 48, whose work has appeared in a variety of Jewish and secular venues, sees his interest in Jewish art as part of a larger trend of artists "going back to their roots as inspiration." He grew up attending yeshiva and, as a child, wanted to be a rabbi until he became more interested in art.

"For me, the impulse has always been the same," he said. "I’ve seen being an artist as something of a spiritual guide between the divine and the mundane."

It has not always been so easy finding a niche for his work.

While the symbols of other faiths often make their way into fine arts pieces, Berkowitz said, "there’s a big resistance to people looking at anything with Jewish calligraphy or Jewish symbolism as being anything other than Judaica. And the Judaica audience is very traditional and resists anything that looks too different."

However, he said, that is starting to change.

Alyssa Dee Krauss, 38, of Leeds, Mass., who created the "Kiddush" cup with the silver netting, welcomed the HUC exhibit for its "contemporary and more updated questioning of traditional practices."

"There’s a little pushing of that edge, of contemporary accepted standard ways of doing things," Krauss said. "Whenever I see that, I’m always excited."

Both HUC and Spertus distributed reference materials on Judaism and rituals in order to help guide the artists — who range from those working primarily in Jewish themes to those who have little Jewish education to those who are not even Jewish — in reimagining the objects.

The Jewish Museum, which is approaching some Jewish and non- Jewish artists, is developing a guide that will explain Jewish ritual objects to artists, craftspeople and industrial designers not familiar with the requirements of the rituals.

The new HUC pieces range in price from $75 to $75,000 — many of which are being purchased by synagogues and individuals.

"Apparently there’s a demand for something that’s a little different," Weiss said.

That’s a Mezzuzah?

Late November and early December is Chanukah festival time in L.A. This weekend, no less than 30 artisans from all over the globe will converge on West L.A.’s Temple Isaiah for the Festival of Jewish Artisans, which celebrates its second decade this year. Making her first appearance at the annual event will be metal artist Aimée Golant – a young artist not much older than the Festival itself – who fashions mezuzot and menorahs in a quasi-abstract style.

Now based in San Francisco, Golant, 27, is actually a local girl who grew up in L.A.’s Carthay Circle. In her work, she not only draws on inspiration from her grandparents’ Polish heritage (grandpa is from Chmielnik, grandma is from Lodz), but from their history – the Beverlywood residents are Holocaust survivors. During the war, Golant’s grandfather, who had a reputation for working with his hands, was chosen to work at a Nazi office as a machinist, while her grandmother accompanied him, employed as a maid. Golant said that when her grandparents first saw her work, they couldn’t believe that the Holocaust had touched her life.

Golant, who attended San Francisco State, has always felt connected to her Jewishness. She went to Hebrew school as a youth and lived in Israel for two months when she was 15. At a Holocaust museum there, she saw concentration camp footage that she said moved her more than a “Schindler’s List” ever could. And she relishes the fact that her pieces can be something of an enigma.

“People who aren’t Jewish don’t have the foggiest idea what they are,” she said, “and Jews sometimes look at them and say, ‘That’s a mezuzah?'”

Since 1998, Golant has been working on her own, attending trade shows and selling her art wholesale to galleries, museum shops and museums. And her work will, quite literally, reach unprecedented heights with her “barbed wire mezuzah,” which was commissioned by the 1939 Club to be taken into space by an Israeli astronaut who wants to take along a symbol of the Holocaust.

The 20th Annual Festival of Jewish Artisans takes place Nov. 18-19. An opening concert, “Celebrate,” will feature Rev. Andrae Crouch and Cantor Evan Kent. For more information, call (310) 277-2772. Sample art can be viewed Aimée Golant’s work can be seen at

An Art Form

Artists from places as far afield as Brooklyn, Baltimore and Tal-Shahar, Israel, and as near as Beverly Hills will be exhibiting at the 18th annual Festival of Jewish Artisans at Temple Isaiah on Nov. 21-22. Among the crafts on the display will be sandblasted glass, ceramics, gold and silver jewelry, textiles, calligraphy, papercutting, photography and inlaid wood. Eleven of the 28 artists are new to the festival, but many have been exhibiting in the social hall of the Pico Boulevard synagogue for years.

“It may not be the largest of the Judaic art festivals, but it is probably the nicest, quality-wise,” said Ruth Shapiro, a jeweler and silversmith who has been exhibiting there for 14 years. Shapiro, a Mar Vista resident, was one of 100 women artists from all over the world who participated recently in the Miriam’s Cup competition in New York — a competition to create a vessel to commemorate the part Miriam played in the Exodus from Egypt. Trained as a nurse, Shapiro began her career 15 years ago when she took a class in the technique of lost-wax casting at Santa Monica College. At Isaiah, she will sell mezuzot, yads, jewelry and other items. Judaic art “is absolutely booming,” she said. “When I started, there were only a handful of Judaic artists working in metal, and I thought I knew every one. Now, I don’t.”

This is the first Isaiah show for Ruth Levi, a papercut artist and calligrapher who makes custom ketubot, as well as wall-hangings, mezuzot and other Judaic items. “I’m really excited,” said Levi, who recently moved to Los Angeles from New York with her husband, Rabbi Peter Levi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Levi, 28, who is expecting the couple’s first child in February, became a full-time artist two years ago after several years as a grammar school teacher. Meeting fellow artists and getting exposure is an important motivation for participating in the festival, she said. “It also helps me to get a sense of what people like.”

The festival, among the first of its kind in the country, has inspired similar festivals throughout the United States, says founder Jean Abarbanel. An arts educator, Abarbanel co-chairs the festival with Marcia Reines Josephy, director of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum and a well-known art historian. Since the show’s humble beginning as part of a temple lecture series on Jewish art, attendance has mushroomed to about 1,200 visitors. It attracts artists from as far away as Brazil, Israel and Canada, as well as from large and small towns across the U.S. There are four exhibitors from the tiny coastal town of Willits, Calif., in Mendocino County, where a small cadre of Judaica artisans thrive.

The show is “juried,” which means artists must send in slides of their work to be considered for the 28 to 29 available spaces. “We have a roster of over 300 artists from all over the world that we send applications to,” Abarbanel said. Selection criteria include the uniqueness, quality and Jewish character of the work. And the objects must be functional. “We want Judaic objects, as opposed to paintings or sculptures,” Abarbanel said. “The idea is that people will own objects that can be family heirlooms. And these objects carry the values of our culture. They’re the way we maintain our identity as Jews.”