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Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Non-Jewish Custom Mezuzah Maker

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Ric von Neumann lives deep in a forest in Ontario, Canada, where he makes handcrafted custom mezuzot. However, von Neumann isn’t Jewish. He didn’t even know what a mezuzah was until he was searching for a wedding gift for Jewish friends and his wife  — who is Jewish — suggested a mezuzah.

Von Neumann was once a jeweler for 10 years, a craft that developed his fine motor skills and attention to detail. But he found that making jewelry for a living “took the fun out if it,” so he became a construction worker. After 20 years in that trade, he said, “I was a skilled carpenter and craftsperson. The combination of jewelry making and woodworking were pretty much a slam dunk as far as the skills needed to create the mezuzahs.”

Jewish Journal: How did you manage to start making mezuzahs when you didn’t even know what they were?

Ric von Neumann: I did a little research, but this was pre-internet. My wife explained what it was, so I knew there was religious significance to it, and I didn’t want to be inappropriate. So I went to a local synagogue gift shop and the first mezuzah I saw was a Formula One racing car. After seeing that, I felt I could have freedom in designing [them]. I started making one-of-a-kind pieces customized to the recipient — something about an interest of theirs, their career or profession. The first dozen or so were just gifts.

JJ: You must have known a lot of Jewish people to give them to.

RvN: That’s true. Although I’m not Jewish, my wife is. And growing up, my father was an art professor and my mother was a social worker. My parents had a lot of Jewish friends, predominantly tied to the University of Illinois, where my father worked. And then in 1998 I moved from San Diego to Algonquin Park in Ontario. There’s a campsite here and it was  founded by a Jewish gentleman. The owner is Jewish, and the majority of summer campers are Jewish. 

“I’ve basically given away some [mezuzahs] because the stories are so heartfelt and sentimental that I feel bad charging for them. It’s more about the feeling and the heart part of it.”

JJ: How are you involved with the camp?

RvN: There’s 7,000 square-kilometers of forest. I teach woodworking during the summer camp season. During the off-season, I build cabins, carve totem poles, build canoes and fix whatever needs fixing. 

JJ: Was religion a part of your life growing up?

RvN: Not really. My wife’s family was a little more religious and honored the holidays. But growing up, we celebrated Hanukkah with our Jewish friends.

JJ: What materials do you use when creating your mezuzahs?

RvN: I use precious and semiprecious metals: copper, brass, aluminum, gold, sterling silver. For wood, I’ve been using gorgeous tropical hardwoods. I also use precious and semiprecious stones. I inherited many tools and materials from my father, from his work as a goldsmith, and I’m slowly depleting the inherited material. I’m trying to wean myself off the exotic hardwoods because the desire for these woods is wiping out the rainforest. I’m trying to use more typical wood. 

JJ: How long does it take you to make a custom mezuzah?

RvN: It really depends. I’ve made some baseball bat-shaped ones, 5  or 6 inches long, that I’ve done in an hour. A grand piano or other smaller scale models, like guitars, can take 50 or 60 hours. Every tuning peg, every screw on the guitars is made by hand.

JJ: What are some of your most memorable pieces or customers?

RvN: A mini grand piano was commissioned by friends of mine for one of their friends who had been an aspiring concert pianist when she was younger. She wound up going into law and became the first Jewish woman to serve on the Canadian Supreme Court. She loved the piano and still plays. This project really took on a life of its own, as many of them do, in terms of design and technical challenges. It took countless hours to make it.

There was also a couple that sent me shards from the glass that was stomped on from their wedding, and I put it in a mezuzah. I’ve also done them for people who have lost someone. I did one that was a family memento scale model of a wooden boat that was special to someone’s father. 

JJ: Do you include the klaf (scroll) with your mezuzah cases?

RvN: I give people the option of a scroll. I have non-blessed ones that I include free of charge, and I have a source for blessed ones if they want that. 

JJ: What is the price range for your work?

RvN: It’s mostly in the $200–$300 price range. I sell some less detailed, more generic pieces for about $100. With all the work that goes into them, I usually only wind up making a few dollars per hour when it’s done. Friends and family have said that I need to charge more, but it’s never been about the money to me. I’ve basically given away some pieces because the stories are so heartfelt and sentimental that I feel bad charging for them. It’s more about the feeling and the heart part of it.

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