January 27, 2020

Gifts of art from the heart

As bar and bat mitzvah celebrations have become more sophisticated and often more costly over the years, so, too, have many of the gifts. While many 12- and 13-year-olds continue to welcome fountain pens or jewelry, it’s not unusual for a celebrant to request an iPod or contributions toward a tablet or new computer.

Those wishing to give a more personalized gift with Jewish meaning have more to choose from than at any other time, but it’s still difficult to find items created specifically with bar and bat mitzvah kids in mind. That’s started to change in Israel, where Judaica artisans have begun to design affordable items for this niche market.

Dvora Black, who works from a studio in her home near Jerusalem, creates multicolored bar and bat mitzvah photo frames with a personalized message and dedication in Hebrew. For boys, a pair of tefillin, the tablets of the Ten Commandments and the Tree of Life are set against a Western Wall background. For girls, the landscape of Jerusalem is surrounded by Israeli wildflowers and doves. Black also sells wall-art blessings, great for sons and daughters of all ages. Depending on their size, these cost anywhere from $35 to $50 (dvorablack.com).

Black said she created the wall art “because I have children and always bless them on Friday night during Shabbat, and it’s the kind of thing I would want my child to receive. I made them for my own children and added them to my portfolio.”

While there are no gift-giving rules for b’nai mitzvah, she acknowledged, “A bar or bat mitzvah is a special occasion. It’s not just another birthday.”

Yair Emanuel, a well-known Jerusalem Judaica artist (emanuel-judaica.com/store), has created jewelry boxes for bat mitzvah girls that range from $25 to $46. One is painted with Jerusalem-inspired themes; another features embroidery.

Emanuel also makes colorful wooden yads, or pointers, used during Torah readings ($29).

Emanuel’s extensive line of hand-painted raw silk and other tallitot, though not specifically for b’nai mitzvah, are very popular gifts. They range from $90 to a little more than $200.

The artist, who was raised in a “very religious home” but described himself as “moderately” religious now, said he began designing pastel and brightly colored tallitot for women more than 20 years ago.

“At the time there were not many women wearing tallitot, but that’s changed in the past 15 years or so. Most [of my customers] are progressive Jews who don’t want to wear tallitot designed for men,” Emanuel said. 

Some of his female clients own several tallitot, “to coordinate with their clothes. I have one customer with 17 different tallitot. For her, they are not only a ritual object but a fashion accessory.” 

Avner Moriah, a respected Israeli artist who has created two large murals for the Jewish Theological Seminary as well as “The Moriah Haggadah” and Scrolls of Esther for individual collectors, among other projects, has designed a series of signed prints depicting scenes from the weekly Torah portions.

His works, including landscapes, have been acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Jewish Museum, the Skirball Cultural Center, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as many others.

Moriah (avnermoriahprints.com), who is currently creating an illuminated Torah, decided seven years ago to design 16-by-12-inch weekly portion panels, both as works of art and educational tools.

The panels depict both images and textual excerpts from the weekly parasha.

“I thought it would be a way to help every child visualize the text. There are so many kids with ADD [attention deficit disorder]. I’m dyslexic, and I suffered as a child. This way, the parasha means something to the kids.”

As with his other work, Moriah draws inspiration from the ancient cultures of the Middle East.

“Since in Jewish culture there was very little art done at the time, I look at art done around the Middle East during that period. If you look at the Book of Genesis, you see that the themes can also be found in different cultures, which isn’t surprising because there was a lot of interaction between the different traditions. I went to the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, the Metropolitan Museum; I looked at the art of the Egyptians, the Assyrians and the Greeks.”

Given his focus on Judaic themes, many people assume Moriah is observant.

“I am Jewish, but I’m not religious,” he said. “I think the fact that I am not religious lends me much more freedom. I have no inhibitions about looking to other cultures.”

He is the first to admit that “it is very unusual to find a secular Israeli who delves into the texts,” but he finds no conflict between his love of Jewish texts and lack of religious observance.

An established landscape artist, Moriah shifted gears at the start of the Second Intifada, when he felt unsafe painting outdoors as bombs were exploding in much of the country.

Although many of Moriah’s pieces are of museum quality and costly, he has kept the price of the weekly Torah portion series relatively low, “because it’s a bar  or bat mitzvah gift. If I go overboard, it would defeat the purpose,” he said.