How often do you think about the Ten Commandments?
I’m not talking about a gray-bearded Charlton Heston on Mount Sinai, gripping two stone tablets under a lightning-filled sky.
I mean the instructions you were taught as a child: to worship only God, to keep the Sabbath and to avoid doing things that most would agree are pretty bad: murder, idolatry, blasphemy, adultery, dishonesty and theft.
Even the most secular try to abide by these principles. They’re seen as universal edicts for decent behavior. All of which might make the Ten Commandments seem a little, well, quaint.
Artist Judith Prays began thinking about the commandments in 2011 out of frustration with how hard it was for her to make decisions.
“I started to research decision making, and I saw something that said that if you have a strong value system, it’s easier to make decisions,” Prays said. “I’d never thought about value systems before, and [then] I came across the Ten Commandments.”
She wanted to make the commandments more immediate in her life, so she handmade bracelets for herself — 10 simple copper bands, each with one commandment stamped on it.
“You see bracelets in a lot of different cultures — rave culture, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ — as a medium. They’re very social, and they constantly remind you of them, and they bring them into conversation a lot, so I was able to share the commandments,” she said.
Prays wore two or three bracelets at a time, and then started giving them to people who she felt needed them. One Shabbat evening, she encountered a woman standing outside a boutique, waiting for a man inside.
“She asked me about them, and I started reading them to her — ‘Don’t covet,’ ‘Don’t commit adultery’ — and her eyes got really big at ‘Don’t commit adultery.’ And it became clear that the guy she was with was a married man. She was freaking out, and I was, like, ‘You should probably take this.’ And she put it on, very hesitantly, and it was like she was taking on the commandment. You could see that change happening,” Prays said.
Prays eventually gave all her copper bands away, but that encounter sparked the idea for what’s become the Bracelet Project. She commissioned 10 artists to each make a bracelet based on one of the commandments. Then, 10 writers were each given a bracelet and wrote an essay based on his or her experience wearing it.
Prays has made a habit of organizing large-scale, hyper-interactive art projects. In 2010, she threw a “pheromone party” in New York, a matchmaking event based on smell, and soon after, similar events cropped up around the world. The Long Beach native, now 27, became more religiously observant around that time. She now lives an Orthodox Jewish life with her husband, Yonatan Mallinger, a filmmaker and jewelry maker, in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Mallinger made a bracelet based on the commandment “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” It responds to the religious edict that, on Shabbat, carrying a key is considered work, and therefore religious Jews carry their keys on chains around their neck or their waist.
“The irony of the thing, fashion-wise, is that Shabbos is when you dress up. You know, you wear your nicest clothes, and everyone’s wearing this nice outfit with this janky key contraption,” Prays said. Mallinger’s bracelet fits its house key snugly into a clasp, a far more fashionable choice.
Prays assigned the essays to various writers she knew, but for the commandment against murder, she wanted someone with a personal experience. For that one, she commissioned an essay from a prison inmate in Lancaster who is serving time for murder.
“I also wrote a letter to Bernie Madoff, to see if he would write for ‘don’t steal,’ but he hasn’t gotten back to me yet,” she said, laughing.
Prays’ sister, Alice Kurs, a prosecutor in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, wrote about the commandment against bearing false witness. Prays enlisted mixed-media artist Ashira Siegel to create the bracelet for that commandment.
“As a child, I definitely lied in very creative ways to get out of trouble,” Siegel said. Her bracelet is made with wire loosely wrapped in plaster, then wrapped again in black thread and coated in resin. The visible disconnect between the materials is designed to reveal the “breaks in communication” caused by lying, Siegel said.
Kyle Fitzpatrick, creator of the blog Los Angeles I’m Yours, wrote an essay in response to the commandment “Thou shalt not steal.” He decided to interpret stealing in the form of “stealing attention” because of his over-the-top fashion sensibility. His assigned bracelet was a pair of golden handcuffs. But he found that they attracted less notice than he anticipated. “I think that’s the nature of being a person who dresses a little more flamboyantly,” he said. “People aren’t fazed by things like that, and I was very surprised.”
Writer and director Joey Curtis, who co-wrote the screenplay for “Blue Valentine,” which starred Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, wrote about the first commandment: “Thou shalt not have any gods before me.”
“You can relate that to anything you put before God,” Curtis said. “In our culture, it’s really easy to prioritize other things, like work, before our spiritual practice.”
To celebrate the launch of the Bracelet Project, Prays wanted to emphasize the wisdom and light of the commandments. “I wanted to do it in a place where the Ten Commandments are not being followed, where it’s spiritually dark,” she said.
She discovered Lincoln Heights Jail, a vacant 1930s jail building in Los Angeles that is long-rumored to be haunted. The event on June 8 will feature light installations (inspired by the recent James Turrell retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, live music and interactive experiments that invite conversations around the Ten Commandments.
One of those will be a “mug-shot photo booth,” that will take photos that will be projected around the space. Another will be a “spiritual interrogation room,” where participants will be asked probing questions about their value systems.
Prays said she hopes the bracelets, essays and other extensions of the project help people think of the Ten Commandments as not just a Bible lesson, but also as a guide to living a more righteous life.
The Bracelet Project’s launch party will be held on June 8 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Lincoln Heights Jail in Los Angeles. The event is by invitation only — to request an invite, email firstname.lastname@example.org.