November 15, 2001
Midrash in Metal
Don't get Chava Wolpert Richard started on the subject of kitschy Jewish ceremonial art.
"Those blue-and-green seder plates -- such ugliness!" says Richard, a metalworker whose sleek, modern designs are featured in the collections of museums such as the Skirball and the Smithsonian. "There is so much clumsy Judaica that is copied from 17th- or 18th-century work. But I believe that new concepts can give people a sense of Judaism's relevance to the present. Using a Jewish ceremonial object should be an aesthetic experience that brings contemporary meaning to the mitzvah."
The Rego Park, N.Y., designer, who'll attend the 21st annual Festival of Jewish Artisans at Temple Isaiah on Nov. 17 and 18, aims to create modern Midrash in metal. Her Passover leaven-collector, shaped like a wheelbarrow to recall Egyptian slave labor, sprouts a flower-like candleholder to symbolize springtime. A deep burgundy yahrtzeit glass, designed to honor Richard's late husband, allows the candle to glow through transparent Hebrew script reading "The lamp of the Lord is the spirit of man." Her gold-plated pewter dreidel was featured in New York Magazine's 1994 Chanukah issue.
It's no accident that some of her designs are reminiscent of the German Bauhaus school, whose members felt that form followed function. Richard's late father, Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert -- believed to be the 20th century's master Judaica designer -- studied with Bauhaus members before creating in 1929 what is considered the first modern seder plate. The ebony, glass and silver piece "was a complete revolution in Jewish design," says Richard, who was a baby when her family fled Nazi Germany to Palestine in 1935. "It is recognized as the turning point that started the contemporary Judaica movement."
In Jerusalem, Richard's father founded the metal department of the renowned Bezalel School of Art, but barely eked out a living. "So my parents didn't want me to become an artist," she recalls. "They thought I should study biology, but circumstances intervened. Because we couldn't afford the tuition money for Hebrew University, I enrolled in Bezalel in 1954 because it was free."
Two years later, Richard was unceremoniously kicked out of the school when Wolpert left to become artist-in-residence at the Jewish Museum in New York. In 1958, she followed her father to Manhattan, apprenticed in his studio, and eventually collaborated with him on several important works.
Ultimately, she served as artist-in-residence at the Jewish Museum and earned a reputation as an artist in her own right.
In 1996, Richard created her landmark seder plate, "Generation After Generation: We Keep on Overturning the Pyramids," in which five pyramids invert to become food containers. "It's meant to symbolize the overturning of oppressive Egyptian rule," says Richard, who rendered the piece in the faux-marble kitchen counter material corian.
In a way, the piece pays homage to her father: "In the first part of the 20th century, he created a landmark seder plate, and I tried to close the century with a plate of my own that had a new concept," she says.
The plate went on to win the prestigious Mellman award for best in Judaica at an interdenominational exhibit in 1997.
But, Richard insists, awards are less important to her than creating the work itself. "Making Jewish ceremonial art is the only meaningful thing to me artistically," she says. "I love the opportunity to help people connect to their Judaism in a very real way."