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Jewish Journal

Jewish Art Makeover

Judaica artists push the envelope by reinventing some religious objects.


by Julie Wiener

September 6, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Torah cover by Temma Gentles and Dorothy Ross, is in one of the ceremonial objects competitions at Chicago's Spertus Museum.

Torah cover by Temma Gentles and Dorothy Ross, is in one of the ceremonial objects competitions at Chicago's Spertus Museum.

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.

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