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Jewish Journal

An Art Form

Temple Isaiah hosts its annual Festival of Jewish Artisans

by Ruth Stroud

November 12, 1998 | 7:00 pm

Artists from places as far afield as Brooklyn, Baltimore and Tal-Shahar, Israel, and as near as Beverly Hills will be exhibiting at the 18th annual Festival of Jewish Artisans at Temple Isaiah on Nov. 21-22. Among the crafts on the display will be sandblasted glass, ceramics, gold and silver jewelry, textiles, calligraphy, papercutting, photography and inlaid wood. Eleven of the 28 artists are new to the festival, but many have been exhibiting in the social hall of the Pico Boulevard synagogue for years.

"It may not be the largest of the Judaic art festivals, but it is probably the nicest, quality-wise," said Ruth Shapiro, a jeweler and silversmith who has been exhibiting there for 14 years. Shapiro, a Mar Vista resident, was one of 100 women artists from all over the world who participated recently in the Miriam's Cup competition in New York -- a competition to create a vessel to commemorate the part Miriam played in the Exodus from Egypt. Trained as a nurse, Shapiro began her career 15 years ago when she took a class in the technique of lost-wax casting at Santa Monica College. At Isaiah, she will sell mezuzot, yads, jewelry and other items. Judaic art "is absolutely booming," she said. "When I started, there were only a handful of Judaic artists working in metal, and I thought I knew every one. Now, I don't."

This is the first Isaiah show for Ruth Levi, a papercut artist and calligrapher who makes custom ketubot, as well as wall-hangings, mezuzot and other Judaic items. "I'm really excited," said Levi, who recently moved to Los Angeles from New York with her husband, Rabbi Peter Levi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Levi, 28, who is expecting the couple's first child in February, became a full-time artist two years ago after several years as a grammar school teacher. Meeting fellow artists and getting exposure is an important motivation for participating in the festival, she said. "It also helps me to get a sense of what people like."

The festival, among the first of its kind in the country, has inspired similar festivals throughout the United States, says founder Jean Abarbanel. An arts educator, Abarbanel co-chairs the festival with Marcia Reines Josephy, director of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum and a well-known art historian. Since the show's humble beginning as part of a temple lecture series on Jewish art, attendance has mushroomed to about 1,200 visitors. It attracts artists from as far away as Brazil, Israel and Canada, as well as from large and small towns across the U.S. There are four exhibitors from the tiny coastal town of Willits, Calif., in Mendocino County, where a small cadre of Judaica artisans thrive.

The show is "juried," which means artists must send in slides of their work to be considered for the 28 to 29 available spaces. "We have a roster of over 300 artists from all over the world that we send applications to," Abarbanel said. Selection criteria include the uniqueness, quality and Jewish character of the work. And the objects must be functional. "We want Judaic objects, as opposed to paintings or sculptures," Abarbanel said. "The idea is that people will own objects that can be family heirlooms. And these objects carry the values of our culture. They're the way we maintain our identity as Jews."

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