Modern Judaica: Today’s Makers, Today’s Sacred Objects by Jim Cohen
Reviewed by Janet Kelman
Modern Judaica, by Jim Cohen, is a book to treasure. Included are works by over 50 of the most talented contemporary Judaica artists. While most of the artists reside in the United States, several others live in Israel, the Netherlands, England, and Australia. Cohen interviewed each artist and includes a conversational chronicle of their family background. Stunning photographs adorn the text. The author says, “I stand in awe of these men and women. Their work is tied together by their passion.”
Through the interviews, we learn about what brought each artist to create Judaica. While the photographs are breathtaking, the narratives form a complementary, perhaps even more engaging, aspect to the book. Each artist tells a unique story. Several artists were raising children when they felt a need to surround their family with a rich, spiritual home. One artist, Cynthia Eid, sent her children to Hebrew school, began studying herself, and converted between her sons’ bar mitzvahs. She saw a catalogue of a Judaica show about menorahs and was entranced. One of her silver Seder plates was exhibited in the Spertus Seder plate competition.
Most artists featured in Modern Judaica were raised to be aware of their Jewish heritage. Avner Moriah grew up in Israel. After graduating from Bezalel, in Jerusalem, he attended Yale’s School of Art and was commissioned to create murals for the Jewish Theological Seminary building in New York. Moriah notes that Gershon Kekst, z”l, chairman of the JTS Board, was the “individual most responsible for turning me on to biblical texts.” Moriah went on to create The Illustrated Five Books of Moses, which is placed in some of the most prestigious libraries and museums around the world. Paula Newman Pollachek, who grew up in a strong Jewish home and trained as a silversmith, says, “I see Judaica as the perfect mix of art and function. I love that the pieces are used, valued as a special part in a Jewish family, and also displayed as art in the home while it’s not functioning for the ritual.”
Some of the book’s artists create Judaica as one of a kind commissions and others offer pieces that are made in multiples and so are more affordable. The commissioned works include Torah covers, parochets, ketuvahs, eternal lights, tallises that incorporate family heirlooms, and the mosaic wall of a mikvah. Jeanette Kuvin Oren has worked with over 400 synagogues and Jewish organizations to create site-specific fabric art. Oren says, “I enjoy the intense communication with the stakeholders and helping them get to a consensus. Communication helps me hone the designs and keeps members involved at every point in the process.” She created Torah covers for the Tree of Life Congregation, in Pittsburgh, beginning in 2007. After the shooting in 2018, a Torah was commissioned in memory of the victims and Oren designed and sewed the Torah cover.
Idelle Hammond-Sass, a jeweler working in Ann Arbor, has created intimate Judaica, an eternal light, for her small congregation. Also pictured is a menorah and a tzedakah box of gold and silver. Hammond-Sass says, “To me, Judaica is intertwined with the individual’s Jewish experience. To look at a beautiful Kiddush cup is to experience one level of joy. To use it activates and elevates the object.”
Tamar Paley, who lives in Jerusalem, fashions wearable ritual objects for women. She trained as a jeweler/designer. Paley explains, “A lot of my designs are more conceptual rather than practical, well-crafted pieces that when worn make a strong statement and have the power to evoke change.” “Seven Blessings for a Woman” and “Tallit” sprang from Paley’s imagination in order to offer ritual objects that reflect women’s concerns: protection, healing, and gratitude. The focus of “Tallit” is a hard silver atarah that spells out part of the Modeh Ani prayer in the feminine. “The pieces in this collection usually combine metals and textiles. There are rules about which fabric can be used in tallit, and different traditions that relate to how to tie the tzitzit. I gave a lot of thought to those issues. I bought the traditional fringe and learned how to tie them, but ultimately, I decided that in doing so, I would lose the freedom I wanted in creating something new. I didn’t want to be bound to any rules or restrictions but rather capture the essence of the original ritual objects.” Paley’s work also includes a striking bracelet (phylacteries) constructed of sterling silver, acrylic string, and a digitally printed parchment.
Lynne Avadenka is an artist living in Huntington Woods, Michigan. She describes her approach to Judaica in this way. “A constant in my work is an ongoing engagement with Jewish subject matter: classic texts, history, ritual, and ceremony. The powerful combination of traditional Judaic content and the choices I make as a contemporary American artist present a challenge: to create a synthesis — inspired by tradition and informed by modernity — and preserve the ancient spirituality of the material while connecting it to a wide audience in the present.” “World Book,” a piece Avadenka created for a show at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum, is a haggadah inscribed on a 12” diameter globe. “The lettering is totally freehand. I started at the top and just spiraled it around. The globe opens up and contains the seder plate and the matzo tray, held in place by magnets.” “World Book” is a feast for the eyes. Delicate calligraphy floats over a sumptuously mottled field of gray and white.
Anika Smulovitz, who lives in Boise, Idaho, is a silversmith who creates personal, one of a kind objects that relate to family and home. For her daughter, she cast a unique silver candleholder each year until, at age nine, the collection became a Chanukah menorah. For her son’s bar mitzvah, Smulovitz cast his finger in silver and presented him with a yad.
Hillel Smith is a graphic artist and a wild man. He has advertised Shabbat each week through a concert poster. “Each one incorporates the name of the Torah portion in Hebrew into the design and tries to tell the whole story in this very minimal graphic design language.” He asks, “How do I completely reinvent the alphabet to keep it interesting for me?” He has created sets of dreidels, of painted wood, that invite you to play. Every Purim, he makes mishloach manot boxes to pass out to friends. One featured images of Mordechai and Haman. Turn it upside down and it reads the same, Mordechai and Haman. Wildly reimagining Judaica, Smith favors boundaries that touch distant horizons.
The compilation of Modern Judaica, as a chronicle of artists and their work, was an inspired creation for Jim Cohen. The intriguing narratives and spectacular photographs make this book essential for readers who love and value ritual objects. Its significance will only increase with the passage of time.