Artisans in Silver: Judaica Today

 By Elisabeth R. Agro

Judaica are Jewish ritual objects found either in the home or synagogue, and are integral to the rituals, celebrations, and holidays throughout the Jewish calendar. The artists who produce Judaica strive to create sacred objects that will enrich a participant's observance and reflect the talmudic idea of hiddur mitzvah: "the glorification and enhancement of Jewish ceremonies" or "observance in beauty." Thus each object graces and embellishes a particular ceremony, and the creative process of making beautiful, well-designed Judaica is also a contribution to hiddur mitzvah.
 Harold Rabinowitz's Torah Crown reflects his current free-flowing and sculptural style.  The straps represent ceremonial bindings (retzuot) of Tefillin (leather boxes containing bibilical inscriptions).  The spheres symbolize the Twelve Tribes of Israel.  The Hebrew inscription,  which comes from the Zohar,  the book of Splendor used for Sabbath services,  quotes the second line of the prayer: "Blessed is the name of the Master of the universe,  Blessed is your crown and your place."

Because Judaic objects relate to religious ceremonies, a basic consistency of ideas can be seen in the various types of Judaica. A Hanukkah lamp, for instance, has a recognizable form in the use of eight receptacles (either for oil or candles)-one for each day of the holiday, plus one called a shamash or "servant," which is used to ignite the others.

Although ritual use governs Judaic design, the ethnic diversity of Jewish communities worldwide produces many national and regional styles. Spice boxes, called hadassim (used in the Havdalah ceremony at the conclusion of Sabbath), are typical objects subject to regional interpretation. Those boxes made in Eastern Europe are reminiscent of the fortification towers that still stand in such cities as Prague. Decorative flags, shingles, and domes often top these hadassim. Indeed, a preference for historical styles, often derived from baroque and rococo models, influences the design of traditional Judaica.

Spices in the ceremony symbolize the spiritual riches of Sabbath, and are blessed to ensure "that the new week should be fragrant in deeds," says Louis Jacobs in The Book of Jewish Belief (1984). The ritual of Havdalah (the Hebrew word means "separation, division") celebrates separation from Sabbath and distinguishes the holy Sabbath from the secular workweek. The blessing is made over wine, candles and spices.

Robyn Nichol's Willow Branches Hannukah lamp (1996) refers to the willow branches specifically used for Sukkot,  a historical and agricultural festival.  Her work is a typically stylized representation of organic forms,  which is evident in the abstract flowing lines of Willow Branches.

The ritualistic rules are basic to the contemporary designs of artists who create Judaica, but the 20th century has developed its own creative traditions. For example, the artist and teacher Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert (1900-1981) advocated contemporary design and promoted the production of Judaica in non-historic styles. A former professor of metalwork at the New Bezalel School for Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem, Wolpert came from Israel in 1956 to direct the Tobe Pascher Workshop at the Jewish Museum in New York, and his emphasis on artistic freedom and innovation can be seen in the work of his many former students.

Contemporary Judaica is made by both Jewish and non-Jewish artists, but all share a deep personal respect for the process of making spiritual objects for ritual use. This attitude was clearly fundamental to the four whom I interviewed about their craftsmanship: Robyn Nichols, Kurt Matzdorf, Sue Amendolara, and Harold Rabinowitz.

Robyn Nichols, a silversmith from Kansas City, produces a wide range of Jewish ceremonial objects in silver, including alms boxes, Sabbath candlesticks, and Havdalah sets. Nichols is not Jewish, but she studies Judaism to ensure her designs have Jewish significance and also adhere to Jewish law. She consults rabbis to receive clarification and answers to her questions, and to ensure that her use of the Hebrew language is correct. She admires Hebrew lettering and incorporates it regularly into her work. Stories from the Torah, the Jewish Bible, and traditional Jewish symbolism also influence her work. While keeping the function of the object integral to her final design, Nichols enjoys interpreting each Judaic object in her personal style. When she speaks about producing Judaica, she confesses that she gets goose bumps because the subject can be so moving. Knowing that her objects are cherished and are passed on within families inspires her to continue making Judaica.

Sue Amendolara's work,  whether jewelry or scent bottles,  is usually inspired by various forms of plant life.  The shape of Palmetto Spice Box (1996) is borrowed from a fan-leafed palm she photographed on a recent trip to Morocco.  Incorporating this motif into a religious object presented her with a new challenge.

Kurt Matzdorf spends half of his time creating Judaica. The rest of his work consists of secular objects and jewelry. Matzdorf, a silversmith from New Paltz, New York, and professor emeritus of gold and silversmithing at State University of New York, has been working silver for 43 years. He enjoys working in a contemporary style, making objects that are of "today, but yet are timeless." He believes that since we live in the present, his mission is to interpret Judaica for contemporary people.

Matzdorf sees the history of art and sculpture from antiquity to present shaping his work and avoids "faddish styles." Matzdorf began his artistic career as a sculptor and says he evolved into a silversmith. His roots as a sculptor are evident in the Tree of Life motif on his Kiddush Cup. Currently working on doors for an ark-the permanent storage place for the Torah-for the Congregation of Beth Jacobs in Kingston, New York, he will include on the doors decorative symbols alluding to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. He sees his work in precious metal as "celebrating visually our history."

Sue Amendolara, silversmith and associate professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, submitted her work to this exhibition because the long tradition of Judaica engages her creativity. Amendolara is noted for her scent bottles, and she discovered that a spice box provided a natural transition from secular to spiritual work. Although Palmetto Spice Box was her first attempt at executing a "spiritual work," she believes that a strong relationship exists between the silversmith and the ritual object. She has been asked to make another Palmetto Spice Box and plans to participate in future Judaica exhibitions.

Kurt Matzdorf's Kiddush Cup (1983) has strong scultpural presence although it is small in scale.  Kiddush,  which means "sanctification," celebrates two biblical events:  Creation and the Exodus.  Kiddush is a prayer declaring that the Sabbath is holy and it is recited over the wine at Sabbath and holiday meals.  The Kiddush cup is a special goblet that contains the wine to be blessed.

A maker of all types of Judaica for 37 years, Harold Rabinowitz works in Malvern, New York. He began making jewelry as a child. In 1979, he became a Fellow at the Tobe Pascher Workshop, and under the tutelage of Ludwig Wolpert began to make Judaica and other types of objects in a contemporary idiom. Working directly with Wolpert gave him a solid foundation, and he recalls the moment 17 years ago when his work took on its own character, becoming "more Rabinowitz." He sees his metalwork as sculpture that has a ritual function.

Rabinowitz's Torah Crown was originally made for the exhibition Jerusalem 3000, which celebrated the anniversary of the holy city. Because Jerusalem is considered the spiritual residence of God, a Torah crown had special meaning. Rabinowitz believes "Judaica throughout history is a reflection of its time."

Contemporary Judaica embraces the spirit of today's Judaism as a living religion. Each of the objects in Artisans in Silver: Judaica Today expresses this idea in bold contemporary style, yet each also demonstrates the ancient spirit of hiddur mitzvah: the "observance in beauty" of ritual ceremony.

Elisabeth R. Agro is curatorial assistant of Decorative Arts, Carnegie Museum of Art.

Tips for Keeping Your Silver Beautiful

Whether you have one treasured piece or a cabinet full of silver, you want to give it proper care. Here, Museum of Art Objects Conservator Matthew Fleischman reveals the best methods for maintaining your silver's beauty.

Discourage Tarnish

Formation of tarnish can be slowed by keeping silver away from air pollutants or other sulfur-containing materials, such as wool. For example, silver can be stored in a silvercloth bag. This type of cloth is embedded with tiny flakes of silver that tarnish faster than the surface of a silver object. Silvercloth effectively uses up the sulfur before it can react with your silverware. The cloth can also be purchased in rolls to line shelves in display cabinets. Silvercloth is available in fabric stores. Alternatively, silver can be wrapped in acid-free tissue and stored in polyethylene bags typically used for food storage. Be sure the silver is thoroughly dry before storing.

Check for Fingerprints

Gently breathe onto the surface of a silver object, and fingerprints and other residues become momentarily visible and soluble-just lightly buff them with a soft cotton cloth, such as a clean cloth diaper. If left on the silver, the imprints will be etched into the surface.

Examine Before Cleaning

Before cleaning, try to determine how the piece was constructed. For example, are there hollow sections such as handles or feet? Is it a knife that may have a hollow handle or a candlestick that may be weighted with plaster or rosin? Are there stones mounted to the object? Are there organic materials such as wood or ivory that may be damaged by contact with moisture or cleaning solutions? Was the silver intentionally darkened by the maker (this can be true of late-19th-century silver) to enhance the appearance of the object? An answer of yes to any of the above questions means that the object should not be submerged in water or in cleaning solutions.

Work Carefully with an Appropriate Cleaner

Products such as polishing pastes and polishing cloths are widely available and are generally the best way to clean silver. Be sure not to allow a polishing cream to dry while using it or you may scratch the surface. Do not use an all-purpose metal cleaner-use only products specifically intended for cleaning silver. Remember that the way you use the product is as important as which product you choose.

Try the Foil and Soda Dip

If the silver item can be safely immersed, try this method for the removal of light tarnish: Fill a container with a solution of two cups washing soda for each gallon of warm water. Cut enough aluminum foil to generously triple wrap the silver item, then submerge both the object and the foil, making sure that the object is in direct contact with the foil (no need to actually wrap the object in the foil). The hotter the water, the faster the reaction will be. The aluminum foil corrodes as the silver is cleaned, and you may have to replace it with clean foil.

Don't Go Overboard

Plan carefully what you intend to remove from the tarnished or grimy surface. Silver has interior layers of tarnish (called firescale) that occur during the fabrication of silver objects. After many years of polishing, the firescale will become visible. You will know you have reached the firescale when the tarnish will not come off. Do not try to polish it away-that will only make it even more visible. Unfortunately, firescale cannot be removed.

Dealing with Heavy Tarnish

Loosen the tarnish with the foil and soda dip, then follow with polishing paste or polishing cloth. Heavily tarnished areas brighten only to a dull sheen-only prevention will negate this problem.

Handle with Clean Gloves

After silver has been cleaned, the best way to keep the surface free of fingerprints and other residues is to handle the objects with clean 100% cotton gloves.
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