From amulets to Chai Ties, Sukkot fair to fete Judaic arts

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An artist working in etchings for more than 20 years, Wahrhaftig began creating biblical amulets called shemoth about four years ago after much study.

"You don't just jump into it without some background," she says.

Her investigation led Wahrhaftig to create inscribed acronyms built on biblical verse. A typical shemoth celebrating new beginnings quotes Exodus 36:8, describing the weaving of curtains for the arc.

Belief in amulet power is a longstanding tradition among Jews in Italy, North Africa, Middle Eastern countries as well as Ashkenazim.

Wahrhaftig works with about 135 different shemoth that are believed to offer protection against evil, or bring good luck.

"I've been asked to create an amulet that would bring ill fortune to people, but I won't do it," she says.

There are many artists creating amulets from traditional jewelry materials such as gold and silver, she says. But Warhaftig uses recycled materials, including bits of etchings, parts of her own work and other artists' creations "that didn't quite work out."

The technical allure of etching, the power tools and acids, was a natural for Wahrhaftig, who has always liked bucking social norms.

"As a child, I was something of a tomboy," she said. "I was kicked out of religious school for always asking why girls couldn't do this or that."

Now working with "found objects" for her art, with the heart of an artist and the eye of a pack rat, Wahrhaftig can turn the most unlikely sources into grist for her creative mill. The tiny glass squares that littered the inside of her car after a break-in in San Francisco recently have found their way into her amulets.

"They're like little magic windows," she says.

After a return to art school, where she took classes in printmaking, Wahrhaftig discovered the wonders of paper as a medium.

"Working with paper brought a lot of new ideas," she says. "The etchings are so technical, and very, very slow. Hand-made paper is far less technical and so much faster."

Now in her early 60s, Wahrhaftig is enjoying a fair amount of success, at least some of which she attributes to the magical properties of the amulets.

"I made myself a good luck amulet about six months ago and a lot of great things have been happening ever since."

Other Judaica artisans will display their wares at the Sukkot fair as well. One is retired school teacher Beverly Eigner, who thinks Chanukah should be as much fun for adults as for children.

So she creates Chai Ties, neckties, bowties, suspenders and table runners — Judaica with a fun twist.

"It's a whimsical little thing I do," she says.

Eigner did not find her material easily.

"I tried in earnest to find fabrics with Jewish themes, but the manufacturers told me there was no market for Chanukah motifs."

But thanks at least in part to Eigner's queries, several fabric makers are now offering fabric with Stars of David and other Jewish patterns.

Her creations have caught the attention of at least two notable figures. State Sen. Quentin Kopp bought one recently and called back a day later to buy 10 more to give out to his colleagues inSacramento.

Plus CNN talk-show host and famed suspender aficionado Larry King will be wearing one of Eigner's Chai Ties on the Chanukah broadcast of "Larry King Live" this year.

"Larry's a fun guy and the suspenders are definitely fun," she says.