82-year-old metal artist finds crafts nourish his Jewish soul

Birdcages, mannequins, patio furniture and machine parts fed Izzy Sher's family for years. Hand-wrought menorot and Magen Davids — Stars of David — fed his soul.

These days, at almost 83, the Berkeley metal artist is mostly concerned with spiritual nourishment.

Sher attends services each morning at Berkeley's Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel, where he is greeted by many of his own iron menorot.

He spends quiet moments at home with his wife, Edith, on a metal rocking bench he crafted in the shape of a folded Magen David. But in his life, he says, there aren't many quiet moments.

"Spare time? What spare time? I use all 24 hours of the day."

Born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, Sher emigrated to the United States at 16. He whetted his appetite for metalworking when as a boy he watched the local blacksmith "banging wire, with all the sparks flying."

As a young man in Chicago, Sher made wire frames in a lampshade factory owned by his uncles, Sam and Ben. Later, in Los Angeles, he fashioned furniture and other "useful items," he says, out of wire and rod.

In his early 60s, Sher secured a job welding and assembling machinery parts for the George M. Martin Company in Emeryville.

"I hadn't made much money up until then. But the Martin Company was a union shop and suddenly everything was taken care of — even my teeth," Sher explains, referring to the higher pay and benefits he received.

According to union rules, Sher retired at age 65. And he began attending synagogue services every morning at Beth Israel.

Only a few years earlier, he had made Saturday services part of his weekly ritual. At 65, "Suddenly I was free to go every morning. Except when I'm sick."

While the daily services clearly nourish his Jewish soul, Sher says he has always fed it in other, sometimes more tangible, ways.

He crafted Jewish art.

The synagogue on Bancroft Way which Sher has attended for "more years than I remember" shows off his Jewish craftsmanship.

Outside the shul stands a metal chanukiah nearly eight feet tall, rusted with age, "like it's supposed to be," Sher explains. The first stanza of a Russian holiday song is welded along its base.

Inside the temple are two smaller menorot — each about five feet tall. Half-circles of iron rod comprise one, while the other is made up of welded hexagons that give it a jagged look. The menorot are darkened "from the atmosphere," but not rusty, Sher says.

At first, Sher kept the menorot at home. But long ago, an old friend and fellow congregant, Archie Greenberg, noticed them and asked to take them to the synagogue. They've been there ever since, "probably 30 years or so, since Noah Greenberg's bar mitzvah," Sher says.

Sher's most recent contribution to the congregation is located inside the sanctuary. It's a mechitza (divider to separate the sexes) holder.

The mechitza, he notes, "used to be screwed into the floor. It would fall over all the time and had to be taken out for dancing [at weddings]. So I made a base. Now it's sturdy and portable and flexible."

Sher can't guess in advance how long any one piece might take to complete. He works daily — some days for 10 hours, some days for just half an hour. Some days he just ponders.

"I think about it — what I've done. What I'm going to do. It's a constant involvement," Sher said, adding that while he is welding and bending and pounding metal, "I don't think. All I know is my work. Sometimes I wonder why my hands are just going."

Sher creates his art at home, among his own menorot and Magen Davids. In his backyard is a large sculpture in which half-inch rods are set apart, two by two, in horizontal rows — replicating the writing pads students use when learning to write Hebrew.

His Jewish-themed pieces seem to inspire him the most, and it's easy for him to explain why. "I don't know if you know, but I'm Jewish," he says through his thick Russian accent in a near-whisper, then bursts into laughter.

"Everything I do is Jewish. Even if it's a cross. It's Jewish because I'm Jewish."