Modern Jews adorn homes with magnificent mezuzot

If we were to modernize the commandments, the oft-quoted passage in Deuteronomy might read: "And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates and place them in boxes made of ceramic, Fimo, pewter, copper or Plexiglas. A few gems would be nice, colors are good, and for the kids' rooms, maybe something that looks like Noah's ark. But when picking out a scroll, buy retail."

Mezuzah cases are enjoying a renaissance. They range from the whimsical to serious works of art with prices to match. They are made of every material imaginable from Murano glass, scrimshaw and Ethiopian needlework to fused glass, friendly plastic, Lucite and found objects.

"There are always new mezuzot coming out," says Jerry Derblich, co-owner of Afikomen in Berkeley. "People choose them by what will go with the decors of their houses. Some people are looking for something that speaks to them. There are balance scales for lawyer's offices. Golf bags. Sports mezuzot for kids."

And if you want a mezuzah for your car, they are out there, too.

"Mezuzot are very popular gifts," says Jamie Schiffer of bob and bob in Palo Alto, where customers buy them for housewarming and new baby gifts.

But since mezuzot can reflect one's personal taste, Rabbi Andrea Fisher of Oakland's Temple Sinai suggests taking the recipient along to help pick it out.

Fisher knows of what she speaks. Having recently moved to Oakland, she has to outfit five doors of her new apartment with mezuzot. She has three so far. One she bought herself and two were gifts from her mother.

"My mother is an artist and knows what I like," says Fisher, acknowledging an exception to the let-the-recipient-pick-out-his-or-her-own-mezuzah rule. Even though Fisher's mother makes mezuzot, the one she gave her daughter was done by another artist. "It's made of paper. I've never seen anything like it. It could be a museum piece."

When picking out her own mezuzot, Fisher chose one for both its symbols — a Torah, a pomegranate representing Israel and a shin — and colors that express joy and happiness.

When it comes to prices, they are as varied as the designs. You can get away with spending as little as $6 or as much as a few thousand for an original silver- and gold-plated mezuzah by artist Frank Meisler. Designs by noted artists such as Yaacov Agam or Marc Chagall retail for around $500. But Derblich says most people spend between $25 and $60.

The variety of mezuzot provide an opportunity for local artists like Martha Breen of Oakland's Urban Tribe to get into the Judaica market.

Breen began making colorful, Fimo mezuzot in 1991 at her mother's behest.

"My mother begged me for a mezuzah," says Breen. She learned the laws of kashrut as they applied to mezuzah casings — the housing must attach directly to the door frame in two places — and experimented with Fimo, a clay product, and Plexiglas until she came up with a design that worked.

Unfortunately, Breen's mother died before the prototype was created. But for several years, in her mother's honor, Breen donated 10 percent of the profits from her Judaica sales to the kidney foundation.

While the casing may be the eye-catcher, it is in fact the scroll inside, with the first two portions of the Sh'ma, that makes the object a mezuzah.

"Some people come in looking for the most expensive parchment and will buy a Lucite or inexpensive case," says Derblich of Afikomen. "At the other end of the spectrum are people who don't care about what's inside."

According to Jewish law, the scroll must be kosher in much the same way as a Torah. It must be handwritten on parchment, by a scribe. After it is placed in its case, the scroll should be checked regularly to make sure it is still intact and that none of the letters have disintegrated with age. That renders the scroll unkosher.

Even within those parameters, there are scrolls and there are scrolls. Scribes, like the artists who create the cases, have different styles of calligraphy, and some are more popular, making their parchments more costly.

"You can get parchments for $16, but there were too many questions about whether they are really kosher," says Derblich, who decided not to sell the cheaper ones because of such concerns. "We buy from two or three scribes and get mezuzah [scrolls] that we sell for $29 to $55."

Originally, Afikomen only sold kosher parchment scrolls, but some customers complained that the store was catering to just one segment of the Jewish community. Now the store offers customers free, unkosher photocopies of the scroll's contents.

In a home or a Jewish establishment, mezuzot should be placed on every doorway except the bathroom. According to author, rabbi and scholar Joseph Telushkin, the mezuzah is to remind Jews of the high level of behavior they are expected to maintain within and outside. Traditionally, mezuzot are placed on the right side of the door frame as you enter a house or a room, with the top of the mezuzah angled in.

Since many people like to touch the mezuzah as they enter a room, Fisher suggests putting two on each door frame, especially in public buildings. A second mezuzah, placed in the lower half of a doorway, is accessible to children and wheelchair users.

When a mezuzah is installed, a short blessing is recited as well as the first and second paragraphs of the Sh'ma. There also should be challah and wine. Fisher suggests including friends and inviting them to say something.

"It symbolizes the openness of a house," she says.