Artist immortalizes broken glass from weddings in special Judaica

One of the most well known Jewish wedding traditions is the breaking of the glass. Its meaning is debated, but the result is the same: the groom gets applause, the bride gets a kiss, and later, someone has to collect the broken shards and dispose of them.

But why dispose of such a vivid memento? Some consider the broken shards to be a living reminder of the exact moment their nuptials were made official.

Artist Gary Rosenthal, based in Washington, D.C., also believes the glass should be preserved.

He has been sculpting and doing metalwork since the late 1970s, but "starting about five or six years ago," he reports, "people began asking me to make things that they could put the broken glass (from a wedding) into."

He went to work on concepts, and came up with a design for a mezuzah with a hinged top and a chamber in the front where couples could put pieces of their broken wedding glass.

The mezuzah took off like a rocket.

"When I made the mezuzah that had 'ani l'dodi' on the front — dodi li in Hebrew and English — 'I'm my beloved's and my beloved is mine' — and made it so that it was sort of a do-it-yourself broken wedding glass mezuzah, it was the biggest, hottest item I ever made."

Everybody wanted to have it, he says.

"Five years ago, those broken-wedding-glass mezuzahs were just like Krispy Kreme donuts," he recalls. "Everybody had to have at least one."

After the popularity of the broken-wedding-glass mezuzah, Rosenthal and his studio received requests for more items that would hold the shards of glass. He responded with objects such as kiddush cups and Sabbath candles that had reservoirs in the stems to hold the glass, as well as a kaleidoscope.

"When you look through the mirror system of the kaleidoscope, up at the light, you're seeing wonderful colors and pieces of your broken wedding glass through the chamber," says Rosenthal.

Recently his studio introduced a three-piece collection that includes a Sabbath candle, a menorah and a dreidel, each sculpted with a heart near the center of the piece. In each heart is a tube to hold the broken glass.

Rosenthal began to experiment with metalwork in the 1970s when he was a college student. His career began with a crush.

"There was a young lady that I liked a whole lot, and she had no interest in me whatsoever," he recalls. Despite her cold shoulder, on her birthday, he invited her to his place for dinner and wooed her with a bottle of wine and food. However, he says, "She ate dinner, and I drank the whole bottle of wine myself."

The next morning, after waking up with a terrible hangover, he decided to give up on women. Fortuitously, he went over to the student union building where a craft fair was being held.

He said to himself, "OK. Since I'm giving up girls, I might as well have a hobby, something to do. And that afternoon I decided that I was going to become an artist."

Rosenthal says before that day, he had received no formal art training.

"I'd never picked up a brush except maybe to paint the side of a house," he admits. "I had no natural aptitude with sculpture. But I just started making things."

He took the next year off of college and devoted himself to using a torch and melting metals. He looked at art books for instruction and continued to work from instinct, finding inspiration in various places, including his day job.

"I had a job where I was repairing stoves and refrigerators and used the torch to fix stove grates," says Rosenthal. "Which is really where my art started."

The next year he returned to school, and graduated. Soon after, he reunited with the girl he tried to woo, and won her over briefly until he introduced her to one of his best friends, who married her and moved to Cleveland.

But there are no hard feelings, admits Rosenthal.

"I really give her credit for turning me into an artist," he says.

"I've since gone on and I've gotten married. I've

got a couple of kids and all is well."

In the late 1970s/early 1980s Rosenthal began making cast figures (bronzes and figurines). "They were very graceful, stylized pieces," he says.

Around that time, he also began to make Judaica.

"Back then there really wasn't that much interest in Judaica," he remembers. "So it was a long, lonely road."

Despite the rough times, Rosenthal persevered. He credits his longevity to support from curators of Judaica shops and museums.

After a long-awaited taste of success with Judaica, Rosenthal and his studio branched out by making bar mitzvah presents and menorot.

Though Rosenthal says he didn't set out intending to make Judaica, it was something that always interested him. He explained that in his home while growing up, there were few pieces of Judaica which were only taken out for specific holidays and then quickly put away.

Rosenthal says he set out to make Judaica that people could enjoy year-round, not just for its Jewish symbolism, but for its artistic value.

"As a studio, we're always trying to make Judaica more accessible to regular folks," he says. "The Jewish lifecycle is what we focus on here more than anything."

Though his work has been featured worldwide and is a fixture in places as diverse as the White House and celebrity homes, he remains humbly dedicated to his artistic pursuits.

"I like the thought of people being able to give and receive my sculpture as gifts," he relates. "I don't consider myself some big, fine artist. I set out to make something that somebody is going to like and will be meaningful to them."

Rosenthal's work can be found worldwide in galleries, private collections and museum shops such as the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, the American Craft Museum and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.