Feast workshops connect crafts to Jewish knowledge

When Laurie Bellet was a kid, she couldn't make an art project work to save her life. But that inability has proven to be a lifesaver to the Walnut Creek religious-school educator as an adult. Not only has she turned into a very crafty person, she can teach almost anyone to do the same.

She'll be working with kids, perhaps as many as 60, in two upcoming workshops for the Board of Jewish Education's "Feast of Jewish Learning."

Meet "The Reluctant Artist," Bellet's professional persona and nom de plume, taken from the title of her "how to" book published by Torah Aura. "I always wanted to be able to do art and craft and I clearly had no innate talent as a kid," she confessed. "It's only since I've been an adult that I've been able to own this."

As a teacher in a Reform synagogue religious school and the mother of a developmentally disabled child, Bellet needed a break from what was becoming an increasingly depressing routine. So she went to work for Lakeshore Learning Materials, a firm whose materials she had used in her classroom and at home. "I thought, 'What fun. I can sell toys and paint and be home in time for the school bus,'" she said.

But what happened went way beyond sales. With a wealth of materials at her disposal she realized that, with a little imagination, they could be adapted for a Jewish setting to enliven the classroom. Bellet began writing down her ideas and exchanging them with colleagues over the Internet. This led to a weekly column for the Torah Aura Productions Web site and, eventually, to the book.

"I found that, the more art I did, the more I could do," she said. "But I'm not a trained artist so I use vocabulary that ordinary people can deal with. As teachers, we're not there to teach art. We're not there to teach small-muscle motor skills. We're there to teach Judaism. So these projects are designed in a way that will connect each child to the subject matter."

Bellet's workshops tomorrow at "A Night of Jewish Unity" will involve children ages 6 to 11 in two sessions, both at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. In one, each participant will create a mezuzah case. In the other, all participants will collaborate on a large commemorative banner. Each will leave his or her mark, in this instance a personally decorated fabric print of their hand.

She calls this "keepsake art."

Bellet's classes are one of a number of hands-on workshops being offered at this year's feast, which has the theme "Common Threads: The Fabrics of Jewish Life."

"What are you wrapped up in?" is the question at the heart of Sandy Cohen-Wynn's tzitzit-tying workshop, set for Monday at Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco. Cohen-Wynn, a textile artist and art director for the youth and family education program at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, will teach seventh-graders the significance of the commandment to tie tzitzit on the four corners of a tallit.

South Bay fabric artist Esther Rubin is guiding people through making a matzah bag through her article in the feast booklet. It grew out of her mother's experience and a family memento. As a young bride, preparing to host her first Passover seder some 50 years ago, Rubin's mother created some artwork as a purely practical measure.

"She didn't have a lot of the things she needed so she had to improvise," recalled Rubin. Her mother used a piece of velvet from her wedding celebration dress to make two matzah bags. One got lost, but Rubin uses the other one every year on her own seder table, while her mother looks on and kvells.

Turning to other aspects of ritual fabric, Peninsula artist and educator Amy Kassiola will be doing a program on "The Art of Tallit" on Wednesday, Feb. 26 at Camp Tawonga's offices in San Francisco. Participants will learn to create a simple tallit.

East Bay fabric artist Nancy Katz offers an arts and crafts workshop called "Show and Kvell," where participants can bring family heirlooms and share their stories at San Francisco's Jewish Children and Family Services on Thursday, Feb. 20.

She also will teach a velvet-embossing workshop on Sunday, Feb. 9, at Chabad of Noe Valley, S.F. All it takes is a rubber stamp, a spritz of water and an iron, she swears. And there's got to be a story in that.