Trained in Iran, Oakland artist creates Islamic Judaica

Jewish? You can't be Jewish. You don't smell Jewish.

Not the kind of talk one expects to hear from his or her boss. But for Karen Pliskin, it came with the territory.

The Oakland artist was apprenticed to an elderly metal engraver while doing her doctoral fieldwork in Iran, and her boss most definitely did not adhere to current standards of employer-employee discourse.

"If you go to the ghetto, it has a certain smell of Jews, and you don't smell like that," recalled Pliskin of her employer's words to her nearly 25 years ago.

"Most Jews had moved out of the ghetto in the 1920s after Reza Shah allowed them to move out. I told him Jews didn't live in the ghetto anymore, but he had his beliefs firmly in his mind."

Her employer — a man who could have been created by an Iranian Charles Dickens — had married his first cousin and had three deaf-mute daughters. At that time there were no schools for the deaf in the city of Shiraz, and the twentysomething trio communicated in a rudimentary sign language of their own creation.

Most days they stayed home, weaving.

Midway through his training of Pliskin, the elderly Iranian was hit with a revolutionary thought — why hadn't he taught metalworking to his own daughters? But girls weren't taught metalworking in those days, so that was that.

Pliskin left Iran the day Ayatollah Khomeini returned, but, two decades later, her Iranian interlude found its way back into her life. After 13 years serving as a medical anthropologist at UCSF School of Medicine, Pliskin returned to her roots as an artist a few winters ago, crafting, of all things, Judaica influenced by Islamic art.

The decision to get into the Judaica business came after running across one too many seder plates or challah dishes that were "mass-produced in a factory in Israel or the Philippines."

Pliskin — who named her company "ProCreations" — promises one word that will never be used to describe her works is "mass-produced."

"I can't imagine repeating things. It'd be like manufacturing and it would just bore me out of my mind. I pick up a piece of glass, and sometimes I design something beforehand and sometimes the muse comes to me and I just paint," she said with a laugh.

If someone desires a vase or plate that looks like one of her previous pieces, she will make it — but "it might not come out exactly the same."

Pliskin, a congregant at Berkeley's Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom, has sold her wares to museum and synagogue gift shops, but makes most of her sales these days running the craft fair circuit or holding "trunk shows" in potential buyers' homes.

She hopes to eventually expand ProCreations into a full-time business, but hasn't yet ventured onto the Web. Buyers will have to contact her the old-fashioned way: via e-mail at [email protected], or by phone at (510) 482-0148.

Between trunk shows, craft fairs or weekends hawking wares at Oakland's Jack London Square, Pliskin not only creates her Judaica — she bonds with it.

"The other day, I sold a piece I'd had for years, two or three years. I'd take it with me when I set up my craft fairs, and nobody bought it. I'd be happy, I didn't want to sell it. I loved the piece," she said.

"Then a young woman from San Jose bought it. It was a platter with green leaves and purple flowers, and I painted on both sides so it had a three-dimensional look. It was so pretty and I kissed it goodbye. I knew I could never paint something just like it."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.