Energy in the Hebrew letter: Rabbi translates psalms into calligraphy show

Gordon Freeman is one of those rare and fortunate individuals whose vocation and avocation complement one another. And it’s all Jewish.

The Conservative rabbi, in his 36th year as spiritual head of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, is a calligraphy artist in his spare time — as if a working rabbi had very much spare time. But the only calligraphy that interests him is in Hebrew.

“The art part is subordinate to the Hebrew letter,” he said on a recent sunny afternoon in his B’nai Shalom study. “For me, there’s certain energy in the Hebrew letter,” he said. “There’s a midrash that says God created the world through Hebrew letters. Those letters have a huge amount of creative energy and my task as an artist is to try and unlock that energy.”

Not that he is uninterested in “the art part.” Upon his retirement, which is slated for August 2006, he hopes to take art classes and learn to branch out into more media with his calligraphy. Thus far he has worked in ceramic, collage, ink and acrylic on paper. He does some figurative things, as evidenced by a cheerful hallel, or praise panel on his study wall, but “only as it enhances the calligraphy.” Eventually he would like to learn the techniques of silk screening and watercolors as well.

Self-taught, Rabbi Freeman began by doing ketubot for friends during his seminary years. He then learned to be a scribe for the precision-oriented document required for a Jewish divorce. (The traditional get must be written on new parchment, with a newly cut quill pen. If a mistake is made, the scribe must begin the painstaking process all over again in front of the rabbinical court and the interested parties, so it pays to get it right the first time around.)

He has done ketubot for each of his married daughters, and his grandchildren are traditionally gifted with their names in Hebrew calligraphy, framed to hang on a wall of their rooms. For each of his four daughters’ birthdays, he does the psalm that corresponds in number to their ages. Incorporating graphic design with the letters, the shape of the psalm is determined by what he sees in the text, a mountain, an overflowing cup or perhaps a circle.

In 1972 he brought out his first book, “Proverbs and People,” a collaboration with the noted Greek artist Nikos Stavroulakis, published by the Judah Magnes Museum in a limited edition. He also has written on the impact of Jewish ethical thought on politics and holds a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in political science. He will participate in a conference this summer in Jerusalem on the impact of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish thought on the world’s political systems.

“Ever since I can remember, I was very enthusiastic about Judaism and the Jewish people and wanting to share that with others, to teach it,” he said. “What’s so great about this congregation is that it enthusiastically supports all this activity of mine.”

For the past few years, the rabbi has been setting the psalms in calligraphy. Formal exhibits were never part of his artistic agenda. “I’m not in this for commercial reasons,” he said.

However, his settings of the psalms were used as a backdrop for a music festival on the psalms at B’nai Shalom. From there, the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville, a facility with its own art collection and rotating exhibits, became interested. Freeman will have his first outside exhibition there, with a public opening on Sunday, July 18. He also will discuss his work with the residents in a special session during July.

“I love the psalms,” he said. “They speak of everything in life. They’ve lasted over 3,000 years and they still sing to us.”

The exhibit of Rabbi Gordon Freeman’s calligraphic settings of the psalms opens Sunday, July 18, with a public reception from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living, 4000 Camino Tassajara, Danville. The event is free. The exhibit runs through Sept. 6. Information: (925) 964-2800.