Judaica exhibit at JCC brings arts and crafts &mdash with a twist

Muli Ben Sasson paced across the atrium of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, sunshine pouring through the skylight. The Jerusalem-based artist had only one day left in the Bay Area, and he hadn’t quite finished installing his exhibit.

But Ben Sasson wasn’t worried. He’d overseen installation of the same show in Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Austria and South Korea. Now it’s the Bay Area’s turn to marvel at “Continuity and Change: 92 Years of Judaica at Bezalel,” on display at the JCCSF through September.

Composed of 130 pieces of Judaica, the exhibit showcases the handiwork of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Israel’s leading arts school. All the items on display are familiar Jewish objects — Kiddush cups, Torah crowns, dreidels — but curator Ben Sasson guarantees they won’t look like anything most art lovers, or most Jews, have seen before.

A menorah made of eight tiny multicolored ceramic chairs. A silver and gold Havdallah spice box shaped like a coiled snake with a rosebud head. A silver circumcision ritual kit resembling a miniature canoe. A brass vessel for hand-washing, complete with faux hot-and-cold faucet handles.

Unusual, simple and beautiful: that’s the Bezalel style, says Ben Sasson.

“The idea in the Jewish world is that the vessel delivers a message,” he notes. “That’s why our design style is so open. It’s important that the object presents a concept beyond functionality.”

Despite the academic rhetoric, Ben Sasson is really a hands-on guy, both as an artist and booster for Bezalel. As a former student and now an instructor there, he remains true to his school. “I’ve been here all my adult life,” he says. “It’s my second home.

His second home was built nearly a century ago. In the early 1900s, Russian-born artist Boris Schatz received the go-ahead from Zionist leader Theodor Herzl to open a crafts workshop in Jerusalem. It was to be a place where Jewish artists could, as he wrote, “draw real Jewish types beneath the blue skies of [their] own land.”

Schatz named the school Bezalel after the figure in the Book of Exodus who designed the temple in the Sinai desert. He is recognized as the first Jewish visual artist.

In its early decades, Bezalel students (many of Yemenite background, others from Eastern Europe) produced ornate but largely utilitarian Jewish ritual objects, from candlesticks to seder plates. With the establishment of modern Israel and advent of radical 20th century art movements, the Bezalel style changed to something bolder and sleeker.

Today from its two Jerusalem campuses, Bezalel trains its students in varied fields: architecture, ceramics, industrial design, jewelry-making and more. But there’s a twist, according to Ben Sasson. “Judaica,” he says, “is the focus.”

In addition to his duties as a ceramics instructor, Ben Sasson, who is Orthodox, also teaches classes in Judaism and classic Jewish texts. At Bezalel, art and faith go hand in hand.

“My students know how to read a text,” he says. “They read the Bible, Talmud, Maimonides, even Kafka. They learn how to transfer a textual expression in a visual way.”

That might explain something as quirky and clever as Avi Biran’s chametz collector for Passover: a miniature steamroller complete with scooper and attached feather. Call it a touch of Jewish humor.

The exhibit made it to the JCCSF courtesy of a $47,000 grant from the Helen Diller Family Traveling Exhibition Program of the Jewish Community Federation’s Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

Said Lenore Naxon, executive director of the JCC’s Eugene and Elinor Friend Center for the Arts: “The atrium was designed to be plain and open, but we always wanted to have temporary exhibits like this. We love to surprise people.”

Ben Sasson’s “art for arts sake” credo drives him to share the Bezalel style with the world, which he’s been doing for the past eight years. Exhausting, yes, but the work brings its rewards.

“I always leave [a city] feeling we have brought a message,” he says. “Good art asks serious questions.”

“Continuity and Change: 92 years of Judaica at Bezalel” runs through Sept. 30 at the Pottruck Family Atrium in the lobby of the Jewish Community Center of S.F., 3200 California St. Admission is free. Information: (415) 292-1200.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.