Mary the Jew

The objects — butter churn, bowl, cutting board — are plain and hand-hewn. Hardly implements of divine glory.

But Jewish artist Beth Grossman hopes to challenge expectations with her new work, “Our Mother Mary Found,” which runs December through March at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

With the 10-piece exhibit, Grossman seeks to reclaim Mary, the venerated mother of Jesus, as the Jewish woman she was. Each piece is an antique wooden object adorned with gold leaf inscriptions of Jewish prayers (in Hebrew, English and Italian). She also painstakingly painted in gold leaf on each object the hands of Mary as represented in classic Renaissance and Baroque paintings.

The objects, which also include a sieve, tray, plane and washboard, were collected in Italy during a year Grossman and her husband spent in Milan. While there, the artist filled her days studying the great Italian masters, in particular their representations of the ubiquitous Virgin Mary.

“I was seduced by how beautiful they were,” says the Brisbane-based artist. “How do I relate to this story as an artist and a Jew?”

As a partner in an interfaith marriage, she felt it was important to understand her husband’s religious traditions. That, and the Christian reverence for this one Jewish mother, led her to turn her artist’s eye to Mary.

“She is hardly mentioned in the Bible,” Grossman notes. “But the church needed this all-encompassing mother figure to educate women in Catholic society. Paintings were a primary form of education.”

As for the Jewish connection, that took Grossman a bit longer, but eventually she got it. “If Mary and Jesus had lived 60 years ago in Europe,” she says, “they would have been sent to the gas chambers.”

Grossman isn’t sure yet what the Jewish reaction will be to her work, but Catholic reaction has been positive. “They get goose bumps,” she says. “They see this as an opening, an opportunity for connection with Jews.”

The Friends Center at the JCCSF seemed to “get it” as well, and will sponsor the premiere exhibition of “Our Mother Mary Found.”

Like any artist, Grossman hopes her work provokes discussion.

“This story has had a big impact on our history,” she says. “It’s the iconic story of Western civilization. But she was an ordinary Jewish mother.”

Grossman hopes her work might promote reconciliation between Jews and Christians,.

Says Grossman, “Art gives people a reason to get together. The most radical thing people can do is interact and really listen to each other.”

“Our Mother Mary Found” by Beth Grossman is on display December through March in the 2nd floor KS Center at the JCCSF, 3200 California St. Information: (415) 292-1233.

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.