THE ARTS 02.13.09
THE ARTS 02.13.09

Stepping up to the plate: Artists, CJM rethink old story to create new seder-table traditions

The latest dish from the Contemporary Jewish Museum should have people talking. About dishes.

Or, more precisely, seder plates, that omnipresent symbol of the Passover meal. The museum has invited 80 artists –– Jewish and non-Jewish –– to create seder plates as part of “New Works/Old Story,” the latest installment of the Dorothy Saxe Invitational.

The exhibition opens to the public Feb. 27 and runs through June 2.

 “We tried to throw a wide net” to include a variety of artistic styles, says Fred Wasserman, the museum’s deputy director for programs. “We included artists who have participated in past invitationals. Beyond that we wanted to  bring in new blood, artists we thought would make interesting new Judaica who never thought of making it.”

Begun about 25 years ago by the Jewish Museum San Francisco, the invitationals have become a tradition, engaging artists of varying backgrounds to rethink traditional Jewish ritual objects. In the past, objects such as the Kiddush cup, the spice box and the menorah each drew the focus.

For this invitational, artists were not bound by convention. Round, flat and shankbone-ready? Maybe. Maybe not

Amy Reichert’s seder plate is made of hand-carved Jerusalem gold and hand-hammered brass.

“We don’t confine them to making a functional seder plate,” Wasserman adds. “We encourage them to think more conceptual to respond to themes related to the holiday.”

Among those offering a new spin on an old plate is San Mateo artist Harriete Estel Berman, who works in recycled materials such as tin cans and vintage steel toys. She created a four-sided pyramid plate, with attached pictures of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island suggestive of a very different Exodus.

One artist inscribed the text of Hagaddah on a 12-inch globe, which opens up to reveal seder and matzah plates. Another fashioned a copper and brass tree with little nests serving as holders for the seder’s symbolic foods. One plate uses six little suitcases as the food-holders and is inscribed with new plagues (among them war, famine and pollution).

East Bay photographic artist Rachel Schreiber’s seder plate doesn’t even lay on a table. It hangs on the wall. Her piece consists of six 8-inch portraits   mounted behind Plexiglas.

The key to understanding her “plate,” she says, is knowing the identity of those she photographed.

“My intention was to create visibility around all kinds of farmworkers,” Schreiber says. “I visited three farms, asking about labor conditions, getting onto the fields, talking to the workers and making portraits.”

Schreiber notes some of her subjects were Jewish, some not; some familiar with Passover, others less so. Her objective was to “honor people who grow those [symbolic foods] on the seder plate.”

While artistry and creativity take center stage, Wasserman says the exhibit goes beyond just seder plates. “The show becomes the opportunity to introduce visitors to the holiday, to the symbolic foods,” he says. “It’s a point of universal contact.”

As the namesake for the invitational, Menlo Park resident Dorothy Saxe is excited about the exhibition.

“It has to do with their interpretation of Passover,” says Saxe, a generous supporter of the arts. “A lot of the things are beautiful, wonderful sculpture that sometimes relates subtly or obviously to the story. Some are functional, but they really took liberties to make incredible art.”

As part of the exhibition, the museum will confer two awards, the Dorothy Saxe Award for Creativity in Contemporary Arts (chosen by a jury of distinguished curators) and the Audience Choice Award, which allows visitors to select their favorite piece.

Schreiber isn’t dwelling on prizes, but she is excited to participate. She moved from Baltimore to the Bay Area two years ago to teach at Oakland’s California College of the Arts. The daughter of an Israeli rabbi, she remembers loving Passover growing up, and as a child she used art to express herself (“When I was about 10, I made a Passover mobile with each of the 10 plagues,” she says).

One of her artistic focuses has long been capturing the struggles of the labor movement over the decades, and the seder plate project fit in perfectly. However, possessing the soul of an artist, she just couldn’t take the assignment at face value.

 “I initially thought I might make actual plates,” Schreiber says, “but I felt in the end that was too literal.”

“New Works/Old Story: 80 Artists at the Passover Table” is on display Feb. 27-June 2 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Information: (415) 655-7800 or online at


Fundraiser offers a sneak peak

Before the public opening of “New Works/Old Story: 80 Artists at the Passover Table,” the Contemporary Jewish Museum will host a private  reception, at which all of the invitational works will be available for sale. The event takes place 6-8:30 p.m. Feb. 25.

Tickets for the event are available, with proceeds benefiting the contributing artists and the CJM. Tickets are $60 for museum members, $100 for the general public. For more information, call (415) 655-7821.

The Dorothy Saxe Invitational is organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum, with lead support from Dorothy and George Saxe and additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Siesel Maibach and Roselyne Chroman Swig. Lead inaugural year exhibition support came from the Koret and Taube Foundations.


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.