Ritual renegades: CJMexhibit puts modern spin on traditional objects

Inspiration struck in the plumbing aisle at the Home Depot.

Joe Grand had just broken his foot, and the electrical engineer needed a project to keep him busy while he was healing.

As soon as he spied all of that piping, a light bulb went off: Chanukah was approaching; why not build a menorah out of steel pipe? Grabbing assorted half-inch galvanized pipes and fittings, he sat down on the floor and positioned the various elbows and tee pieces to form a menorah.

He bought the pieces and fastened them together at home. The finished product was 20 inches long and 13 inches high — and it took up his entire mantel.

Fast-forward five years. A curator at the Jewish Museum in New York saw the menorah on Grand’s website and wanted to include it in an exhibit about how people were reimagining Jewish ritual objects. Grand’s piece was shown alongside work from other artists in “Reinventing Ritual,” which recently finished a successful six-month run at New York’s Jewish Museum.

Now “Reinventing Ritual” is in San Francisco, where it opened April 22 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“There are all of these amazingly beautiful pieces by serious artists. And then mine — a stark, industrial piece made by a regular guy — is almost in contrast to everything else,” said Grand, who has lived in San Francisco for three years. “So I feel a little out of place, but on the other hand, I’m proud. It shows that you don’t have to be a full-time artist to create something special and unique that people can enjoy.”

Grand and his menorah exemplify why the CJM decided to bring in “Reinventing Ritual” from New York: to help museumgoers think about their own rituals and their own connections to Jewish rituals — and to point out that such connections are not only for the religious, artistic or erudite.

“Our desire is to allow the visitor to think about the role ritual plays in their own lives, and to think about it in a fresh perspective,” said Connie Wolf, executive director of the CJM. “We all have rituals, but do we think of them? Do we name them? Do we recognize them as rituals? How do they enrich our lives and the world?”

Joe Grand of San Francisco built a galvanized steel candelabra from pipe fittings, never imagining the do-it-yourself project would someday end up in a museum.

As visitors move through the exhibit, which is slated to run through Oct. 3, they won’t be able to miss an area dedicated to their own self-reflection — thanks to an added feature that wasn’t in New York.

The CJM has created a space where visitors can write about personal rituals, religious or otherwise, and post these thoughts in the exhibit. When other people see the postings, just as they do when they see the artwork, they likely will think more deeply about their own rituals.

“We didn’t want people to passively walk through this exhibit,” Wolf said. “We wanted to create a way for people to interact and engage more.”

The CJM loves turning its eye to Jewish ritual. For example, every few years the museum organizes a themed invitational in which artists are asked to put their spin on Jewish ritual objects.

“What distinguishes our series is that we invite Jews and non-Jews to recreate a ritual and reflect on the contemporary meanings of it,” Wolf said.

In contrast, “Reinventing Ritual” is exclusively the work of Jewish artists — 59, to be exact. They hail from the Americas, Europe and Israel, making this the first international show in which living artists are interpreting traditional ritual practices.

In addition to the pipe menorah, the exhibit includes a comic book version of the Book of Esther, seder plates made from found materials,and Havdallah spice boxes made from petri dishes, beakers and volumetric flasks.

The 57 selected pieces all connote a connection between the contemporary (artist) and the ancient (ritual). Often, the artists are striving for the viewer to contemplate, criticize and question rituals that might seem irrelevant or impersonal in the modern world.

“Young Jews are beginning to realize that a lot of cultures have rethought their origins, and so they’re asking ‘Why shouldn’t we [rethink things], as well?’ ” said Allan Wexler, a New York artist-architect with two pieces in “Reinventing Ritual.”

Wexler said the exhibit hinges on the idea that a piece of art — whether it’s simple, straightforward, conceptual or elaborate — can be transformed into something spiritual.

“The art is a trigger to help us bring some sort of enlightenment with objects and practices that are so familiar they have become almost mundane,” Wexler said. Viewing the artists’ reimaginations of ritual pieces will provide visitors a “spark that reactivates a renewed energy.”

The sparks are plentiful, Wexler said. For example, there’s a tallit made out of an apron, which leads one to ponder women’s roles in Judaism. Another piece incorporates the words of the Torah into hundreds of clear, tiny gelcaps, a reference to Jeremiah 1:9 when God says, “I am putting my words into your mouth.”

In front of each object is a label that defines the Jewish ritual and explains the artist’s response to it.

In a book that accompanies the exhibit, Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and former Stanford University professor, writes that people who see the exhibit will leave the museum “thinking harder, seeing differently, pondering what we have been missing until now and appreciating yet again the power and beauty stored up in the Jewish tradition.”

Visitors are likely to examine their own interpretations as they view “a ritual moment that succeeds in its intention to jar, arrest, humble and enlighten us,” he added. Many are “likely to emerge duly disturbed by what we have seen and experienced.”

One piece almost certain to make people think is a “do-it-yourself charity box” crafted by Wexler and inspired, in part, by the tzedakah boxes that lined his grandmother’s kitchen windowsill.

At first glance, the DIY charity boxes don’t look like art at all. They are simply canned goods (Sylvia’s collard greens, A Taste of Thai coconut milk, Rokeach soup) in Ziploc bags with a can opener, pen and piece of paper explaining tzedakah.

The piece suggests that charity is not specifically Jewish but universal. Wexler said one could give the can away or empty it and use it as a repository for coins.“I was really trying to take the ordinary and use it as a ritual object,” said Wexler, 61. “I wanted to say: Let’s not put the cost of the ritual into the object itself. Instead of spending money for a charity box, let’s give the money away to charity.”

“I was really trying to take the ordinary and use it as a ritual object,” said Wexler, 61. “I wanted to say: Let’s not put the cost of the ritual into the object itself. Instead of spending money for a charity box, let’s give the money away to charity.”

Wexler’s “Gardening Sukkah” is also featured in “Reinventing Ritual.” In 2000, the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut commissioned him to make a life-size sukkah for an exhibit about Judeo-Christian religions, and his piece was placed at the entrance of the museum during the show.

The sukkah looks simply like a wooden garden shed on wheels. But when people step inside, they see that, unlike a garden shed, the ceiling is open (as per a sukkah’s requirement) and the walls have shelves for gardening tools to honor the harvest and for wineglasses to celebrate its fruits. Next to the pitchfork is a fork; next to the shovel a spoon.

“A lot of work I did when I came out of architecture school was focused on the Japanese tea ceremony, until I thought, ‘Why am I avoiding my own background? My own ethnicity?’ ” Wexler said. “Though I’m more of a secular Jew at this point, I still love Jewish ritual and the memories I have of rituals from my childhood, and I take them with me when I work on these projects.”

A page from JT Waldman’s “Megillat Esther”

Comic book artist JT Waldman was similarly disconnected from his religious and cultural heritage when he decided to write a graphic novel based on the Book of Esther, or the Megillah, which is read at Purim.

In fact, it was precisely his estrangement from his religion that inspired him to embark on the project. He wanted to explore Judaism through the medium he was most comfortable with — comics.

The project ultimately took seven years to complete, and six pages from his “Megillat Esther” are featured in “Reinventing Ritual.”

“I no longer question my authenticity as a Jew,” he said recently. “[Esther] cured my Jewish neurosis.”

The book sales have soared beyond his wildest expectations. Not only did the first printing recently sell out, but Waldman’s original ink drawings have been displayed in museums in New York and Maryland, and an exhibit of 50 pages from “Megillat Esther” opens next year in Colorado.

“I never thought I was making something with a shelf life that the book now has,” said Waldman, who can provide story after story of being rejected by publishers. “I can’t tell you how many times people asked me, ‘Who’s going to read this?’

JT Waldman

“But it wasn’t something I had considered. I did it for me as an individual vanity project. I wanted to validate comics as a legitimate medium [that is] serious and scholarly and rabbinic and Jewish and historical work.”

To complete the project, Waldman realized that he’d need to learn Hebrew, midrash and soferim (the art of writing holy books), so he put his life in Philadelphia on hold and moved to Israel in 2000. After studying Hebrew and working on a kibbutz, he eventually attended a liberal yeshiva in Jerusalem.

“I was the only one there who made a comic book,” he cracked.

Since the book, Waldman has become more involved in the Jewish community, working as a technology consultant at the Jewish Publication Society and as a teaching artist-in-residence at the Yeshiva University Museum.

“Because I was curious to learn, I have a responsibility to share what I learned with other people,” Waldman said.

For Grand, the inclusion of his galvanized pipe menorah in “Reinventing Ritual” has similarly boosted his Jewish identity and pride.

“That other people appreciate [the menorah] makes me more aware of my heritage,” Grand said.

Grand likened the Jewish community to the burgeoning do-it-yourself community, in which he is also involved. He routinely sees knitters, clothing designers, builders and crafty-types creating things that are new and original, and that have meaning and resonance to them.

Along those same lines, Grand said, Jewish artists and hobbyists “just want to modify and reinvent ritual to something that is a little more personal for them.”

That kind of reinvention won’t stop with Grand’s generation, either. He plans to bring his 11⁄2-year-old son to the exhibit.

“He’s just becoming aware of objects and what things are, so I think it’s a good time to bring him to the Contemporary Jewish Museum,” Grand said. “One of the reasons I wanted to have a kid was to be able to continue the Jewish tradition and keep our people growing.”

Through his parenting — and his creativity — he and dozens of artists are doing exactly that.

“Reinventing Ritual”
runs through Oct. 3 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., San Francisco. A special talk 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 2 will feature Daniel Belasco, the original curator of “Reinventing Ritual” from the Jewish Museum in New York. Information: (415) 655-7800 or www.thecjm.org.

Related: Ritual renegades II

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.