Artists offer fresh takes on traditional Judaica

What do you call a creature that looks vaguely like a cross between a penguin and a miniature robot, made from a discarded wooden shoehorn and intricately arranged, disassembled circuit breakers?                                                              

If you’re Liz Mamorsky, one local artist featured in a new exhibition of contemporary Judaica on display at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El,  you call him “Shoetree Totem” — and you can explain in one breath how he symbolizes the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees. 

“Almost everything I do has found wood in it,” says Mamorsky, who has been creating mixed-media sculptures out of recycled materials in her SoMa district studio since the early ’90s. “This was originally for the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s ‘Do Not Destroy’ exhibit [exploring trees and the environmental movement in Judaism], so I just began thinking about the cycle of it: A tree is born, it grows, it dies — and then to me, it becomes art.”

“Hanukkah Menorah of the Talmudic Era” by Abrasha

Mamorsky is one of 34 artists featured in “Traditional By Conception, Modern By Design,” an exhibition of contemporary Judaica organized in honor of Emanu-El’s Rabbi Stephen Pearce, on the occasion of his retirement this month after 20 years at the congregation. Pearce himself suggested the topic, said curator Paula Freedman.

The sizeable exhibit is showcased in display cases in three separate public areas of the synagogue that constitute the Elizabeth S. and Alvin I. Fine Museum, which has showcased more than 150 shows — including traveling exhibits and the work of Marc Chagall and Camille Pissaro, in addition to emerging local Jewish artists — since its founding in 1950.

In reaching out to artists, Freedman said she and the congregation’s museum committee grappled with a definition for the word “contemporary.”

“Shoetree Totem” by Liz Mamorsky

“We really wanted it to be diverse, to showcase artists working in all different media, but the important thing was that their work represented today’s aesthetics,” Freedman says of the invitation that went out to artists in the Bay Area and across the United States, as well as to individuals in England, Israel, Poland and elsewhere.

“Judaica is about tradition — these are ritual objects [in most cases] — but these pieces all have a fresh interpretation, they all bring something new.”

That definition left room for a wide range of styles.

San Francisco artist Amy Berk, program chair for contemporary practice at the San Francisco Art Institute, submitted part of a textile work called “Recoverings” that she previously displayed at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley in 2007. She has reconstructed table linens and napkins she inherited from her grandmother — stains included — into fabric “paintings” that she uses to discuss her family history.

“Spice Box” by Marilyn and Jack da Silva

Harriete Estel Berman, a widely exhibited artist based in San Mateo, submitted six whimsical mezuzahs made from recycled textiles and tin cans, as well as an intricately designed seder plate titled “Millennium of Pursuit,” featuring decorative patterns cut from dollhouse material, attached with silver rivets to a “Trivial Pursuit Millennium” board game tin. That piece was commissioned by the Fine Museum in 2010, to honor the memory of longtime museum committee chair JoAnne Levy.

Other artists represent a sleeker approach to Judaica. Local architect Stanley Saitowitz, who designed San Francisco’s remodeled Congregation Beth Sholom and has exhibited his work at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, submitted a menorah, mezuzah, Kiddush cup and Shabbat candlesticks, all bearing his signature simple, modern lines.

“Eons Doorpost Trees Silhouette Mezuzah” by Harriete Estel Berman

Abrasha, a Dutch-born, San Francisco-based metal artist who goes by his first name, creates modern jewelry and Judaica based on traditional (in some case ancient) designs. His “Hanukkah Menorah of the Talmudic Era,” one of three menorahs in the exhibition, was inspired by lamps he saw in the Encyclopedia Judaica — one from talmudic times and another from 13th-century France. Both were made of clay; Abrasha’s interpretation uses sterling silver and stainless steel.

“I made my first menorah when I was 6 years old,” Abrasha, the son of Holocaust survivors, says of his passion for creating the nine-branch Hanukkah candelbras. “It was just a piece of wood with bottle caps stuck to it. You stick your candles in and you’re done.”

His style has changed a bit since then: After studying to be a goldsmith in Holland and immigrating to the Bay Area in the 1970s, Abrasha has worked steadily on commission (his menorahs have been showcased in the Smithsonian American Art Museum). He’s currently working on a new menorah design that will feature an engraving of the Western Wall.

Curator Freedman says she’s proud of the range and depth the exhibition has attracted.

“When we said we wanted contemporary Judaica, one message I wanted to get across was, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re 90 years old. We want people who are working right now, who represent today’s aesthetics.’ I think we definitely got that.”

“Traditional By Conception, Modern By Design” is on exhibit through Sept. 16 at the Elizabeth S. & Alvin I. Fine Museum at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. Non-members are welcome to view the exhibit by calling ahead to Judi Leff, director of operations, at (415) 750-7545.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.