Photo illustration by Jacob Barrett, a 5th grader at Brandeis Day School in San Francisco
Photo illustration by Jacob Barrett, a 5th grader at Brandeis Day School in San Francisco

Kids find ‘heart of Shabbat’ in their artwork, now on display at CJM

“He will proclaim freedom for all his children. And will keep you as the apple of his eye. Pleasant is your name and will not be destroyed. Repose and rest on the Sabbath day.”

This piyut (sacred poem) can be found in the pages of any Jewish prayerbook. It also appears on a piece of art crafted by 13-year-old Aurora Zeltser.

An eighth-grade student at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos, Aurora’s creation was one of 60 entries in the “Shabbat Design Challenge,” a program organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco in partnership with Jewish LearningWorks.

The activity is associated with the CJM’s annual Dorothy Saxe Invitational, which invited 57 adult artists to create works related to Shabbat and the concept of a weekly day of rest. That exhibit, “Sabbath,” is open through Feb. 25.

For the youth design challenge, students from preschool through high school were invited to submit their idea of Shabbat and think about how to visually represent their personal practices and relationship to the Sabbath day. They also were encouraged to look beyond traditional Judaica and investigate ideas of time and space as separate from their everyday lives.

“We were trying to get at the heart of Shabbat,” explained Janine Okmin, associate director of education at the CJM and one of the judges. “Why do we need a day of rest? How do we make it the richest experience as possible?”

The answers to those questions took many artistic forms.

Aurora’s inspiration began when she entered a dark classroom and found it illuminated by candles with music playing in the background — a spiritual setting courtesy of art teacher Judy Schultz and Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper, Yavneh’s rabbi and director of integrated learning.

Students were given a piece of paper and the simple instruction to do anything they wanted with it. Aurora crumpled her blank paper into a ball.

“Light of Separation (Havdalah)” by Zachary Newman, a fifth-grader at Brandeis School of San Francisco
“Light of Separation (Havdalah)” by Zachary Newman, a fifth-grader at Brandeis School of San Francisco

“I had the idea instantly,” she said of what would become her piece, “Beyond the Sum of Its Parts.”

The paper evolved into thick layers of papier-mâché made from the pages of an unusable prayerbook. Aurora highlighted specific references with watercolors, symbolizing how, like the layers she built around the ball, Shabbat connects her to Judaism.

Wanting to go a step further and add nontraditional items, Aurora created a kaleidoscope with pictures and mirrors to represent “experience” as the biggest component of Shabbat.

“Depending on where you position your eyes, it can change what you choose to notice,” said Aurora, who loves math and dreams of becoming a biomedical engineer. “It really made me realize how existential it is. I realized how naked Shabbat is. Shabbat is what you make of it. It’s up to you.”

For Jacob Barrett, a fifth-grader at Brandeis School of San Francisco, Shabbat means family time with his parents and sister. Their Friday night dinners were the 10-year-old’s muse for his artwork, “Hands on Shabbat,” one of 18 entries selected for special recognition.

Jacob photographed iconic Shabbat items such as candlesticks, a tablecloth, a Kiddush cup and challah from interesting angles, then married his photographs in Photoshop with images of his hands. This is what Shabbat is for him, he said, “both a physical and psychological experience.”

As for the hands, he explained, “hands do everything” — from making challah to lifting up the Kiddush cup.

“We are holding onto everything with our hands,” Jacob added. “It represents being together as a family.”

It really made me realize how existential it is. Shabbat is what you make of it.

Other winners are students at Edah (an afterschool program in Berkeley), Contra Costa Jewish Day School (Lafayette), Contra Costa Midrasha (Walnut Creek) and Congregation Beth El (Berkeley).

Selected entries will be on display at a Family ArtBash at the CJM Sunday, Jan. 28, which will include magic, hands-on craft projects, storytelling, music by Octopretzel and a family dance party. Works also will be on display Feb. 1-18 at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

Okmin and fellow judge Vavi Toran of Jewish LearningWorks said they were overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of the interpretations by students of all ages. The multimedia expressions included paintings, videos, clay sculptures, essays and woodwork.

“What surprised us was the diversity of interpretations,” Okmin noted.

“What touched me was how many made it very personal,” said Toran, an Israel education and arts specialist.

The educators said that by having the works exhibited alongside those of professional artists, the students will see that their ideas have been acknowledged and are valued in their community.

Following the exhibition, Jacob’s work will become part of his growing collection of photographs displayed in his family’s living room, he said. And while Aurora said she typically enjoys admiring her work in private, this piece is different.

“I will put it out on a table or a shelf,” she said. “I want it to be like a monument.”

All of the entries in the “Shabbat Design Challenge” can be seen here. The Family ArtBash is 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.