Dean MacDonald in his San Francisco studio
Dean MacDonald in his San Francisco studio

Artist Dean MacDonald’s reimagined mezuzahs go beyond the doorframe

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In 2012, a newlywed couple commissioned Dean MacDonald to make them a mezuzah that incorporated shards of the glass from their wedding ceremony.

The San Francisco artist became obsessed with finding a way to use each and every piece of the broken glass, a personal challenge he had set for himself. He worked on the project for more than a year before he had a revelation: The mezuzah didn’t have to be on a doorframe.

“What if I just included part of the doorframe in the piece? So that, essentially, it’s in a doorframe, but that would free me up to have it live on the wall somewhere,” MacDonald, 60, said. “Like that, it could be big and be whatever it wanted to be.”

About a decade later, in October 2021, MacDonald launched Beit Dean, his business making unique and eclectic mezuzahs in earnest. (The name is a play on beit din, a rabbinic court.)

A mezuzah consists of a tiny scroll inscribed with Torah verses, known as a klaf, contained in a small, decorative, wooden or metal case. The klaf must be kosher for the mezuzah to be kosher, but there are no restrictions on the container, though it often is adorned with a shin, the first letter of one of God’s names, Shaddai.

Three of Dean MacDonald's mezuzahs
Three of Dean MacDonald’s mezuzahs

MacDonald’s pieces, which are priced from $350 upwards to $1,000, transcend traditional ideas of what mezuzahs look like. He begins without a plan, preferring to go where inspiration takes him. He uses found objects and materials such as wood, resin and metal that he shapes himself.

The scroll is a particular point of fascination for MacDonald, and his pieces often provide a glimpse of it. “I’ve started to use the scroll part as a placeholder for your spiritual identity,” he said. “It’s the power source for the piece.”

Customarily, mezuzahs are hung on the doorposts of homes in order to remind Jews of their connection to God as they come and go. But MacDonald’s versions are all free-standing. He said he hopes to encourage interaction with the pieces; some have moving parts and are designed to be picked up and played with.

“It’s almost this living thing that’s really inviting you to interact with it,” he said. “It’s bringing that initial ritual of touching the mezuzah up a level, bringing it out into the open.”

(Rabbi Joel Landau of San Francisco’s Adath Israel, an Orthodox synagogue, said in order to fulfill the “mitzvah of mezuzah,” it must be properly attached to a doorframe, as prescribed in Deuteronomy 6:9.)

MacDonald grew up a “casual Catholic” in the suburbs of Detroit and came to Judaism when he met his wife, Rabbi Batshir Torchio, in the early 1990s. After 24 years as a creative director for the online animation company Mondo Media, which closed its S.F. office in 2017, he is now creating art full time after working on it on and off for decades. He has two degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute.

It’s almost this living thing that’s really inviting you to interact with it.

He started his mezuzah business after three years of caring for his elderly father-in-law, whose eventual move into a senior home gave MacDonald more time to devote to his passions.

“I started thinking, right now I could get a job somewhere, maybe work for a few years, or I could take charge of my own future,” he said.

In his short time in the mezuzah business — “These aren’t your Bubbe’s mezuzot,” his website proclaims — he has built a small but dedicated clientele. Tania Lowenthal, for example, has bought four, all for gifts. The first, which had moving parts, beads and blessings painted on the outside, was for her ailing sister, who took it with her to the hospital and kept it on her bedside table.

“There was so much intention going into it,” Lowenthal said. “Every piece has a purpose. Every piece tells a story around healing. It’s a religious artifact. It’s a talisman, and it’s something that makes you very happy when you look at it because you know that probably somebody very special must have done that.”

In the future, MacDonald hopes his business will be able to support him and his family. Right now, he works part time at Whole Foods to pay the bills.

“The goal would be to go in the studio every day and have this be my thing,” he said. “I don’t need to make tons of money or be famous or anything. I just want to keep doing it.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.