A Higher Calling, Local Artisans Tap
into the Demand for Judaica
by Judson Brown
Among the myriad pieces of equipment crammed around the perimeter of Ed Cohen’s small woodworking shop on the third floor of the Arts and Industry Building in Florence are three dust collectors connected by large corrugated hose to one of his sanding machines. For extra protection for the lungs, a couple of air filters hang from the ceiling.
Serious sanding goes on in this third-floor, compact, two-person factory where egg cartons are glued to the walls for sound insulation. Young Dmitri Nishman, Cohen’s sole assistant, is so practiced at it he appears to have found a way to catnap while doing so. He was seen one day recently pillowing his head (one eye open) on his wrists while, with a steady, seemingly automatic motion back and forth on the whizzing belt sander, he moved a finger-sized mezuzah box gripped between his taut fingertips.
“He’s got pretty good hands, that’s why I kept him,” Cohen jokingly says of his goateed 20-year-old helper.
A very smooth finish is essential to these tiny ritualistic containers, adorned with intricate jewel-like geometric patterns of inlaid wood. Toward this end, Nishman, when he is not sanding, is brushing them with steel wool or applying a thin coat of tung oil mixed with shellac.
Under the business name of E. Cohen Designs, Cohen has carved out a very specialized niche. He turns out nothing but hand-crafted wooden Judaica — objects related directly to Jewish religion and folk customs — in his Florence shop.
His bread and butter are these thin mezuzah cases with their intricate surfaces. They are glued (another job for Nishman) to thin back plates with holes drilled in the top for fastening them to doorjambs. At the tip of each mezuzah is glued a bright yellow, metallic stylization of the Hebrew letter “shin,” the first letter of the Shema, a Jewish prayer.
The purpose of the mezuzah is to be a container for this holiest of Jewish prayers. Cohen drills a deep hole in the center of each mezuzah for the insertion of what is called the klaf — a kosher version of the Shema written in Hebrew onto a piece of parchment, which is then rolled up into a cigarette-sized cylinder.
Included in the Shema is the commandment, called a mitzvah, mandating that the prayer be attached “to the doorposts of thy house and upon thy gates.” Jewish custom has it that to insure a blessing on their dwellings and to ward off evil, observant householders should install a mezuzah on every door frame with the exception of the bathroom, and that upon entering or leaving the house one should kiss the mezuzah. A mezuzah at every doorpost is a lot of mezuzot. Cohen says he can’t keep up with the demand for them. “I haven’t had a slow time that I can remember,” he says. There are piles of mezuzot in one stage or another stacked on various surfaces throughout his shop. He moves armfuls of them around like so much kindling.
In addition to mezuzot, Cohen also makes tzedakah (or charity) boxes, challah (braided bread) cutting tables, an occasional menorah (although he says most people prefer their candelabra not to be made of wood), and a smattering of yads. Yads are slender pointing devices usually made with a little human hand and a pointing finger on the end which are used to guide the eye during the reading of the Torah.
Focus on Judaica
Cohen is one of a small but growing number of craftspeople in the area who have decided to focus on making Judaica.
More and more people who grew up in largely assimilated and not very religiously observant Jewish households now are seeking “to reclaim Judaism as a way of life,” says Rabbi Kevin Hale (pronounced HAY-lay), assistant rabbi at the Jewish Community of Amherst and also part-time rabbi for a new Jewish congregation in Florence called Beit Ahavah. As a result, interest in Judaica has increased.
It is appropriate, says Hale, that these symbolic objects be reinterpreted so that they are meaningful and relevant to modern life — and appealing to the modern eye. Much of the ornate, factory-made silverware that many people associate with the Judaica they inherited and grew up with lacks aesthetic appeal, say the new workers in the form.
Fortunately for the artisans, despite the specific function of most of the Judaic ritualistic and symbolic objects, there are few prescriptions for how they are made. Within a strict tradition, thus, they are free to express themselves.
Emily Rosenfeld, a metal artisan with a studio in the Arts and Industry Building around the corner from Cohen, gives a playful interpretation of Jewish forms and symbols in her cast nickel and silver jewelry that incorporates Jewish symbols and also in her pewter Judaica pieces.
Her Judaica includes a non-traditional menorah with eight detached candleholders which can be arranged anyway one likes and mazuzot with figures in relief that suggest Matisse-like paper cutouts. The three-lobed Hebrew letter shin she has camouflaged here as a flower, there as a crown, and in other simple, fun, imaginative ways.
Rosenfeld says her goal is to make Judaica that is “affordable, contemporary, and about design in a way that a lot of Judaica is not.”
It seems that she has hit upon a successful formula.
Judaica, which she was not doing at all five years ago, now comprises about 80 percent of her sales. Much of it she sells at “temple shows” and to synagogue shops and museum shops, but she also is selling more and more at regular high-end craft fairs.
Fortunately for her, she says, “the culture is opening up spiritually, so — to be perfectly crass — there is a market for my Judaica.”
“Her mezuzot are really cool, for lack of a better word,” says Patricia Arbour, a convert to Judaism who carries Rosenfeld’s pieces at her Artisan Gallery in Thorne’s Marketplace in Northampton. “They make you feel really good, really joyful when you see them and touch them. That is exactly the feeling of what a mezuzah should be. It is a reminder of God. One should feel a little happiness, a little joy.”
Clay artist Emmett Leader of Northampton is one of the best known of the local Judaica artisans. His menorahs, Seder plates, tzedakah boxes, havdalah spice boxes (used to mark the transition between Shabbat and the regular work week), mizrachs (a decorative wall plaque to be hung on the east wall of the house indicating the direction of Jerusalem) and other pieces have been featured in a solo show at Pinch in Northampton.
Like Rosenfeld’s, many of Leader’s pieces are humorous and playful. But rather than strive as she does for a contemporary look, he has dug deep, through books and travel, into the Jewish past for imagery inspired by historic synagogue and shetl village architecture, grave carvings and other kinds of folk art that he uses as decorative motifs.
There are lots of animals carved into his pieces. Most ubiquitous is the chicken, which he describes as a virtual icon of Jewish folk life through the ages. Lately he’s gotten into molds. He mixes and matches different molded pieces, which is how a big chicken head has landed on shingled village rooftops in his new line of menorahs.
Many of the carvings on his pieces tell stories — the whale swallowing Jonah (just his legs are visible) and the dove flying over Noah’s ark are a couple of the familiar ones.
A 1977 graduate of Bennington College in Vermont, where he was an art major and studied pottery and sculpture, Leader, 46, has practiced and taught the craft of pottery ever since. However, it wasn’t until seven years ago, shortly before the birth of his and his wife Rebecca Schachter’s first child, that he decided to shift gears and work exclusively in Judaica. A sojourn in Israel in part led the way to this choice. He decided the time had come for him to explore his Jewish heritage — a heritage he wanted his children steeped in in a way he never was.
His grandfather had been a rabbi in Bennington, and simultaneously a kosher butcher there. His parents, however, had turned away from traditional religion to progressive social thought and activism.
While he was still living in Vermont, Leader says, his work in Judaica became “a way of being Jewish in a fairly non-Jewish place and a way to relate to Jews outside my community.”
Means of expression
Other Judaica artists in the area express similar thoughts.
Rosenfeld is a Jew by birth “but I didn’t grow up with it and I didn’t practice it,” she says. She still doesn’t, she says, but added that through her work “I can access the religion I was born into in a way that is really satisfying to me.”
Cohen’s family did hold a bar mitzvah for him, but other than that, religion was a minor note in his upbringing, he says.
Upon graduating from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in graphic arts, he went to work doing design and promotions for a big label company called Avery Label, then got a job as an assistant art director for an advertising firm in California. The turn in the road for Cohen came upon the death of his mother in California, his only relative out there. He moved back to New York, where he was born, and moved in with his sister and brother-in-law, whom he describes as “shamarshabbas” (Sabbath observers) who kept a kosher home in South Fallsburg, Sullivan County, in the Catskills.
There weren’t any immediate opportunities for graphic designers in the area. But he had long had a hobby of working with wood, and had brought his equipment with him. His brother suggested he try making some mezuzot.
It so happens that Belle Rosenbaum, perhaps the world’s foremost collector and authority on mezuzot, lived nearby. She is the author of Upon Thy Doorposts, a coffee table book all about mezuzot. Cohen showed her a sampling of his work.
Impressed by his craftsmanship, she commissioned some pieces, including a set of 12 mezuzot, each one representing one of the 12 tribes of Israel. The assignment was in part intended to fill in some of the blanks in his Jewish education, Cohen says now. Thus began, as Rosenbaum writes of Cohen in her book, “the evolution of a consummate Judaic artist.”
“I’m not a very religious person,” Cohen says today, although he does observe the commandment not to work on the Sabbath, sometimes a tough call during weekend gift and craft shows.
“Judaica is my link to the Jewish world,” he says. “Somehow it keeps me deep rooted and connected.”
There have been times when the strains of being sawyer and sander and designer and packer and shipper and salesman and bill collector all in one human being have gotten to him, he says, and he has seriously considered giving up the business and going back to graphic arts. But invariably at just such moments, it seems, in comes a big order for mezuzot, and he’s back to work, pumping out product.
Standing in his cluttered shop in his brown work shirt with “E. Cohen Designs” sewn in yellow script above the pocket, he says after a pause, “I guess a higher force has a purpose for me. It seems that way.”