Your Trash, Her Treasure

An Octogenarian Artist Finds Biblical Meaning in Discarded Objects

By Daniel Estrin

Published May 05, 2009, issue of May 15, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On a recent afternoon, Jacob Milgrom pored over the Book of Ezekiel in his Jerusalem study. The 86-year-old, one of the foremost biblical scholars alive today, took slow breaths and carefully marked the Hebrew text in pencil.

Mixed Media: The artist Jo Milgrom in 1994, at work on a piece. Below: ‘Marilyn Gets Religion,’ left, and a manual typewriter-turned-mezuzah.
Mixed Media: The artist Jo Milgrom in 1994, at work on a piece. Below: ‘Marilyn Gets Religion,’ left, and a manual typewriter-turned-mezuzah.

On the opposite side of the house was his 80-year-old wife, Jo Milgrom. She, too, was pondering biblical meaning. In her hands, though, were long, punched strips of old printer paper. “It’s like paper lace,” Milgrom said. “I saw this at the printer’s and said, ‘Don’t throw it out, it’s beautiful.’” Milgrom wanted to set up a fan so that the paper strips would float in the air — a depiction of God’s hovering spirit from the Genesis story of creation.

This is not arts and crafts hobbyism: Milgrom is an assemblage artist. She calls her work “visual midrash,” referencing the Jewish literary tradition of supplementing the biblical narrative with commentary, often in the form of colorful homilies. Traditional midrash was written from the third to the 12th centuries, but Milgrom believes there’s just as much of a place for creative midrash today as there is for the kind of scholarly interpretations her husband writes. She’ll promote artistic approaches to the Bible on May 16 at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., when she gives an interactive lesson titled “Through the Looking Glass at Mount Sinai.” And next month, the TALI Education Fund in Israel will launch an online image database of more than 2,000 biblical- and Judaic-themed artworks, collected by Milgrom over several decades.

“Jo’s work is indispensable,” said Jacob, whose Ezekiel commentary is forthcoming in the Anchor Bible series. “He’s the left brain, and I’m the right brain,” Milgrom added. She went on to quote Elie Wiesel: “Midrash is to Bible as imagination is to knowledge.”

It takes imagination to see Jewish meaning in junk. But that’s exactly what makes up Milgroms’s artistic pallet. Suitcases, antique bars of soap, dental models, Scrabble pieces, old bras — she snaps up these items around the neighborhood, in Dumpsters and at secondhand shops. She would be considered a Dumpster diver in any other place, but in Jerusalem, a city layered with history, she’s more of an archaeologist. Milgrom unearths objects, imbues them with meaning and displays the treasures. Once, she came away from a Jewish funeral home with bundles of tefillin and torn tallitim slated for burial. “You can trust me to give a new life to these objects that aren’t usable in the traditional religious sense,” she told the funeral home’s director.

The assembled objects end up on every wall, table and doorpost of the Milgroms’ home, an Arab residence built in 1929 and used as a British soldiers’ club during World War II. The couple settled in upon their move to Israel from Berkeley, Calif., in 1994. Their house now doubles as Milgrom’s art gallery.

“We’re starting in the bedroom. I don’t usually do this on the first date,” Milgrom joked as she gave a tour. On the mantle opposite the bed is an upside-down tallit bag, cupped inside a bra. Its title is an adaptation of verses from the Song of Songs: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine; between my breasts he lies.” Why the inverted tallit bag? Milgrom’s matter-of-fact response: “Love is not bound by traditional orders.”

Neither is most of her art. Her mezuzas aren’t like any you’d find in a Judaica shop. One is an old manual typewriter with the rolled-up klaf (parchment) peeking out. “[The Bible] says ‘write them on the doorposts of your house.’ Someone conveniently threw out a typewriter. You think I would pass that up?” Milgrom said with a grin. On the Milgroms’ front doorpost is a jumbo-sized mezuza with a triangle-shaped hazard reflector — the kind found in the glove compartments of Israelis’ cars — reassembled to form the Hebrew letter shin that adorns traditional mezuzas. This mezuza was made from a row of apartment-building mailboxes. “Messages being sent and received,” Milgrom explained. There’s plenty of humor in these mezuzas, but she relates to them with the utmost spiritual gravitas: “They’re a response to those tiny things that people put on the doorpost and pass without much attention. It’s the axis mundi connection with God. The idea of stopping at the threshold, where time and space meet. That’s the sanctified moment. It’s a gesture. When it’s conscious, it’s very powerful.”

Milgrom didn’t begin to make art until she hit 60. She taught Judaism and art at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and received a doctorate from the same institution in 1978. Later, she authored “Handmade Midrash: Workshops in Visual Theology” (Jewish Publication Society, 1992), a guide for teaching Bible through simple art projects. Meanwhile, she had accumulated junk in the garage but didn’t know what to do with it. So she approached Nancy Chinn, a California-based Catholic artist whose religious-themed works are displayed in churches. “I remember being struck with fear,” Chinn said. “She was asking me to teach her how to make art. I said, ‘Jo, I don’t think I can do this.’” But Milgrom insisted. Looking back, Milgrom said that Chinn “midwifed” her first assemblages. Today, Milgrom collaborates with Jerusalem artist Elisheva Yortner. Both Chinn and Yortner used the same word to describe Milgrom: adventurous.

Milgrom’s mixed-media art packs in unflinching commentaries on biblical narratives, spirituality, creativity, gender and politics. Her unorthodox approach to religious art may have found a welcoming home in Berkeley, but in the conservative capital of the Jewish people, exhibiting this stuff takes guts. “How dare you use these ritual objects in such a sacrilegious way?” was the gist of some visitors’ comments at New Things and Old, Beloved, Milgrom’s 2007 exhibition at the Jerusalem Theater. (Does Jewish law forbid the artistic recycling of ritual objects? “There is enough ambiguity that it works in my favor,” Milgrom said.) Noga Arad-Ayalon, the Jerusalem Theater art curator, recalled Milgrom’s piece “Marilyn Gets Religion,” in which Monroe dons tzitzit. “A person needs a lot of bravery to hang that up on the wall and to say, this is my truth,” Arad-Ayalon said. “That’s what amazed me about her art. Jo isn’t interested in making anyone feel good.”

Daniel Estrin is a print and radio journalist. He has contributed to USA Today, Nextbook, and the public radio programs “Marketplace” and “The World.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.