Tracing Our Heirlooms: The Bezalel Imprint

The Wonders of America

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published September 15, 2006, issue of September 15, 2006.
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With Rosh Hashanah right around the corner, some American Jews are already in a state of readiness, planning holiday menus, contemplating what to wear to services and dusting off their Kiddush cups, readying them for immersion in gobs of Hagerty Silversmiths’ Wash. As I, too, gather my little band of Kiddush cups and trays in anticipation of a massive amount of silver polishing, I can’t help wondering how other American Jews have accumulated their personal collection of Judaica. Some, I suppose, have inherited their Jewish things from their parents and grandparents; others undoubtedly received them as bar and bat mitzvah gifts or as wedding presents. Still others probably purchased their candlesticks and Kiddush cups and challah boards from their synagogue gift shop or while visiting Israel, where these items function as both souvenirs and bona fide ritual objects. Devotees of “The Jewish Catalog,” in turn, no doubt made their own, fashioning mezuzas out of walnut shells (see page 14 for instructions) or “forag[ing] in the woods to find [their] own menorah. The exposed root of a fallen tree, fingers pointing in various directions, is striking,” the 1973 reference book related, “and lends itself beautifully to adaptation as a menorah.”

But how did earlier generations of American Jews, the grandparents and great-grandparents of those who swore by the “The Jewish Catalog” — that self-styled “do-it-yourself kit” — come by their menorahs and Kiddush cups and all the rest? Did they purchase them in the New World from the dusty, old-fashioned religious article shops that dotted the immigrant quarter? Or were these ritual objects carefully nestled inside the cardboard suitcases tied with string that so many Eastern European Jews brought with them at the turn of the past century? Chances are we’ll never know: The provenance of Judaica in this country is just one of those things that seems to have disappeared, without a trace, into the maw of history.

Except, of course, if the ritual item in question bears the imprint of Bezalel, the Jerusalem arts and crafts workshop founded by Boris Schatz in 1906. In this instance, the historical record is awash in information about the growing audience, in the United States and abroad, for Bezalel products: hammered copper vases, Seder plates, spice boxes, olive wood letter openers, Torah crowns and pointers, filigreed jewelry, bronze sculptures and ceramics and rugs that, according to the American Hebrew, “vie[d] with the best of Persian and Turkish productions.”

Determined to put the lie to the widespread notion that the Jews were a people given more to chess than to crafts, to distribution and production rather than creativity, Schatz sought to train a modern generation of Bezalels who, like their biblical namesake, would create things of fine craftsmanship and great beauty. “The great idea is not to copy Arab or European models but to derive new inspiration from Hebraic ideals and from the flora and fauna of the land,” he said, drawing as many as 500 students to his school by the eve of World War I.

Schatz also made a point of showcasing his students’ handiwork, and with it his vision of aesthetic renewal, by mounting traveling exhibitions in London, Vienna and Berlin. Two exhibitions of “useful as well as ornamental” items also came to the United States, the first in 1914 and the second in 1926. Making their way to Chicago, Buffalo, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New York, these displays drew large and enthusiastic crowds of American Jews eager to purchase a thing or two or three from the Holy Land and, in the process, show their support of Zionism: “Only the best and only Palestine” was how the official brochure of the 1914 exhibition put it.

Amid Bezalel’s growing popularity here at home, the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods even went so far as to pass a resolution calling on its constituents to introduce at least one Bezalel object into their homes and temples, and to contribute annually to the school’s upkeep. This gesture, the Reform Jewish women’s group explained, surely would benefit American Jewry as much as it would those living in the Holy Land, “encouraging the work of Jewish artists” even as it promoted an “appreciation of the beautiful symbols of our faith.”

With its broad-based appeal, Bezalel left its mark on an earlier generation of American Jews, helping to fill their armoires with Jewish objects that spoke of both modernity and of tradition, of artistic expression and the imperatives of community.

Schatz himself was equally delighted by the way things turned out, heartened by the warm reception he had received. “At last the exhibits are at an end! And with it, all the confusions, banquets, speeches, packing and unpacking and all the other trials and tribulations that go along with [them],” he wrote. “Was it worth the while? My reply to this question is an emphatic ‘Yes.’”

And so it should be with us. As we ring in the New Year by raising our Bezalel-made Kiddush cup or, for that matter, one manufactured in the United States or transported from Eastern Europe, let’s also give voice to an “emphatic yes” about the future of Jewish life.

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