Granting children a unique voice in prayer

Avi Friedman is the creative mind behind children’s stories that present difficult subjects in an easily digestible format.

Avi Friedman’s clay figurines (photo credit: YITZHACK FISCH)
Avi Friedman’s clay figurines
(photo credit: YITZHACK FISCH)
Entering the world of Avi Friedman feels like what Dorothy must have felt when she was dropped from the black-and-white world of Kansas and passed over the threshold to the technicolor world of Oz.
As you approach the door to Friedman’s Jerusalem home, you immediately realize that no simple welcome mat will do. Instead, you are greeted by macaroni art, handmade mosaics, and papier-mâché characters made from bottles rescued from a recycling bin. It is a promise of things to come, and Friedman does not disappoint.
By day, this 2004 graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design is a director in a civil company that runs the National Police Academy of Israel, where he helps to operate the Beit Shemesh training facility. By night, the artist is the creative mind behind children’s stories that present difficult subjects in an easily digestible format.
These include parents leaving for reserve duty, preparing for Shabbat, and teaching young ones about Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. What makes these books special are the main characters: three-dimensional figurines that begin as a ball of clay until their creator breathes life into them and they find their way onto the pages of his books.
“I was always doodling as a young boy and playing with modeling clay,” Friedman says. “I always felt like I must create; otherwise, I am not fulfilling my destiny.”
It is a destiny that is in Friedman’s DNA and, apparently, that of his progeny. Sandwiched between his mother, a painter, and his two daughters, who are responsible for the unique art that frames his apartment landing, the idea for his figurines had a humble beginning.
“When I was a student, I was working in a community center with kids from poor neighborhoods,” he recalls. “I would make figures for them out of clay. They were enthusiastic about them and would ask me to make different characters. I saw I was good at it so it evolved from there.”
Today, the artist is inspired by everything, from Bissli snacks that become the beard of a rabbi to a meticulously shaped little girl’s head that mimics a jewel-red pomegranate. It is through these characters – hundreds of which have been created over the years – that Friedman helps parents teach their children about prayer.
Stories include the Al Het prayer of asking forgiveness for sins, the story of Jonah and the whale, and the priestly blessing.
The artist often walks into his own synagogue and finds his books in use. Parents thank him for helping them involve their children in prayers and he even receives clay models from kids who enjoyed his stories. Nothing could please him more.
“I want children to be active in their synagogues rather than bored, and for parents to be able to teach their kids about the different prayers,” Friedman explains. “The books are a teaching tool and let children become part of the congregation.”
The life of a soldier becomes the life of an artist A man of many hobbies and interests, Friedman is a 20-year collector of nearly 1,200 “Kinder Surprises,” toys hidden inside chocolate Kinder eggs, that are fastidiously displayed categorically along a long wall.
These tiny objects, the largest of which stands at a mere five centimeters, all include movable parts, whether they are trains or animals or ghosts that glow in the dark.
His graphic comic-book collection is not the superhero type; rather, it is about historical events such as the invasion of Normandy. These neighbor a shelf with his collection of stones – among them, one from Auschwitz and another that is part of a 2,000-year-old pot.
While he may have childlike interests, Friedman is serious about his art, his purpose, and his country.
A ninth-generation Israeli whose ancestors arrived in Safed from Russia in 1806, the now-reservist rose through the ranks of the IDF to the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
He volunteered for the Special Forces Samson unit, where he and his fellow soldiers disguised themselves as Arabs and entered Palestinian cities undetected to maintain an element of surprise for an operation.
In 1993, he served in Gaza, followed by service in Lebanon as part of the Egoz Reconnaissance Unit.
“Because of my military service, I made a 180-degree turn,” Friedman notes. “When I was at Bezalel, I would leave the studio for a month at time. That’s when I decided to make art a profession.”
The strong set of hands that once enveloped a pistol or a machine gun on a daily basis is the same set of hands that now methodically crafts the landscape of the Jewish state from a block of clay. The artist is proud that his books show all of the religious and cultural diversity that is Israel.
“It is important to me that my books are multicultural, show men and women, and are pluralistic,” Friedman says. “This is how God made us. I can’t ignore whole parts of the population.”
In fact, the artist’s current project is a book about an Ethiopian boy, a population he feels is not well-represented in mainstream Israeli culture. The young boy is from a small village and he has a dream about a stork carrying him off to Jerusalem.
When he is awoken by his father, he is told that they are leaving for Israel, where he discovers the streets are not paved with gold as he had believed.
“I am drawn to these kinds of stories like a moth to a flame,” Friedman says, proudly adding that an Ethiopian character actually debuted in his first book, published in 2010.
The artist also produced pamphlets that feature his characters and that are aimed the ultra-Orthodox community, specifically teens who are beginning to lose their way both religiously and socially.
“The figures are used to give them guidance,” Friedman explains.
The IDF reservist even uses his position at the Police Academy to create a special figurine for visitors that is inspired by the blue sirens atop policy vehicles.
As he says, “My art always allows me to bring my worlds together.”