Jewish ritual revisited

The show takes in 17 works which convey a sense of contemporary aesthetics and practicality across a wide array of design lines and mobility viewpoints.

Nitzan Cohen’s rolling pins for matzah making add a splash of color (photo credit: ELIE POSNER/THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Nitzan Cohen’s rolling pins for matzah making add a splash of color
We never seem to have a moment to stop these days, do we? With all manner of ever-evolving “time-saving” technologies at our behest – complete with remote or virtual control – we constantly have our heads down to catch some WhatsApp or text message, or possibly a morsel of fascinating information that might just have dropped in our Facebook account.
In such a bewildering state of affairs, perhaps it follows that we are left with less time to devote to religious ceremonial matters. Add to that our tendency to live more nomadic lives than ever, and perhaps it makes sense to have our religious-practice-related artifacts in more compact, portable formats.
If you’re short on ideas in that department you might want to pop along to the Israel Museum, and take a look at the “To Go: New Designs for Jewish Ritual Objects” exhibition currently in progress. The show takes in 17 works which convey a sense of contemporary aesthetics and practicality across a wide array of design lines and mobility viewpoints.
Curator Sharon Weiser-Ferguson has culled a diverse range of artists from different cultural and disciplinary backdrops in putting together a fascinating swath of works that features all kinds of materials, forms, textures and lines of thought. The artists-designers also proffer a conceptual spread with regard to what the ceremonial procedure itself entails, and how best to accommodate that in a practical, appealing and respectful way. Interestingly, not all the exhibitors are Israeli, or even Jewish. As a result, some were able to incorporate their personal knowledge and experience of Jewish ritual in their plan of action, while others had to get a handle on the subject matter from the outside.
Katharine Mischer and Thomas Traxler belong to the latter category and clearly did their homework before embarking on their assignment. Their ingenious offering is a matza-making kit that combines the requisite degree of user- and transportation-friendliness with visual attractiveness, and even an element or two of intrigue. Their tidily sized offering includes a rolling pin, hourglass, dough cutter, measuring cup and aerating stamps, and even an apron that doubles as a sort of fold-up carrying pack. All very neat and practical.
As neither Mischer nor Traxler is “of the faith,” they had to get down to some reading before deciding on a topic and what their offering should comprise. “We could choose any Jewish holiday, so we looked into all of them, and the rituals, to see which would allow us to better develop the project,” Mischer explains. “We tried different directions, and then, for some reason, it felt that the line was going in the direction of baking.”
OF COURSE, you can’t have a Jewish holiday without food and the preparation thereof being front and center, so Mischer and Traxler still had to narrow their options. Then a social factor hove into their planning sights. “We thought that baking is an interesting thing because when you’re baking, you are also talking to each other, when you are not baking alone. You can have a communication part of the project which can be introduced into the baking kit,” Traxler says.
This feature also resonates with one of the fundamental, age-old elements of Seder night – piquing the curiosity of children so they are moved to query some of the customs being upheld at the dinner-table setting. “You see that in the stamping tool, the thing that makes the holes so that the matza doesn’t rise,” Mischer continues.
That is a delight to behold, and the perforated running figure impression left on the matza, indeed, looks tailor-made to raise a few young eyebrows and get the youngsters asking questions. “We thought it is an ideal thing to do with kids. You can talk to your kids and explain things to them while you bake. Passover is about storytelling and passing on the stories, so it is nice to have a tool that kids can understand it [the idea of asking questions] in a light way.”
Another feature that immediately registers is that the kit is in blue and white. Was the Israeli national flag-friendly dichromic mix premeditated or did it just work out that way? “A bit of both,” says Traxler. “We had to have a material that was practical. So we looked at plastic that was durable, but then we found that this durable plastic was not available in any color, apart from blue, red, green, black and a kind of brownish white. Blue is the nicest color,” Traxler laughs. “It was a mixture of coincidence and a bit of choice.” Either way, the white-and-blue comes across as suitable for our national colors, and also makes for a fetching end product.
“We looked at blue and we thought it was the nicest,” Mischer adds. “And then we thought of the whole context, and we thought, ‘Come on, blue and white makes sense in the [Jewish-Israeli] context.’”
Not only are the designers not Jewish, they hail from Austria, a country with negative connotations for Jews. Both were keenly aware of that, and did their utmost to ensure everything was kosher. “We didn’t want anyone to misunderstand it,” Mischer notes, referencing the cutely fashioned matza perforations. “We didn’t think anyone would misinterpret that but we rechecked with the [Jewish] museum [in Vienna], to make sure we were right about that. As an Austrian you have to be super-careful, because no matter what you say, it can be very wrong.”
WHILE APPRECIATING the importance of sensitivity, Mischer says it made the creative process more challenging and sometimes got in the way of spontaneity. “Sometimes we had to be over-careful, which makes things difficult, and you have to weigh every word carefully before you say something.” The Holocaust backdrop might have made the project a more laborious experience for the Austrian designers, but the matza-making kit worked out really well.
While Mischer and Traxler took pains to not tread on any religious toes, they also tried to maintain a certain degree of artistic and personal license. After all, they were approached by the Israel Museum for their creative gifts, not for their ability to keep to the straight and narrow. As such, the designers decided not to take on too much information about Jewish religious practices, or consult members of the Viennese Jewish community. “We discussed it but we decided we didn’t want to, because then we wouldn’t have this outsider’s view,” Traxler explains. “You would lose a bit of your naiveté. It was deliberate.”
Practicality was always a guiding line in the artistic process, as was enjoying the finished product. “We wanted to have a user-friendly kit, and that you wouldn’t need to know anything about the recipe or anything,” Traxler adds. “The glass shows you exactly how much water you need, and that sort of thing. It should be all self-explanatory, and that you don’t need to first read up about it. It’s all very straightforward.”
Not all the works on exhibit in “To Go: New Designs for Jewish Ritual Objects” are so basic, but they are all make for fun and curious viewing. Nitzan Cohen also went for a Passover-related theme, and crafted four brightly colored rolling pins to be used in the matza-making process, which might put one in mind of a sort of psychedelic barber shop sign of yesteryear. Nati Shamia Opher came up with an environmentally-friendly leaning hand-washing kit for an outdoor Shabbat meal, while Ya’acov Kaufman crafted a skeletal and highly compact self-assembly Shabbat set, complete with candlesticks, wine-cup holder and halla tray.
The exhibits take in an interesting range of cultural baggage, and there is more than a whiff of Gali Canaani’s postgraduate stint in Kanazawa, Japan, in the work Wedding by the Meter. The adroitly designed set, made with cotton, wool, silk and metal thread, includes a wedding huppa (canopy), tallit (prayer shawl) and bride’s veil, all woven into a single bolt of fabric.
Weiser-Ferguson says she was keen not to go over old, and very familiar, ground in curating the exhibition. “We all know these things, from our own homes, or from our grandparents, and it can tend toward kitsch. I wanted to avoid that and offer something fresh.” She and the artists-designers have managed that with aplomb.
“To Go: New Designs for Jewish Ritual Objects” closes on October 5. For more information: