Reimagining Judaica, with a modern twist

The historic Shaare Zedek building on Jaffa Road now features Sari Srulovitch’s 2021 Jerusalem Biennale exhibit, which is rich in symbolism and blends Jewish customs with a modern vibe.

Engagement bowl, inspired by a beloved family carpet (photo credit: ELLIE POSNER)
Engagement bowl, inspired by a beloved family carpet
(photo credit: ELLIE POSNER)

Walk into the former synagogue of the historic Shaare Zedek building on Jaffa Road, and you’ll be struck by the contemporary, ceremonial Judaica and life-cycle pieces throughout the room, created by silversmith and artist Sari Srulovitch. This majestic space – where fervent prayers for healing were held for decades – now features Srulovitch’s 2021 Jerusalem Biennale exhibit, which is rich in symbolism and blends Jewish rituals and customs with a distinctive modern vibe.

Take Srulovitch’s Torah mantle, with its sense of weaved cloth, inspired by the scarves with which Mizrahi women traditionally decorated Torah scrolls. The custom was a way to honor the Torah, as well as to imply a silent request or a sense of gratitude.

Another piece, Srulovitch’s sleek, modern-designed Torah crown, is comprised of 18 stripes, symbolizing a gate opening upward, reflecting the prayer, “Our Father, our King! Open the gates of heaven to our prayer.”

There is subtle commentary in Srulovitch’s works as well. A Torah pointer featuring an image of an untied braid is her way of also pointing out the exclusion of women in Torah study over the course of centuries.

“Braids symbolize the bonds between a mother and daughter – whether it’s the braiding of hair, or the braiding of the Shabbat challah,” said Srulovitch, whose parents hail from Azerbaijan. By unraveling the braid in this work, she explained that she is symbolically breaking through traditional, Orthodox boundaries.

Torah crown, a modern interpretation of a gate opening upward (credit: SHAI HALEVI)Torah crown, a modern interpretation of a gate opening upward (credit: SHAI HALEVI)

“These works come from my soul,” reflected Srulovitch, 57, who studied silversmithing and metal work at the Bezalel Academy of Art, as well as at London’s Royal College of Art. An award-winning artist, her works are part of collections in the Israel Museum, the ANU Museum of the Jewish People, and the Jewish Museum in New York, among others. 

“I am constantly moved as I add my own modern, creative interpretation to symbols that are long-imbued with rich, historical meaning.”

For Srulovitch, bringing memories to the surface is like branding a tattoo on the skin, she said, exposing her inner world to all. This is particularly evident in her Stone Canopy piece – a dramatic artistic feature of her Jerusalem Biennale exhibit – created following her brother’s death last year. It expresses the heaviness that accompanied her loss; the fragmentation and the crumbling of life-long memories that she experienced.

“This canopy stands in contrast to a wedding; an oxymoron. It incorporates stones, traditionally placed on a tombstone, into a wedding canopy, as it summons a group of mourners,” she explained. “The canopy is heavy, owing to the numerous rocks embedded in it. It hangs vertically – in contrast to the marriage huppah – and symbolizes loss; that which no longer exists.”

EXISTENTIAL questions are also represented in Srulovitch’s Ayekah (Where are you?) work. Inspired by this perennial divine question, her acclaimed piece, which is on permanent exhibit at the Israel Museum, features a brass sphere with the Hebrew word carved out, conveying a haunting sense of absence. 

“When the ball is rolled over a layer of brass dust, or onto concrete, the imprint intensifies the feeling of loss, and symbolizes the fragility of life and the constant search for morality, spirituality and humanity,” Srulovitch said. 

“The imprint of the ball in the concrete or the brass dust disappears gradually, like footprints in the sand fading away, like memories changing. The pattern in reverse symbolizes non-existence, the end.”

Srulovitch noted that many of her works draw from her rich family memories. For instance, her silver engagement bowls feature colorful threads that unexpectedly emanate out of them. The design was inspired by a carpet that had been in her family for more than 70 years.

When she spread the carpet out, she realized that the pattern, shapes and colors were all part of the childhood landscape that had encompassed her family history – times of laughter and tears, joy and sorrow, and she realized that this motif had to be incorporated into her work.

This thought-provoking exhibit, curated by Dvora Liss, is on view at the historic Shaare Zedek building, 161 Jaffa Rd., Jerusalem, until December 30. Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday through Thursday.