How do you find the perfect gift for a grandmother who is celebrating her bat mitzvah? You might try searching for ideas online, but suppose you want something more personal and lasting? What about a customized gift that could tell a meaningful family story and become a precious heirloom for her four adult children and three grandchildren?
Those questions led the family of Julie Anne Feinstein to artist Diane Fredgant. The result is a hand-painted silk tallit depicting a wooded landscape that has been significant in the lives of the Feinstein family for generations. It is a place where twilight turns the water golden green and the beautiful scenery is infused with happy family memories. Fredgant photographed the site at exactly the right time of day to capture the image that became the design for Feinstein’s stunning gift. “It’s like I get a hug from my family each time I wear the tallit,” Feinstein says.
When not being worn, the tallit is proudly displayed on her sofa, inviting family visitors to share stories and guests to admire a unique work of art made especially for her.
FINDING THE RIGHT ARTIST. The Feinsteins were fortunate that they knew where to look to find the right artist, but it isn’t so easy to connect with Jewish artists unless you know where to search. Diane Fredgant is president of ORA: Northwest Jewish Artists, an organization that brings together over 60 members whose creative work spans the full range of Judaica arts and crafts. The American Guild of Judaic Art showcases and provides access to artists throughout the United States and has members in Israel, Canada and the Netherlands.
Beth Ezekiel Congregation in Owen Sound, Ontario also found the right artist. They commissioned Temma Gentles to make these unique Torah mantles, which continue the style and expanding helix motif of the congregation’s other bimah textiles. The breastplates reference two recurrent Yomim Noraim (Days of Awe) themes: Shofarot (Revelation) and Malchuyot (Majesty). I met Gentles in her role as the fabric artist visionary who created the global Torah Stitch-by-Stitch project. Her custom work for synagogues, individuals and others is breathtaking.
DESIGNING FOR FUNCTION & FORM
The process of working with an artist to create a custom piece offers opportunities for individuals as well as institutions. Woodworker Greg Zall made an exquisite customized ark for Hillel at Stanford, so we turned to him again to build a matching table on which to read Torah.The table needed to be movable, to be sized for nearby storage when not in use, and to be accessible for readers using wheelchairs. Zall designed a custom piece that has a roll-out level at wheelchair height, an expression of inclusivity that ensures everyone the opportunity to participate in services.
EXPRESSING THE SACRED
When a friend wanted a special table for his office with the Hebrew text “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” (all Israel are responsible for one another), artist Donnie el Berman worked with him to create a one-of-kind piece reflecting a deep personal commitment to that concept. (Enable the Flash player to view this beautiful website featuring etched glass mezuzot, bronze and other sensory materials in large installations and small-scale objects.) Berman describes his work as “architecturally inspired yet avant-garde,” a unique combination that has earned international recognition from the Knesset to the White House.
VALUING TALENT & TIME. Online Judaica shopping is convenient, but supporting the work of individual artists is gratifying in a very different way. In addition to fulfilling the spirit of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the mitzvah), being a partner in the creative process with an exceptional Judaica artist enhances the experience and the outcome. Next time you want to honor or thank someone with a very special gift, or enhance a space in your Jewish community, I encourage you to think of them.