Sparking a Religious Flame From Rural Uganda to Jerusalem and Beyond

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Akin Ajayi

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to capture,” Gabriel Bass says as he pulls up photos on his computer – close-ups from the Alhambra in southern Spain; the intricate patterns are the inspiration for Bass’ current work. It's a portable case for a Torah recently recovered from Syria. “I’ve been to Granada quite a few times,” he says as he traces his fingers along the whorls and spirals of the Torah case. “It’s so emotional.”

Bass is first and foremost a craftsman, a maker of the accoutrements of Jewish religious ritual – nerot tamid (alter lamps), Torah cases, lecterns and the like. It might be a truism to say that Bass' ceremonial Jewish art reflects the history and philosophy of the faith, but Bass, who works mainly with wood and glass, wants to transcend the physical.

Born and brought up in the United States, Bass now works out of his studio on the edges of Moshav Mata on the outskirts of Jerusalem. His has done work for communities ranging from conversos in the Peruvian mountains and a newly-acknowledged Jewish community in rural Uganda. There seems to be something of the preacher in his efforts, an analogy he likes. “It’s my way of being a liaison, teaching Judaism to the general public,” he says.

The Ugandan project is an example of the intersection between philosophy and practice. The Abayudaya (“people of Judah”) in rural eastern Uganda are converts with a history dating back a century. Long ostracized by their neighbors in the Baganda region, the Abayudaya also experienced official discrimination during the Idi Amin dictatorship of the 1970s. Things have improved since, with the community feeling out a clearer sense of its identity.

Bass was commissioned by a Los Angeles-based benefactor of the community to construct and install a ner tamid and menorah. In the past few years, the community has expanded several-fold, which Bass theorizes is linked to the strengthening of Jewish identity. He has since been asked to prepare plans for expanding the local synagogue, building on the success of the original project. Bass hopes the resonance will be more than symbolic.

“When we began to discuss plans, I said, ‘Let’s not just do it there. Let’s create a workshop that will teach them how to do these things for themselves,’” he says.

Bass had seen for himself the community’s resourcefulness. For instance, though not connected to the electricity grid, computer use is widespread. Bass sees potential for online collaboration so that the community will be primed to work with him, not for him.

“We can Skype once a week, work on how to design things according to their culture, according to the nature and design of things around them,” he says.

While the theory that the accessories of Jewish observance – his installations – significantly affect community life, he aims to carve material changes, too. If the project gets off the ground, Bass hopes to teach the people computer-aided design; the people would be able to use his carpentry tools once he leaves.

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ner tamid in Scottsdale, Arizona, USA.Credit: Courtesy
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Bear catching a salmon - from the early collection of Native American artworks.Credit: Courtesy
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Handmade Elijah's chair influenced by Jewish-American designer Sam Maloof.Credit: Courtesy

“They’ll have skills beyond anyone else in the region, they have both tools and a trade that can be maintained with a bit of a follow-up,” he says. It could be that in this sense, the creation of ceremonial Jewish art could facilitate a path to self-actualization, precisely the role Bass sees for it.

Apprenticing at a reservation

Brought up in a moderately observant Seattle household, Bass began to shape a connection between art and faith while studying photography at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. While weighing options for a gap year, he stumbled across a live-and-work program in Musqueam, a Native American reservation in British Columbia. Even though it was just two hours from Seattle, he realized he knew very little about this parallel culture. “I had lived as a white person in Seattle amid a culture that had only developed in the last 200 years,” he reflects.

Bass discovered in himself a kinship with the Native American culture of the Northwest, particularly its craftsmanship. “The wood carvers were fascinating," he says; he was eventually invited to try his hand. “I wound up spending four months with them as an apprentice, working under them on totem poles and different Native American-style carvings,” he says.

Bass was struck by the parallels of experience between minority Native American and Jewish communities, particularly the continuity; art's role in transmitting and preserving culture. He was not particularly observant at the time, but his experience on the reservation got him thinking about his cultural and religious identity.

“They make a totem pole so a kid will walk up to it and ask, ‘Whoa, that’s impressive, what’s that?’ Then the carver, the teacher, can tell them the story, Bass says. "We have a seder plate that we put on the center of the table so it would trigger a question from the kid, and then you talk about their great ancestors.”

After completing his graduate thesis at Hampshire College, Bass returned to British Columbia and apprenticed on the reservation for another year. On returning to Seattle, he opened a furniture and craftwork studio, making Judaica items as a sideline and selling them at art exhibitions and fairs. He made aliyah in 2002 – the natural end point, he says, of the journey that began on the Native American reservation in British Columbia – and opened his studio on Moshav Mata in 2010.

What does ceremonial art mean to him personally? “Someone would walk by and see a menorah and say, ‘Oh, I remember lighting a candle with my great-grandmother, but I’m not Jewish,’” Bass says. But it’s the spark of association that matters. “It kindles a flame in people; it shows the value of Jewish ceremonial art and why we have it and why we use it to teach people.”

A portfolio of Bass’ work can be viewed at

Custom Carving built the entire interior of Yeshivat Mishkan HaTorah in Toronto, Canada.Credit: Courtesy

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