Reshaping Judaica Before the High Holy Days

Immigrant artists offer a new take on traditional themes this holiday season.

They are among a cadre of Anglo designers whose handcrafted creations - from calligraphy and ceramics to woodcuts and metalwork - span a diverse array of mediums that incorporate both traditional and contemporary themes.

With less than two weeks to go before the onset of the High Holy Days, these native English-speaking Judaica artists are rolling out their designs for the New Year. "I usually start with thinking about the past year, its highlights and its disappointments," says New York native Sharon Binder, a Jerusalem-based designer and calligrapher. "[I think about] what I achieved and what I have yet to achieve, as well as what the new year represents to me in terms of opportunities, hopes and projects to be realized. This initially forms the basis of the design for Rosh Hashanah cards that I send to family and friends."

Sixty-four-year-old Binder, who lived in Toronto, Canada, before arriving in Israel in 1983, works primarily with watercolors, gouache and acrylic paint. Her graphic designs also take the form of panels, or printed wall hangings, meant to adorn the traditional sukkah during the festival of Sukkot. Her creation for the forthcoming holiday "relates the joy of the holiday with the happiness of celebrating in Israel, using the seven species to represent the bounty of the land," she says.

"Last year I had a strong sense of transition to the new year as reflected in the change of colors, using shades of earth and pink stone transitioning into water and sky turquoise," adds Binder, whose studio is located at Beit Hayatzranim in Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood. "In previous years, I labored over details; now I find that I enjoy the freedom of a brush and let the movement of the brush be a reflection of my joy in celebrating Rosh Hashanah."

Futuristic plates

Designer Laura Cowan has created a futuristic apple and honey plate with a spiral spoon that rests on a magnetic rod. The disc-like plate is a refreshing departure from the traditional sterling silver honey dish. It is constructed of anodized aluminum and stainless steel, with a Pyrex dish nestled at its center.

"I have different ways of designing," says 41-year-old Cowan, who immigrated to Israel from the United Kingdom in 1996 and whose design studio and gallery are nestled in Tel Aviv's artsy Neve Tzedek neighborhood. Cowan says her fascination with U.S. moon landings and rockets have left an imprint on her sleek, Judaica designs. "I have been using rocket shapes and spinning discs - like the planet Saturn's rings - in most of my designs ever since," she said.

Archie Granot has created "Jubilation," a gold and indigo-colored, multi-layered paper-cut depiction of a sukkah, with festival themes and a quote from the Book of Psalms.

"My paper cuts take on a more contemporary, abstract form where there is a juxtaposition of old and new," says Granot, a 66-year-old native of the United Kingdom who has lived in Israel since 1967. "I felt that I wanted to do work that would bridge the gap between the religious world and the secular world."

Unlike conventional paper cuts, which usually involve folding pieces of paper, Granot explains, he instead builds his creations by cutting scores of layers of paper. "I use a medical scalpel to cut each paper individually," says Granot, who has a studio in Jerusalem and who also specializes in the elaborate design of ketubot, or traditional Jewish marriage contracts. “My work is unique in the layers and colors that I use.”

Judaica sellers like Ori Gabrieli − whose Gabrieli Talit & Judaica stores in Jerusalem and Old Jaffa have been selling handwoven prayer shawls for three generations − are hoping sales will pick up for the Jewish New Year, a traditionally busy shopping season.

But Gabrieli acknowledges his Judaica business has fallen more than 50 percent in rough economic times.“It’s not what it used to be,” he said.