Crafting ritual objects helps artists give back to community

It was just a simple request from a mom to her artist daughter. But the process of fulfilling that request resulted in a new career direction for Martha Breen.

A secular artist for more than a dozen years, Breen hadn't given much thought to producing the ritual items of her faith. Then four years ago, "Mom wanted a mezzuzah, so I made her one.

"I found out quickly that creating Judaica is far more rewarding than secular work," she said.

Breen, an Oakland-based artist who crafts mezzuzot covers, candlesticks, spice boxes and other Judaica from polymer clay and acrylic, is one of more than a dozen artists and craftspeople who will sell their Jewish-themed work from noon to 5 p.m. at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens during Jerusalem in the Gardens, the free community festival in celebration of Israel Independence Day and Jerusalem 3000.

Today, through her company, Urban Tribe — "as in `member of,'" she laughed — Breen wholesales her Judaica to museum shops gift shops and bookstores around the country. She derives motivation even from the marketing part of her business, as she feels personally invested in providing clients with fine Jewish ritual items.

"It's nice to make pretty things. But if you make pretty things and give back to your community culturally and socially, it makes it so much more meaningful," she said.

"When I sat down to figure out how to do the Judaic side of my business," Breen recalled, "I decided that tzedakah was an important part for me personally." Now she devotes 10 percent of her sales profits to the Kidney Foundation in memory of her mother, who lived for 17 years with a kidney donated by Breen herself.

"My motto is `More, more, more,'" said Breen, whose work is characterized by dense patterns and a vast array of colors.

Other artists scheduled to appear at Jerusalem in the Gardens include candlemaker Sandra Lipsman, who offers a selection of Chanukah, havdallah and Shabbat candles as well as a candle-making kit.

Fine artist Helen Ann Licht offers modern paintings and notecards with reproductions of her original art.

Fran Barrish, whose work graces this year's "Resource: A Guide to Jewish Life in the Bay Area," will show watercolors, acrylics and collages.

Other artists include Lila Wahrhaftig, who makes etchings and handmade paper amulets; Gene Frank and Leslie Gattman, ceramic Judaica; Israeli artist Ebgi, hand-colored etchings; Lindy Passe, ketubot; Susie Aronofsky, tallitot; Eva Strauss-Rosen, jewelry; Susan Felix, ritual items; Rina Edelson, jewelry; Yehudit Steinberg, Jewish-themed sculpture; Emily Cohen, jewelry; Carol Vanek, original cards; Katya Miller, jewelry; and Claire Sherman, ceramic ritual items.

Several exhibitors will also offer interactive art projects for fairgoers.

Suzan Berns