Leaving the land of mediocre mezuzahs

For San Francisco artist Aimee Golant, making mezuzah cases is not just about filling orders. It’s an emotional medium that connects her back to her family who survived the Holocaust.

The first mezuzah case Golant ever made was in the late 1990s during a jewelry-making class at San Francisco State. Her piece depicted a shin with flames coming out of it, and during a class critique about her work, Golant says, “I burst into tears. I completely sobbed. And that was the beginning.”

For her, a mezuzah is more than just the parchment on which the Sh’ma and V’ahafta prayers are written. The mezuzah, she says, “serves as a universal reminder: to create sacred space through your actions — truth, love and compassion.”

Golant, Alan Leon of Oakland and Esther Davies of Berkeley are among the few Bay Area artisans who fashion and sell mezuzot. Many are priced in the $50 to $100 range.

Translated directly, “mezuzah” means doorpost. But what the artisans here really create is the case that encloses the parchment, and then is attached to the doorway of one’s home, office or even a room. The parchment is inscribed with the biblical passages Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. On the reverse side of the scroll is Shaddai, one of the names of God.

Golant’s passage into mezuzah-making was accidental. “I stumbled upon this metal-jewelry class and fell in love with this teacher’s projects,” she says, adding that her metal workshop at San Francisco State always followed a course she was taking on the Holocaust. So, facts about the genocide were fresh on her mind — and personal — as she entered her jewelry class.

When Golant told her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, that she was working with metal, he promptly began to hand down his tools to her. A tool, die-maker and machinist during the Holocaust, it was he who inspired her.

The first jewelry piece she made was a Jewish star surrounded by barbed wire. But her teacher rejected it. “Her rejection was not demeaning,” Golant says. “She told me, ‘I want you to express yourself without using a cliché.’

“When she said that, the idea of a mezuzah came to me.” Golant’s next creation was the shin with flames coming out of it. Explaining its meaning, Golant says that her mother’s side of the family “has a big ratio of survivors. That was always in the air. We were lucky to be alive and lucky to be survivors.”

Encouraged by her teacher and peers, Golant began making more mezuzot and eventually entered them in a show. A representative from the Jewish Museum of New York came to the exhibition and was impressed. The museum asked for slides and eventually purchased some of her work.

A replica of Golant’s “Barbed Wire Mezuzah,” one of her earliest designs, was carried into space with the first Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon on his ill-fated mission in 2003 on the Columbia Space Shuttle.

“My mezuzot are about doing something different,” Golant says about her designs. “My work is not about the status quo.”

The mezuzot made by Oakland’s Alan Leon are one of a kind, as well. Using two techniques — which he calls “inlay and assemblage” — Leon hollows out pieces of wood and places objects within them.

“I embed gems, stones, bits of ceramic, coins or found objects,” he says. “It’s trying to make a coherent melange out of materials. One person at a show once said they were like architectural gateways to another realm.”

Like Golant, Leon also fondly recalls the first mezuzah case he fashioned, made of ebony and embedded with a green gem at the top. “It was very simple, with a sea-green crown,” he recalls. The design “was like spontaneous combustion — it just came out.”

Leon grew up in New York City, where “there were painted-over mezuzahs on many door frames. They became part of the architecture, and you almost didn’t notice them. They became a single rectangle, rather than something pleasing to the eye or the hand. I grew up in the land of mediocre mezuzahs, not attractive ones.”

Indeed, his colorful mezuzah cases are a world away from unattractive. “Art is about redeeming the mundane and ordinary — transforming into the sacred, sometimes universal — so we can study and unfold, and gain joy, power and direction,” Leon says in his artist’s statement on his Web site, www.alanleon.org.

More specifically, he explains that “a mezuzah is a reminder of things bigger than yourself. I’m just creating an item of visual and tactile beauty so that you can be reminded of this.”

Esther Davies, also a New York native, is all about creating beauty in her mezuzah cases. Her plunge into the medium came out of a challenge. Always interested in Judaica, Davies earned her master’s in fine arts from the California College of Arts and began making jewelry. One day, in conversation with another artist, she asked about creating mezuzot. “This lady said to me, ‘That’s too hard! You couldn’t do that!'”

Davies, however, was not fazed by the negativity. Instead, she made her first mezuzah — now hanging on her own door frame — and today sells her sterling silver designs in craft fairs throughout country. The first weekend in April, for example, she’ll be at the Palm Beach Fine Craft Show in Florida.

Davies has a speech prepared for airport security personnel as she carries her boxes of silver to board the plane. “I explain to them that these are to put on the doorposts in a Jewish home.

“Sometimes, I get asked at shows, ‘Is it a good luck charm?'” She laughs, answering, “Not exactly!”

During an interview in her Berkeley home-studio, it’s evident that Davies is very detail-oriented and meticulous. Her work is neatly filed away on shelves and her tools are lined up above her workspace near the kiln. “I’m the Felix Unger of the art world!” she jokes, referring to the neurotic star of “The Odd Couple.”

Davies’ mezuzah cases are made of silver, and many are embedded with blue semiprecious stones or enamel. “I use blue because it’s a universally loved color,” she says. “It adds a touch of color and offends nobody.” Many of her cases are inspired by biblical stories, such as Jacob’s Ladder and David.

Along with their cases, the artists include instructions on where to hang a mezuzah and provide the prayer one says while doing so. Before attaching the mezuzah to the doorpost, the blessing is said aloud in Hebrew: “Blessed Art Thou, O Source of Life, who has sanctified us and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.”

Golant’s Web site (www.aimeegolant.com) has specific hanging instructions: “Attach the mezuzah case to the right-hand side of the doorpost. Hang it about 8 inches from the top of the frame, at a 45-degree angle, with the top facing toward the inside of the house or room. Mezuzahs may be hung on inside and outside doors. No bathrooms or closets.”

Davies adds: “I recommend that people put these mezuzot inside their homes because they’re so beautiful that somebody might walk off with them.”