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Handle With Care captures artists Jewish journeys

Ever since Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, Judaism’s survival has depended on portability. With that in mind, “Handle With Care,” a new exhibit at the Jewish Community Library, focuses on carry-out culture, a moveable feast of paintings, fabric art, sculpture and ritual objects created by 30 local artists.

The exhibition opens Sunday, March 10 in San Francisco; a reception with the artists and curator takes place at 1 p.m.  March 17.

Nina Boros’ “Calla Lilies and Kavod”

Artists were invited to capture the theme of portability, with work that expresses the Jewish journey, said Elayne Grossbard, who has curated several of the library’s annual exhibitions. It’s not just a matter of physically portable works that “can be rolled up and carried,” she said, but of art that tells a story.

“Since Jews are a journeying people, what did they bring with them?” she posed. “How did they carry objects that expressed their identity?

“As an artist, what would you take with you as a physical reminder of the Jewish community or as a material expression of your heritage?”

In a whimsical vein, Sebastopol fabric artist Trudi Chamoff Hauptman pondered the exhibit theme and thought of preserving the culture in a pickle jar. The inspiration popped into her head during a Yom Kippur break-the-fast at Wise Sons Deli in San Francisco. Imagining a glass jar filled with crocheted green pickles, she asked owners Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman, “Do you think I’m nuts?”  

On the contrary, “they loved the idea,” she said, and plan to put “Have Pickles Will Travel” on display after the exhibition closes.

Stamp art by Wendy Angel

Nina Bonos celebrates her heritage in a watercolor and acrylic painting titled “Calla Lilies and Kavod” (Honor). The words “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother” in English and Hebrew adorn a leaf. The symbols underscore personal journeys. Some 30 years ago, Bonos transplanted calla lilies from her childhood home in Daly City to her current home in Santa Rosa. Soon she will be moving a mile away to her husband’s childhood home and will carry calla cuttings from two homes.

“Calla lilies,” she writes in a panel accompanying her piece, “remind me of my mother,” who had a green thumb. “In the painting, flames of twin Shabbat candles emerge from the stalks, repeating the calla stamens’ color and shape, while also signifying the Jewish individual and collective soul.”

The inscription and the mezuzah embedded in a calla stalk come from memories of her father. After he died, Bonos found a copper mezuzah she had made in fifth grade. Inside, in binder paper, she had written, “Honor Thy Father and Mother.”

“To me, this commandment embodies the essence of Judaism,” she writes. “It reaches beyond my parents, binding me to my Jewish ancestors from antiquity to the present.”

For El Cerrito artist Barbara Milman, a memory box contains multitudes: She filled a wooden cigar box with stones, mirrors, glittery decorations and a small piece of thistle.

Barbara Milman’s memory box

“As you get older, there are not many things you need to carry with you,” she said. “What you carry with you are the memories. What Judaism has carried is memories of its history.” The stones, like those put on graves, are memories of ancestors,  the thistle symbolizes the land, the natural world, the mirrors reflect the past and the sparkling objects, like stars, “can track your journey [and] help you find your way.” The cigar box, she added, may be “scuffed and worn on the outside, but on the inside, the memory is larger than the box, larger than any physical object.”

There are myriad ways to construct microcosms. Wendy Angel does it with postage stamps. “What is a stamp but portable art?” said Angel, who inherited her grandfather’s stamp collection. As she sorted through them, she saw the stamps as “tiny little pictures from around the world.” On her collage, the American Chanukah stamp sits near the top. Three Israeli stamps form a triangle from top to bottom. Angel fills the spaces with selections from Russia, Hong Kong, Romania, Spain, Canada and elsewhere.

“I began thinking about places Jewish people have lived,” said the artist, who lives near Carmel, where she grew up, but has also lived in Europe, Canada and Israel. As she arranged the stamps, she thought of the stories associated with Jews in those lands: Russia, which her ancestors left; Hong Kong, where Holocaust refugees lived in exile: India, home to Jewish traders. She used watercolor, graphite pencils and lacquer to meld the collection.

“There’s nothing accidental,” Angel said. “In a way, [the stamps] are tiny, but in a way, they’re monumental.”

“Handle With Care: A Portable Culture,” March 10 to Aug. 3 at the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. An artists’ reception will be held from 1–3 p.m. March 17. Information: (415) 567-3327 ext. 703.

Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent is a writer and editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.