Google+ The Daily Jewel: 7/27/08 - 8/3/08


Monday, July 28, 2008

Judaica by Ruth Shapiro

Writing this post has taken me longer than most – first because Ruth is a dear friend of mine, second because I don’t know anything about Judaica. So when looking at an object, while I could appreciate it’s artistic value, I had no idea what the object was or how it was used. So this became a learning journey and I am taking all of you with me!

Bio - In Ruth's Words:

      In addition to being a Judaic artist, I work as a part-time nursing consultant, in the legal field. I have been a registered nurse, in some very high-powered fields, since 1970. In 1981, I had a serious accident, which left me unable to continue at my previous pace. In 1984, I went to UCLA Graduate School to take a nursing course, but was unable to get into the class I wanted. I next went to Santa Monica Community College to see if they had a similar course, but was instead drawn to a course called "Lost Wax Casting" in the Adult Evening School.

I didn't have any idea what the subject was, but signed up anyway. Those 6 classes changed my life! I was hooked on this very old, exciting method of sculpture and jewelry-making.

At the same time, I had joined the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework, again a strange choice for me. While I'd always liked embroidery and knitting, etc., I'd also hated meetings and anything as sedentary and slow as a sewing circle! Well, the rich symbolism and visual stories I saw at the meetings fused with my new metal-working skills and my first mezuzah cases were made and sold in only a few weeks. Demand grew, and I was pulled along at a furious pace. I had to pull up any vestiges left of my Jewish education, and furiously read everything I could find, always just a step ahead of (or behind) the next project., from mezuzah to yod, to menorah to breastplate for the Torah. I took a few adult school jewelry classes, and added contemporary jewelry to my repertoire. I’ve taken many workshops in the last 2 years, learning more metalworking techniques from renowned artists, but always, Judaica has been my love.

In 1988, I went to Israel to learn techniques from some silver masters, and to enhance my spiritual development. My work has taken me to shows and exhibits all over the United Sates. My mezuzzot are in Israel and Canada as well. A yod of mine even went into space!

Until a few years ago, I always felt that I'd "ride the wave" as far as it took me; that I was somehow "supposed to be" a Judaic artist. I would keep at it as long as I could keep creating and keep selling. Just as I would start to think about other career directions, a new commission would appear. Just as I think I'll never have another fresh idea, a dream supplies me with a new mezuzah and a new technique. Do I think these events are Divinely created? Of course I do! In the last year, I've come to believe that I will never be "barren". I also don't harbor any beliefs in my own "talent". I believe that I am a vessel, and the spirit of God and creativity flow through the vessel, stay awhile, and move on. I just have to be there and be ready and open.

In the past 15 years as a Judaic artist, my life has dealt me a few curves and twists...a car accident here, a broken wrist there, a few illnesses. Each time, I made some adaptations in my work. Each time, my work grew in a new, unexpected and better direction. Each time, I learned some thing I might not have otherwise seen. Was this bashert?

* Editor’s Note: Bashert: (beh-sheert) destined, fated, meant to be.

Has my work made me more religious? Yes it has. I now collect the work of other Judaic artists. Their spirituality enriches mine. The more I learn in preparing for a project, the more deeply I feel for my religion, and the more I pass it on to my family. I now celebrate Shabbat, and become anxious to create anew. When I feel close to God, I pray. Only in my case, I pray with my hammer, my torch, and my sculptor's tools.

I feel it is a very special gift and privilege to be able to create decorations for the Torah. I was moved to tears the first time I saw a yod that I had made, hung on the Torah. The rabbi talked about the rich tradition of the Torah and the silversmiths who adorned them. He talked about the generations of Jews who would be proud to display them - in no way implying the adornments are as important as what they adorn.


And you shall write [the words that I command you today] on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. -Deuteronomy 6:9, 11:19

The Mezuzah is a small case that holds a small hand written scroll of parchment (called a klaf). The scroll contains the words of the "Shema Israel" (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) passage, in which God commands Jews to keep His words constantly in their minds and in their hearts. The scroll also contains another passage (Deuteronomy 11:13). The passages are written in Hebrew, and contain 22 lines of 713 painstakingly written letters.

The meaning of the Hebrew word Mezuzah is simply "a doorpost". The Mezuzah should be placed on the doorposts of of every Jewish home. The exact placement of a Mezuzah is on the right side of the doorpost (when entering the home or room), on the lower part of the upper third of the doorpost (or around shoulder height for high doorways). The case should be permanently affixed with nails, screws, glue, or strong double-sided tape.

The Mezuzah is affixed at an angle because the rabbis could not decide whether it should be placed horizontally or vertically, so they compromised. The top of the Mezuzah should be slanted toward the room the door opens into.

Yodim, yad, or Torah pointer, one of Ruth’s was taken into space by a Jewish astronaut, Jeffrey Hoffman, about 10 years ago!

You are not supposed to touch the parchment on the Torah scrolls; some say because they are too holy; some say because the parchment, made from animal skins, is a source of ritual defilement; others say because your fingers' sweat has acids that will damage the parchment over time. Instead, you follow the text with a pointer, called a Yad. "Yad" means "hand" in Hebrew, and the pointer usually is in the shape of a hand with a pointing index finger (I always find this incredibly amusing). The scrolls are kept covered with fabric, and often ornamented with silver crowns on the handles of the scrolls and a silver breastplate on the front.

Drawing from the various symbols of Judaica, Ruth offers tiny mezuzahs, hamsa, chai and star of david for women and men.

The hamesh hand or hamsa hand is a popular motif in Jewish jewelry. Go into any Judaic gift shop and you will find necklaces and bracelets bearing this inverted hand with thumb and pinky pointing outward. The design commonly has an eye in the center of the hand or various Jewish letters in the middle.

There is nothing exclusively Jewish about the hamesh hand. Arab cultures often refer to it as the Hand of Fatima, which represents the Hand of G-d. Similar designs are common in many cultures. Why it has become such a popular symbol among Jews? I haven't been able to find an adequate explanation anywhere. My best guess: in many cultures, this hand pattern represents a protection against the evil eye (a malignant spiritual influence caused by the jealousy of others), and the evil eye has historically been a popular superstition among Jews.

This symbol, commonly seen on necklaces and other jewelry and ornaments, is simply the Hebrew word Chai (living), with the two Hebrew letters Cheit and Yod attached to each other.

The concept of chai is important in Jewish culture and the typical Jewish toast is l'chayim (to life). Gifts to charity are routinely given in multiples of 18 (the numeric value of the word Chai).

Ruth’s Judaica is available online at:
Artistic Judaic Promotions -
...and on her website:


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