The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor? Having a beautifully decorated receptacle also seems to encourage the accumulation of coins rather than the regular dispensing of that money to the poor on an as-needed basis. In that sense, the difference between the miser and the selfless alms giver grows increasingly small; both become hoarders, and the only distinguishing factor is what happens to the money in the end.
Yet, given the double commandment of tzeddakah—a positive charge to give, and a negative prohibition not to abstain from generosity in Deuteronomy 15—why shouldn’t the commandment of hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the law, apply? Surely we all wish that poverty didn’t exist, but given the inevitability of there being needy, and thus the necessity of a receptacle to contain alms, it is only reasonable to adorn the box appropriately.
In this context, the American Jewish World Service’s new competition, “Where Do You Give? National Design Competition,” is a provocative project. The competition’s website refers to reimaging tzedakah for the 21st century and of “globally conscious designers,” who will “translate tzedakah meaning into compelling, relevant design.”
According to Aaron Dorfman, vice president of programs at AJWS, there have been 70 submissions so far, and the AJWS hopes for another 30. “Like a lot of Judaica, tzeddakah boxes get a bad rap as kitschy, but one of the reasons we’re hosting this competition is because we believe that Jewish material culture—the ritual objects with which Judaism is lived and practiced—has the potential to hugely influence our thinking about Jewish attitudes, values and behaviors,” he says.
It remains to be seen whether the AJWS submissions will be innovative and interesting or kitschy and derivative (AJWS didn’t provide images of the submissions by press time), but it’s worth considering some other examples of noteworthy tzeddakah boxes. For example, the pushkas of about a dozen artists can be found in Ray Hemachandra’s 2010 book, 500 Judaica: Innovative Contemporary Ritual Art.
Toby Rosenberg’s Tzedakah Box (2008) represents an unusual interpretation of the pushka. Whereas the boxes that get passed around for donations during synagogue services tend to be durable, metal containers that often look like they could block a bullet, Rosenberg’s piece, which is covered with floral patterns, looks fragile.
On her website, the artist explains the link between the flowers and leaves and the function of the box. “This tzedakah box will fill your hands and remind you/ To make tzedakah is to plant a seed of Justice/ that will grow and blossom.” Not only is giving alms similar to seed planting, but the flowers and the delicateness of the box parallels the helplessness of the intended beneficiaries of its contents.
Just as the 17th century Dutch still life paintings of ripe fruit and cut flowers carried a memento mori (“remember your mortality”) component—the flowers and food might look good now, but they are doomed to decay and spoil with time—the beauty of Rosenberg’s tzeddakahbox can be viewed in a different context. Just as the fortunes and fate of the flowers is inevitable, so too is the inevitable cycle in which some people move in and out of certain tax brackets, as well as comfortable and more challenging living conditions.
Aimee Golant’s tzeddakah box achieves the opposite effect—evoking Tobi Kahn’s abstract landscapes. Golant’s rectangular box stands on feet (that lend the sculpture a look that isn’t unlike a Torah scroll), and represents an enlarged Hebrew letter tzadik, the first letter in tzeddakah. “The round texture inside the Y of the letter looks like coins dropping into the box, or money flying up into the air like confetti. As we give to others, we all receive,” according to the artist’s website.
In one sense, the box conveys a generally sober response. It is monochromatic and largely minimalist in its composition. And yet the power of the ‘Y’ form—the upper part of the tzadik—is so arresting that it is clear that this is not just any old tzeddakah box. The ‘Y’ can also double as an illustration of a fork in the road, which could be one of two transitions—either the choice, or divergence of possibilities for the alms giver (and box owner) or for the person who will receive the tzeddakah. If the giver chooses the right path, so to speak, the destitute recipient might then suddenly have a second option where there was previously just one inevitable path.
The tzeddakah box by Abrasha is similarly abstract to Rosenberg’s more Baroque floral patterns. The circular box is silver, with two yellow stripes (horizontal) and the word tzeddakah rendered in black, loosely in the font of a Torah scroll—down to the “crown” on the first letter, tzadik.
If the top wasn’t so smooth and rounded, something about Abrasha’s box conveys a bullet. It also suggests some type of cosmetic container. But due to its shape and the two stripes, it also could be a pile of coins—perhaps mostly dimes, but with a few pennies mixed in—which would then amount to form following content.
The various clay tzeddakahboxes by Emmett Leader are very different. Inspired by photographs of Eastern European wooden synagogues and gravestones—part of the world he says his grandparents had inhabited—Leader borrows from what he calls the “vernacular architecture of the wooden shules and the bold imagery and Hebrew text that adorned their tent-shaped interiors.” In them, he says he finds “a reflection of an intensely focused social, political and religious agenda.”
Leader’s tzeddakah boxes seem to be houses in their own right, and he adorns many of them with familiar visual elements, like figures from the Bird’s Head Haggadah. The palette and treatment of the clay conveys monumentality, as well, which somehow sidesteps the question of what the appropriate décor is for an alms receptacle. Not only are the boxes house-like, but they resemble temples far more ancient than their age. They also suggest a type of architecture that is either lost, or has fallen into disrepair, and that pining back (no pun intended) and nostalgia also seems quite appropriate for a tzeddakah box.
The houses that are Mallory Serebrin Jacob’s tzeddakah boxes convey far less sobriety and classical formality than Leader’s works. Serebrin’s houses—tzeddakah boxes are playful, colorful, and childlike in their perspective. Flowers or birds perch on the house/box roofs, and patterns, symbols (like hamsas, celestial bodies, Ten Commandments, Stars of David, etc.), and Hebrew and English inscriptions can be found on the walls and roofs.
“Tzaddikim say little and do much—Talmud” appears on one piece. “We make a living by what we get, but we get a life by what we give—Churchill,” is inscribed on another.
Although they have a lot of visual appeal, Serebrin’s tzeddakah boxes are more of the kitschy variety. They are sure to grab attention, and they would make great toys in a nursery, but they seem to represent the more superficial parts of the tzeddakah box tradition. This is particularly evident when they are compared with some of the other alms receptacles found in the 500 Judaica: Innovative Contemporary Ritual Art which present more mature and provocative investigations of the tzeddakah box tradition.
The competition jury is still out on where the AJWS submissions will fall on the spectrum between innovation and derivation, but it’s a great excuse to consider a type of ritual object that doesn’t necessarily get enough attention otherwise.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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