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Thinking Outside The Tzeddakah Box

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Abrasha. Tzedakah Box (1999). 5.25 x 3.5 inches. Stainless steel, brass, machined, inlaid, hand fabricated, laser engraved.

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.”

Emmett Leader. Slonim V—Tzedakah Box (2008). 12 x 8 x 12 inches. Press-molded and hand-built clay, terra sigillata glaze, gold leaf, red earthenware.

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.

Mallory Serebrin Jacobs. Tzedakah Box—Fiesta. Height:11 inches.

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.

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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