The words reverberate with sweet memories. “Kiss the mezuzah,” a grandparent urges his grandchild, while a parent nods approvingly as a rebbe teaches about the proper behavior upon entering or leaving a room … “and don’t forget to kiss the mezuzah!”
What an interesting ritual, treating the little scroll like an actual Torah, showing such reverence, such affectionate care, such honor. And throughout the centuries, Jewish artists have responded by crafting mezuzah cases to hold, protect and, perhaps most importantly, inspire. Belle Rosenbaum’s book, Upon Thy Doorposts, evokes just such an inspiration.
In 1995, Belle Rosenbaum, a prominent collector of Jewish art, along with her husband, Jack Rosenbaum (collection reviewed in Jewish Press July 2002), published this opulent book that sets out to encapsulate 50 years of her collecting this most venerable of Jewish art forms – mezuzah cases. Belle began collecting in 1940 and stopped counting after acquiring her 2000th mezuzah. Her book reproduces in color more than 700 examples of mezuzot created by over 300 artists from 45 countries. The vast majority are contemporary artists, many well known and perhaps, just as many, less known. Belle’s collection is a sweeping survey of contemporary Judaica, inspiring both artists and collectors by the diversity, skill and creativity of the artworks.
One of the works that represents the architectural motifs of columns, turrets and decorated stone walls is by Frank Meisler, a well known sculptor in Jerusalem and Jaffa who works in metal. His and many others’ mezuzot reflect the fact that this particular Jewish art is intimately connected with architecture.
The Toledo Mezuzah was created to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and is made of silver plate and gold plate, depicting elegant Moorish arches that frame a golden-gated doorway emblazoned with the holy name Shaddai in silver letters.
Upon Thy Doorposts is divided into three sections: Law, Lore and Love.
The first section, Law, is a small encyclopedia of information about the klaf (parchment), the blessing, the requirements for a kosher mezuzah, how to observe the commandment, and an extensive excerpt from the Mishneh Torah on the mitzvah of mezuzah.
Interestingly enough, the inclusion of the word Shaddai (Almighty) on the outside of the klaf is actually an acrostic for Shomer Daltot Yisroel (“Guardian of the Doors of Israel”). Of interest is that nowhere in the section on Law is there any requirement that the case be decorated, ornate or made of any particular material. Also, there is no Halacha about kissing the mezuzah.
The essential meaning of the mezuzah is explored in the creation of Phillip Ratner, the artist who created the Bible Museum in Safed which is dedicated to his sculptural and graphic Biblical work. His mezuzah from 1986 is a small copper sculpture that is a fluttering apparition of two angels who are guarding the sacred klaf between them. This image figuratively demonstrates the function of the mezuzah to guard our homes. Its application harkens back to the act of smearing the blood of the Paschal lamb in Egypt to guard us against the Angel of Death on the original Passover night.
The second section of Belle’s book is named Lore. It explores the numerous references to this mitzvah throughout the Talmud, and subsequent writings, tales and musings. Eleven historically significant mezuzot are scrutinized, from the mezuzah made from fragments of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s famous chair, to an ivory fish-shaped mezuzah of the Jews of Kaifeng, China.
In this chapter, kissing the mezuzah is described as an act of faith, acknowledging G-d’s sovereignty over us and our homes and our dependence upon Him as we venture out in the world (Rabbi Elias Schwartz, Yeshiva Toras Emes-Kaminetz). The mezuzah here is discussed as simply the scroll containing the first two paragraphs of the Shema – surely a sacred concept overflowing with meaning, power and significance. And yet, nothing is said about that which contains this holy object.
The significance of the Uri Ramot’s “Silver and Ancient Roman Glass” mezuzah is pure poetry. Its subtle colors and graceful shape suggest a fantastic kind of harp that is transformed into a sacred container that luxuriates in its antiquity and pure beauty. The weathered material of ancient Roman glass is but one of hundreds of materials used to create cases including: alabaster, aluminum, plastic, ceramic, cotton, crystal, wood (45 different kinds in Belle’s collection), emerald, ivory, paper, tin and plain cloth. The very diversity of material attests to the creativity and freedom with which artists approach this mitzvah.
Love is the final and largest section of Belle’s book, presenting a photographic cornucopia of her mezuzah collection accompanied by comments and a short biography about each artist and their works. Her presentation is clearly a labor of love, deeply appreciative of the enormously diffuse efforts of artists to accomplish one goal: hiddur mitzvah. The amplification and beautification of a mitzvah is the foundation of Judaica and Belle Rosenbaum’s collection. Her celebration of Jewish artists and their creation of mezuzah cases makes kissing the mezuzah an entirely natural, rational, and expected act. Jewish creativity never looked so good.
Kalman Freidus is a legendary sofer, artist and farmer in the Catskills whose hand-painted parchment Dove mezuzah is a flight of fancy embodying a cut-out dove that echoes the traditional Shin delivering the olive branch of peace as the intermediate object of our devotions. His blue, white and green design combines the object of G-d’s guardianship of the Jewish home (i.e. peace) with our hopes for a parallel peace in the world.
As a further expression of a contemporary consciousness, Avi Biran’s paper-cut and Lucite mezuzah pushes the conceptual envelope even further. The image of his bizarre pink hand, at first, seems to indicate a salute or mutually agreed upon signal that eludes decipherment. It is only paper cradling a Lucite tube with a klaf, and yet if we notice that the fingers that grasp the tube are the thumb and the pinky, we realize that these are the opposing digits that are all too well suited to grasp a hammer, an ax, a sword or a gun. The hand itself, the hand that kisses the mezuzah, is the subject of this Jewish artwork.
Jewish art unabashedly celebrates the mitzvah of mezuzah, as presented in Belle Rosenbaum’s Upon Thy Doorposts. Her dedication to the art, as well as to the artists and the mitzvah, is legendary, and rightly so. Her own courage and creativity in supporting this Jewish art, investing her time, money and reputation on thousands of these relatively tiny objects is to be commended. There may be no other individual who has done more to celebrate this humble, easy and yet, terribly important act of devotion. The very least that we, her audience, can do is to adorn our houses with beautiful mezuzot and think of Belle Rosenbaum when we too reach up and kiss the mezuzah.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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