“The Maccabim went to the Bais Hamikdash to light the Menorah,

They needed pure olive oil as that was the Mesorah (tradition).”

Chanukah collage

So read two lines from Chai Spy: A Visual Journey Through Jewish Life, a recently-published collection of 18 poems with collage assemblages on Jewish-related topics. The book, a mother-daughter effort, was written by Ayelet Ribakow, a teacher at Bais Yaacov and Bnos Yisroel in Baltimore, and adorned by her mother, Ellen Filreis.

“I’ve been writing since I’ve been little,” Ribakow said. “I used to go to all sorts of writing camps and it’s something I’ve always been very interested in and passionate about. I teach 6th grade English now and encourage my students [in] their writing as well.”

The idea for the book came from Filreis who turned to art in 2005 after a bout with cancer. “I was very artistic and creative as a child,” she said. “But as I grew up, my parents said, ‘Do whatever makes your heart sing – but we’re not supporting you.’” So Filresis “took the safe route and got a degree in finance.”

After surviving cancer, though, Filreis, with the encouragement of her husband, decided to return to the love of her youth. “My husband said, ‘Life is too short, you need to follow your passions and work on your art again because that’s really what makes you happy.”

Filreis’ artwork in Chai Spy consist of photographs of colorful collage assemblages she lovingly created over a five-year period. Each assemblage contain objects related to the poems on the facing page, plus a small chai figure somewhere in the mix – hence the title of the book.

Jewish girls collage

“There’s a lot on every page,” said Filreis, “and the whole idea is for a child, or a parent and a child to sit together and say: What do you see? Why is there a set of scales on the Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur page? Why is there a box of tin foil and a little bucket with a sponge that’s says ‘I don’t do windows’ on the Pesach page?”

She hopes elderly Jews suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s may also benefit from the work. “Art reaches the recesses of their brains that aren’t tapped any other way,” she said based partially on her own experience volunteering at an elderly group homes.

One person whom the book has already benefited, though, is arguably her daughter Ayelet. She started writing the book’s poems around a year and a half ago, and her mother jokingly told her, “You’re not getting married until you finish it.” Ayelet’s soul, though, perhaps took her mother’s admonition seriously. On Monday she walked down the aisle, three weeks after Chai Spy was published.

“Chai Spy: A Visual Journey Through Jewish Life” is available for purchase through Lulu.com and soon to be available on Amazon.com as well.


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Elliot Resnick is the former chief editor of The Jewish Press and the author and editor of several books including, most recently, “Movers & Shakers, Vol. 3.”