Photo Credit: Tsadik Kaplan

This year we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, which happened on May 14, 1948, or the 5th of Iyar 5708, which correlates to this past April 26th. In honor of this historic day, I thought I would go into some detail regarding the first officially recognized Jewish art school established in Israel, which was named Bezalel (pronounced “Betsalel”).

In Vienna in 1903, Boris Schatz, the court sculptor to the King of Bulgaria, met with the founder of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, and presented an idea to him about opening an academy of art in Jerusalem. Herzl gave Schatz his blessing, and in 1906, Schatz opened the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem, named after the Biblical architect Betzalel ben Uri: “I have filled him with a divine spirit, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and with [the talent for] all types of craftsmanship.” (Exodus 31:3).


Schatz’s dream was to have an explicitly Jewish style of art created in Jerusalem. This vision was fulfilled at the Bezalel School in the form of functional, decorative, and ritual handicrafts that were made in a unique style that blended classicism, art nouveau, and Middle Eastern elements in which Biblical and Zionist themes were often portrayed. Like the Wiener Werkstatte in Vienna, or the William Morris firm in England, the Bezalel School produced art objects in a wide range of materials including silver, brass, wood, ivory, and fabric.

To promote his wares to the public, Schatz produced Bezalel touring exhibitions across Europe and in North and South America. In reporting on one of these exhibits in 1915, The New York Times praised the “exquisite examples of filigree work, copper inlay, carving in ivory and in wood.” The largest Bezalel exhibition ever staged was in New York City, at the Grand Central Palace, in 1926. According to reports of the day, the hall was packed with thousands of visitors during the two weeks this exhibit was held, with both Jews and gentiles purchasing items hailing from the Holy Land from the then 20-year-old school.

Schatz enjoyed moderate levels of success in selling his wares to Europe and the Americas, but due to financial difficulties, the Bezalel School shut its doors in 1929. Schatz passed away in 1932 while on a fundraising trip in Colorado; he was 65 years old.

In 1935, the “New Bezalel” (known in Israel as Bezalel HaChadash) opened under the leadership of Joseph Budko, Ludwig Wolpert, and David Heinz Gumbel. Wolpert and Gumbel attempted to change the romantic style of Bezalel crafts that was Schatz’s vision to one that was reserved, which was in line with the teachings of the German Bauhaus school, which both Gumbel and Wolpert revered. In 1955 Bezalel began training teachers and in 1970 it became a full-fledged academy, with its diploma recognized as a B.A. equivalent. From that point on, Bezalel became completely modernized.

The foremost book ever published on the first period of Bezalel was in 1983 by Nurit Shilo-Cohen. Titled Bezalel 1906-1929, Shilo-Cohen’s book goes into great detail regarding the history of Bezalel and its multitude of craft-making departments, and it is filled with numerous photographs of Bezalel objects, including an informative two-page spread of the various types of hallmarks and signatures that are typically found on Bezalel pieces.

For my personal collection of Judaica, my interest is mainly focused on items from pre-war Eastern Europe, from a tiny lead dreidel or a charity token recently dug up by metal-detecting enthusiasts on former Jewish settlements to a silver kiddush cup skillfully engraved with a Hebrew verse relating to Shabbat. However, I was not immune to the enrapturing spell that some Bezalel pieces may cast on a viewer, so during the last 25-plus years, I have been lucky enough to acquire a handful of pieces that I enjoy.


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I only consider items made between 1906 and 1929 as “pure” Bezalel items, as they were made under the supervision of Boris Schatz; I have no interest in pieces dating to after 1929. Here are my favorites:

1) This pocketknife measures 3.25” long and displays the highest levels of workmanship Bezalel had to offer, both in its artistry and execution of materials. It features tightly spun silver filigree wire, semi-precious stones, and silver plaques in the center. One side of the knife depicts an elderly Yemenite Jew, his back bent, plowing land with an ox. The other side of the knife states in Hebrew “He that tills his land shall have plenty of bread.” (Proverbs 28:19). Flanking this quote is a highly stylized signature of “Bezalel Jerusalem.” During the early 20th century, it was commonplace for men to carry pocketknives to cut food such as fruit and bread. I am not aware of other examples of this pocketknife; I believe it was made during the very first years of the Bezalel School, circa 1906-10.

2) At first glance, it would appear that this diminutive silver container measuring 1.75” x 1.5” would require delicate handling. However, it is quite sturdy, as there is thick strapwork interspersed with the finely spun filigree wire, which gives it substantial weight. Resting on four ball feet, the center band has a bold, acid-etched Hebrew blessing for besamim, along with a “Bezalel Jerusalem” signature at the end of the blessing. This was made circa 1910-20.

3) Last, a deck of 52 playing cards, designed by Ze’ev Raban, the most famous of all of the artists employed by the Bezalel School. Raban was born Wolf Ravitzki in 1890 in Lodz, Poland. He studied at numerous art academies in Europe, and at the invitation of Boris Schatz, he moved to Jerusalem in 1912 and joined the faculty at Bezalel. Here, Raban transforms the classical suits found in standard playing cards to Jewish-themed symbols; hearts and spades have been changed to pomegranates and fig leaves, two of the “seven species” mentioned in Deuteronomy. Clubs are now menorahs, and diamonds, Stars of David. For the face cards, each suit depicts figures from the books of Esther and Kings, the heroine Judith as well as the demon Ashmodai, who is mentioned in the Talmud a few times. The box these cards came in states “Drawn by Z. Raban, Bezalel Jerusalem.” These cards were made circa 1925. Just a few years ago, for the first time anywhere, the Jewish Museum of New York issued reproductions of this deck of cards; they can be purchased in the Museum’s gift shop or on their website for $20.

A word of caution to collectors of Bezalel: Beware of forgeries. Since prices for some Bezalel items began reaching five figures at auctions starting in the late 1990s, an entire industry of counterfeit Bezalel items has been created by the unscrupulous; the current marketplace is flooded with fakes, with pieces infiltrating dealers’ inventories and appearing at auctions. Only buy Bezalel from those who have no problem with you showing it to an advisor, and try to get a signed receipt that it is an original antique dating to the era the dealer states it is from.

Happy 75th to Medinat YisraelG-d bless the IDF!


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Tsadik Kaplan is a collector, certified appraiser, and speaker/lecturer on the topic of Judaica. He is the author of the book “Jewish Antiques: From Menorahs to Seltzer Bottles” (Schiffer Publishing). For questions or comments – or to send pictures of your Judaica for future columns – email [email protected].