Kosher craft

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Mark Edgoose’s mezuzah creates a ritual door ornament and connects it with the practical business of modern life, such as finding your keys and phone when you leave the house.

Last week I was moderating a forum at the Jewish Museum of Australia. They had just opened the Contemporary Judaica exhibition titled New Under the Sun. This is the third such exhibition that the museum have staged and toured. It’s a wonderful creative challenge for craftspersons to create objects that have real ritual significance, even if it is for a culture that they do not belong to.

The speakers on the night included silversmith Mark Edgoose, jeweller Blanche Tilden, ceramicist Kris Coad and designer Paul Justin. The first three were non-Jewish and all expressed a gratitude to the Jewish community for allowing them to participate in their culture in this way. Paul Justin had some very interesting points to make about the challenges of having his designs manufactured remotely.

The focus of this show was on new rituals, such as the Yom Hashoah, the remembrance of the holocaust, and feminist symbols such as Miriam’s cup. The role of craft in developing objects that give substance to these traditions seemed a tangible role to play. Some in the audience made reference to the history of Judaism in Western Europe, which prohibited Jews from guilds, which meant that they formed an alliance with non-Jewish crafts to supply their precious objects.

There was an ironic note struck when someone in the audience asked a question about the enduring relevance of craft, particularly in the direct physical involvement of the maker in the production. It became clear then that it was only the non-Jewish craftspersons that had made the work themselves.

It seemed a nice point for cultural dialogue that these two cultures—the non-Jewish makers and the Jewish community—could exchange their authenticities. Skill for faith: the makers offer their manual talents in exchange for the engaged rituals of Jewish life.

It evokes a point made by Julia Kristeva that to engage with the faiths of others in a multicultural society that we need to acknowledge that we are ‘strangers to ourselves’.

Congratulations Jewish Museum of Australia. You set a wonderful example of creative engagement with community. I’d certainly recommend a visit to the gallery.

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