The Art of Giving
Contemporary Tzedakah Boxes
By Debra B. Darvick
At a time when 90 percent of donations are made by the solitary act of writing out a check, tzedakah boxes are enjoying an unexpected renaissance. The simple box that embodies one of Judaism's foundational tenets—the commandment to help those in need—has blossomed in the hands of contemporary Judaica artists. This modest denizen of bubbe's kitchen is now wrought in a multitude of shapes, sizes, media, and methods and has become an object as beautiful as the mitzvah that inspires it.
The strong link between tzedakah and the home is the inspiration for Leona Fein's unique stained-glass tzedakah boxes. "Giving tzedakah is part of my family's heritage," she says. "My uncle gave to an old-age home for rabbis—The House of Sages on Manhattan's East Side. That is still my charity, and when I began to design tzedakah boxes, I wanted them to have the shape of a house because tzedakah should start at home."
What distinguishes Fein's work is not only her skill with stained and leaded glass but her reinvigoration of the art form called "potichomania." Popular in mid-19th-century England, potichomania is a technique whereby pictures and brightly colored pieces of paper are adhered to the underside of clear glass. Fein has spent a lifetime collecting Jewish manuscripts and incorporates facsimiles of portions of them into each of her Judaica pieces.
Her multicolored cheder tzedakah box features potichomania from a 1396 German manuscript showing a student copying onto a slate Hillel's enduring maxim "Whatever is hateful unto thee do it not unto thy fellow." Fein also makes seven pyramid tzedakah boxes that are popular gifts to mark a bar or bat mitzvah, the arrival of a new baby, or other occasions.
Sara Beames reached back 4,000 years for the technique of glass fusing that she uses to make her tzedakah boxes and other pieces. She cuts sheets of art glass and works them into a design. The assembled glass is then fired in a kiln at 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, during which the individual pieces melt together, or fuse, giving birth to stunning works that have the excitement and surprise of a kaleidoscope.
Beames already had a loyal following, who snapped up her picture frames and other home accessories at shows in the New York area, when a Jewish customer asked her if she could make a Seder plate. Soon, Beames was creating menorahs, mezuzahs, candlesticks, and Seder and challah plates that were selling nearly as soon as they cooled from the kiln.
When a customer asked Beames for a tzedakah box, however, she faced a new challenge: how to translate the basically flat fused glass to the three dimensions of a tzedakah box. Eventually she found two artists—a metalsmith and a woodworker—to construct boxes to her specifications. Beames affixes her signature fused-glass panels to the surfaces of the boxes.
Creating Judaica has given Beames the opportunity not only to reconnect with Judaism but to learn and teach others as well. "I had a good [Jewish] education, but there were a lot of nuances I didn't know about Jewish ritual objects," she recalls. "Some of the shop owners who carry my work aren't Jewish, and I started giving them information." On her promotional material, Beames includes the history and purpose of each ritual object. Printed next to photographs of her tzedakah boxes is this text: "Tzedakah is the act of giving to others. It literally means 'righteousness' and is one of the basic precepts of Judaism. By giving to others we enrich our own lives."
Enamelist Marian Slepian understood from her earliest days Judaism's perspective that no one is too poor to help those in need. Slepian's father was a socialist and her mother was Orthodox, but they agreed on one thing—helping those in need. "My mother was never without a place for people to sleep or eat," Slepian remembers. "My parents were poor. Perhaps because of this, anything they could share, they shared."
Slepian reckons that she is a rarity among the rare. "There are not too many [enamelists]," she explains, "perhaps only 1,300 worldwide. Enamel is such a rare skill. I hate to think I am the only one who does this in Judaica, but I am."
The process of creating cloisonné enamel is as painstaking as the results are beautiful. Fine silver or gold wires are used to delineate the artist's design; each section of the design is then filled with a layer of vitreous enamel (finely ground glass with mineral/metallic oxides) and fired at high temperatures to melt the enamel. A piece can go through 12 to 16 layers and firings to build up the design.
"There is something so special and magical about enameling," Slepian says. "The colors are delicious, and the resulting piece is indestructible."
Slepian's museum-quality ritual objects are like jewels. Enameled inside and out, they glow with the artist's skill, dedication, eye for color, and devotion to the concept of chiddur mitzvah—using beautiful objects to enhance the mitzvah you are practicing.
A little more than a decade ago, Bonnie Cohen's hobby of making pottery became a full-time profession when the award-winning graphic designer turned professional ceramist.
"I used to work in metal, but I no longer have the strength in my wrists for that. So I took a class in ceramics at the University of Akron. I started doing some of that paint-your-own pottery, glazing ready-made pots, experimenting with combinations of clays."
Then Cohen learned the technique of imprinting into wet clay, and a new career was born. Her background in printing and graphic design lent themselves to wet-clay imprinting and opened up a new realm of creative, and Jewish, expression.
Cohen's first piece of Judaica was a Shabbat plate. A menorah and a Seder plate soon followed. "I was always on the lookout for something new to make," she recalls of those early days. "I had seen antique tzedakah boxes in museums, and as I progressed I thought it would be interesting to design one. Now the tzedakah boxes are the pieces I'm most well-known for."
Those boxes are richly decorated with text and images from the Torah. Cohen's "biblical" tzedakah box features a quotation from Deuteronomy: "You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy." Her "seasons" tzedakah box has 24K accents and is imprinted with images of the sun, the moon, and palm trees. Cohen's newest tzedakah box celebrates Miriam, the prophetess who led the Israelite women in song on the shore of the Red Sea.
"The wonderful part of my work," Cohen says, "is that when people give my tzedakah boxes to loved ones [for a simcha], a part of me becomes part of their celebration."
Not only do tzedakah boxes become part of a celebration, they link gift giver and recipient to a concept that is as old as Judaism itself. The boxes were not meant to sit on a shelf and look pretty. The presence of a tzedakah box in a Jewish home signals that its inhabitants are rodfei tzedakah: pursuers of justice.
© 2001 Debra B. Darvick
Debra B. Darvick's book
This Jewish Life, Stories of Joy, Meaning, and Connection will be published by the CCAR Press in September 2002.