Modern Ritual

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By Aaron Britt
When it came time to partake in rituals like lighting the Shabbat candles or setting the seder plate, designer Stanley Saitowitz of Natoma Architects, Inc., saw nothing but a sea of Star of David–bedecked kitsch. Unable to find the goods that suited both his aesthetic and his practice, he set about designing a spare, modern suite of Jewish objects—on view in the exhibit Stanley Saitowitz: Judaica at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through October 16 2012—that runs the gamut from menorahs to kiddush cups. We asked Saitowitz why he had to make what he couldn’t find.
Modern Ritual - Photo 1 of 5 - Mezzuzah: A small case containing a scroll with a religious text that Jews affix to their doorposts as a sign of faith.

Mezzuzah: A small case containing a scroll with a religious text that Jews affix to their doorposts as a sign of faith.

Why did you make this collection of religious and ceremonial objects?

Modern Ritual - Photo 2 of 5 -

I saw a disconnect between the purity of the spiritual pursuits and the ideas that we as Jews value and the material culture that supports them. My experience of growing up in an Orthodox family in South Africa was that food was important, festivals were important, and ritual was important, but the things we used in Jewish life didn’t matter all that much. We were excited by the candles and the fire on the menorah during Hanukkah, but the menorah itself wasn’t an object of consequence.

In Judaica shops you can occasionally find a nice menorah or a pair of candlesticks, but there isn’t a body of these objects that represents contemporary thought and certainly not contemporary design. I looked pretty broadly at what was available on the market, and not finding anything beyond a nice matzah plate here or there led me to the conclusion that I’d have to make them.

Modern Ritual - Photo 3 of 5 - Kiddush cup: Holds the ceremonial wine over which the kiddush blessing is recited.

Kiddush cup: Holds the ceremonial wine over which the kiddush blessing is recited.

The pieces in your collection are pretty austere. Don’t you want them to provide some of the comfort that ritual imparts?The collection comes from the realization that many Jewish objects in circulation don’t really comply with their religious intentions. They’re actually designed counter to Jewish tradition. A lot of them have taken on all kinds of sentimental decoration or are adorned with words that no one using the objects says. I wanted to rediscover the role of the objects in the rituals they’re meant for. I made each instructive as to how the ceremony is supposed to unfold rather than something pretty according to schmaltzy taste.

The Second Commandment forbids the making of graven images, you know; anything figural is a representation of God and, in a sense, idolatry. Lots of Jewish objects totally ignore that fact. Abstraction is inherent in Jewish thought as it is in modernist aesthetic thought. And as a designer I have an interest and an obligation to make things that present an idea.

Modern Ritual - Photo 4 of 5 - Candlesticks


Did you actually make all the things in the Judaica show?For the first group of objects, we made them with a steel fabricator we’ve worked with in Minneapolis. He made the menorah, the mezuzah, and the candlesticks, which are for sale now. I didn’t actually make the rest of the Judaica collection until the Contemporary Jewish Museum asked me to do this exhibition. The additional pieces are made using a digital fabrication process where we essentially make them out of foam using a 3-D printer and then coat them in metal. They’re just prototypes really.

Modern Ritual - Photo 5 of 5 - Menorah


How did you determine which pieces to make?Well, in Jewish ritual there are a whole lot of things you use around the Sabbath, things you use in everyday life, and then other stuff for festivals. I had thought about doing some of the quotidian objects but they tend to relate to clothing and fabric, and ultimately I’m more into objects than garments. I did a design for a tallit [prayer shawl] and a kippah [skullcap] but never really made them.

Actually, I wanted to make even more for the exhibit, like a chuppah [marriage canopy] and a sukkah [a temporary dwelling erected for the holiday Sukkot], but they wouldn’t fit in the display case at the museum. For the chuppah poles I designed a handgrip, a kind of handle. This thing can’t even exist without a person holding it up, so my idea was that the person is as important to the structure as the pole and the hand- grip shows you how to use it. And as for the sukkah, maybe one day I’ll make sukkah kits that you can build yourself. You think they’d sell my sukkah kits at Target?To what degree were you also filling a personal need with this collection?I use all this stuff myself. In fact, the mezuzah was designed for my own house. Its dimensions fit my doorframe. It’s all quite personal. Do you still consider yourself an Orthodox Jew?I’m an orthodox designer.

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