The Aesthetics Of Judaism

The Aesthetics Of Judaism

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

At her bat mitzvah last month at Beth El Temple in Harrisburg, Pa., my daughter Hannah spoke about the concept of hiddur mitzvah, the aesthetic enhancement of Jewish customs. Bathed in the light of the synagogue’s new stained-glass windows depicting Jewish holidays and allegorical representations of biblical figures, Hannah eloquently linked the Torah portion, which dealt with the ancient Israelites’ building of the tabernacle in the desert, with the creation of Jewish art and artifacts in our own day.

While declining numbers of American Jews attend a Passover seder, the just-concluded rite is still the most widely observed one in American Judaism, and it provides manifold opportunities for the enjoyment of Jewish religious objects. I grew up in a secular Jewish family in Great Neck in the 1970s and ’80s, and Passover was one of the only holidays that we observed. I helped my grandmother to set the table for the seder, arranging the lead crystal candlesticks, the bone china and the shining silver goblet for Elijah. That night was the only time when Hebrew was heard in my home, and the only occasion when God was mentioned. These ritual objects reinforced the spiritual meaning of the holiday.

This is deeply ironic, given that the rabbinic sages were suspicious of beauty; the Second Commandment, which forbids the making of idols or graven images, was often extended to the creation of religious art. Painting scenes from nature, making sculptures of the human form and performing theatrical productions were Greek and Roman pastimes that the rabbis discouraged.

These attitudes relaxed during the late Talmudic period when, as Kalman Bland has written in “The Artless Jew” (Princeton University Press, 2000), the rabbis authorized the production of a diverse array of beautiful objects, from illuminated manuscripts to paintings, sculptures and architecture. But how often did ordinary Jews glimpse these works of art, if ever? By the late-19th century, when the impoverished East European Jews began to arrive in America, the very possession of a simple set of brass candlesticks was significant, with no possibility that they could be ornate. My grandparents’ printed, fill-in-the-blanks marriage contract looks nothing like the colorful ketubah — created by Jewish Week culture editor Sandee Brawarsky — that hangs above my bed.

In the postwar era, as upwardly mobile Jews moved to the suburbs, the locus of Jewish life shifted from the synagogue to the home. The celebration of Passover was dictated as much by “The Jewish Home Beautiful,” a 1941 manual of Shabbat and holiday style, as by the Torah. According to the authors, Betty Greenberg and Althea Silverman, the tablecloth for Pesach should be of ivory or pastel damask, the flowers of yellow and blue or lavender, and the matzah holder of olive wood or silver. Such an “ethics” of décor, historian Jenna Weissman Joselit has noted, “defined the home as a sacred space.”

For Susan Leviton, a ketubah-maker, paper-cut artist and Yiddish folk song performer who lives in my neighborhood, it was during the 1960s and ’70s, when many Jews flocked back to their roots, that Jews, in her words, “took Judaism back into their own hands” and began braiding challahs and tie-dying prayer shawls. Hiddur mitzvah “alters us as we fulfill a mitzvah or perform a ritual,” she told me. A Midrash (Song of Songs Rabbah 1.15) suggests that observance of the commandments makes Jews beautiful, even as Jews glorify God through hiddur mitzvot.

Gary Rosenthal created the spectacular Torah ark, made of metal and colored glass, in the Hillel building where I work. He supplies synagogue gift shops across the country with his tabletop Judaica, and he often involves different generations of a family in creating ritual objects together. He calls the creation of a new Torah pointer or a mezuzah a “Dayenu moment,” in that even before the object is used, it has linked the members of the family to each other and to their shared Jewish heritage.

The reference to Dayenu, from the seder, is thought provoking. Many vibrant ritual items, even if handcrafted by the family, will rarely, if ever, be employed; they will become part of the furniture. But every time they are looked at, or taken down from the shelf, they will serve as a reminder of Jewish tradition, even as that inheritance is relegated for too many to the world of the museum rather than the realm of ongoing engagement with Jewish tradition.

And, God willing, on a seder or holiday of the future, they will —like the mysterious Golem of Jewish legend — spring again to life.

Ted Merwin, who writes about theater for the paper, teaches Jewish studies and directs the Hillel at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. His website is

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