Though many of us talk about developing a Jewish identity, what does that really mean? To me, Jewish identity includes what we do Jewishly, what we believe, how we practice Judaism in our homes and with our families, and to what Jewish organizations we belong. Jewish identity is also expressed to ourselves and to others by what we wear, what we read, whether we have Judaica in our homes and what these pieces look like. It can even mean whether we choose to give a Jewish gift for a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding. In this space in the months to come, I will introduce you to some of the artists and designers who create Judaica and Jewish gifts that speak to us and help us express and build our own Jewish identities, and proudly share them with the world.
Aimee Golant is a sixth generation metalsmith who works out of San Francisco, Calif. She has won many honors: The Jewish Museum of New York acquired one of her evocative mezuzahs for its permanent collection and her Barbed Wire Mezuzah travelled into space on the Space Shuttles Columbia and Atlantis. Aimee has created Judaica to benefit Darfur, Sharsheret, the Paper Clips Project, and more. She teaches at several educational institutions in San Francisco, where she lives with her husband and son.
Q: You’ve been making Judaica since the beginning of your career as a metalsmith. Why did you choose to use your skills to make Jewish ritual items?
A: In early 1993, I was a sophomore at San Francisco State University in my second semester of Metal Art and Jewelry. The professor, Dawn Nakanishi, gave us an assignment to use the hydraulic press. I designed three lockets: one with a peace-sign surrounded by petals, the next with a heart, and the third with a Jewish star encircled by barbed wire.
I showed my designs to my professor who became both puzzled and concerned.
"I want you to express yourself without using a cliché,” she said. Just like that, she rejected my project and encouraged me to dig deeper.
My grandfather is a Holocaust survivor and, along with most every male relative on that side of the family, was a machinist and tool and die maker. They owned a factory in Poland before the war, which built machines that made candles. I learned about my grandparents’ experience in the Holocaust while he taught me to work with metal.
Also at this time, I was taking a class called Holocaust and Genocide where I learned about the Holocaust. I went straight from that class to my metals class several times a week.
With the Holocaust, my grandfather’s legacy as a machinist, and desire to express peace and love without forgetting the bitterness of the Holocaust, the idea of making mezuzot materialized. I created my first die to make three different mezuzot. They had images of flames, jail bars, decay, and pointed barbed wire. I had many intense moments of tears and revelation.
Q. Do you find that non-Jews appreciate your work and get what you are doing?
A: When I finished the first set of mezuzot, I presented them to my class, telling them I loved using the metal in such a meaningful and permanent way; and by making mezuzot, I was preserving a tradition. "But," I asked, "how could there be a G-d when something like the Holocaust happens?" I burst into tears. I knew, in that moment, that this was my first true expression of art. Making Judaica gave me a sense that I could preserve tradition that could have been lost, had Hitler been successful in his endeavors. Before this, nothing had given me such intense meaning in my life.
Now, my favorite question from the customers I meet at art shows is: What is a mezuzah? This question gives me the opportunity to share meaningful Jewish teachings with the world. The mezuzah has a universal message, and when I sell a mezuzah to a non-Jew, I feel I have just brought peace on Earth! To give of ourselves, as Jews, is one thing we don’t do often enough; the outside world doesn’t know who we are. Those words in that mezuzah, Jesus taught that. You don’t have to convert to have a mezuzah.
Q: Where do you look for inspiration for new work?
A: I usually don't look for inspiration. I’m struck by it. Sometimes, looking at antique Judaica makes me think of my own. Sometimes, when designing mezuzot, architecture is important. Many times, one piece leads to another: I will make one, then all these possibilities open up in my head as to how I can make related pieces. So far, I am full of ideas. Getting the time and means to make the pieces is more of a challenge. I may have some designs sitting in my sketchbook for years. But usually, if a new piece is drawn out and it feels right, and I have the time, (now that I am a mom, this is even more challenging) I will start on it right away.
Q: I love that you work mostly not in sterling silver which is expensive and tarnishes. How did you choose to work with metal alternatives to silver for your Judaica?
A: First of all, I love the warm look of copper. I made the crown for the Woman's Torah Project Torah out of copper to convey warmth instead wealth, which I feel is conveyed by silver. I also adore physically working with copper, along with bits of gold and silver, as it helps contrast, both visually and economically, with the more expensive metals.
Q. What’s next for you?
A: I’m working on more wearable pieces, more jewelry, maybe a series of Stars of David.
Selected pieces of Aimee's are available at http://www.ModernTribe.com. You can see the full line of Aimee Golant’s work on her website: http://www.aimeegolant.com.