World renowned Judaica artist sees himself as a “transformer of Jewish texts, objects, spaces and souls”
By Cindy Mindell
David Moss is much more than a Jewish artist or Judaica artist, describing himself as “illuminator, animator and transformer of Jewish texts, objects, spaces and souls”; an artist who works to enrich Jewish life by synthesizing tradition, beauty, learning, art, and creativity into engaging new forms of expression.
A native of Ohio, the world renowned artist made aliyah 30 years ago, and works out of a studio in Chutzot HaYotzer, just outside the Old City walls in Jerusalem. Now, at the age of 67, Moss is best known for sparking the transformation of the ketubah in 1969, a project he engaged in for more than a decade, until the project had become a widespread movement among other Jewish artists. He is credited with single-handedly launching the modern-day “ketubah artist.”
“Aware of the neglected tradition of the hand-made ketubah, I imagined a new form and function for the traditional ketubah,” Moss notes on his website.” I envisioned it as a source of personal growth and Jewish introspection for the couple, a means of embodying Jewish texts and values in visual form for the artist, a source of Hiddur Mitzvah [beautifying of the mitzvah] for the family and community.”
Moss’s best-known work is arguably the haggadah he created for private collector Richard Levy, as part of the artist’s interest in illuminating the Hebrew manuscript.
Moss used the commission to explore the possibilities of a new kind of Jewish book: an art book that would place illumination above illustration and uses images much as Midrash uses texts and where written commentary on those images itself becomes an integral part of the work-text comments on image commenting on text.”
In his transformative approach, Moss has also taken on other traditional Jewish ritual and cultural objects, such as the shtender, the traditional prayer-stand that he describes as “perhaps the most overlooked Jewish object, discarded from most contemporary synagogues and unknown to most Jews.”
Moss’s artwork has been on exhibit and is included in the permanent collections of many museums.
Moss will be in New Haven as artist-in-residence from Apr. 7-15, as part of Greater New Haven’s Israel at 65 celebrations. Recently, he spoke with the Ledger about the evolution of his art.
Q: Describe your journey from Ohio childhood to world-renowned Jewish artist.
A: I grew up in a very committed, strong Reform family in Ohio, 60 miles from Cincinnati. We were members of a Reform synagogue, where I got a good Jewish basis. When I was in college in New Mexico, I was pretty much on my own Jewishly. There was hardly any Jewish life there; I was involved in a 20-family congregation in Santa Fe. I got more and more interested, tried to learn Hebrew on my own with a tutor, and gradually took on more and more. After college, I went to the Jewish Theological Seminary to study more. I was in rabbinical school but didn’t want to be a rabbi, just wanted to study Jewish texts, and at the time, there was no other place to do that. I had to do a preparatory year for the seminary, and I convinced the administration to let me do it in Israel, which was not common at the time. I wanted to get the Hebrew, start learning texts, and do the Talmud requirement in Israel. A friend who was a sofer [scribe] wrote out the Hebrew alphabet for me and I fell in love with the letters. Everything came from that.
I have no formal art training, but I have learned techniques as I go, and I figure out how to do things as needed. I am interested in the intersection between Jewish ideas, values, texts, and the creative aesthetic. The medium isn’t important – I work in prints, objects, books, architecture, programming, wood, a garden. I take a Jewish idea or value and give it creative form and expression. My art is teachable: almost everything I do can then be shared with others.
Q: How did your Haggadah project come about?
A: In 1980, I was planning a pilot aliyah year in Israel. Richard Levy, a collector of old Hebrew manuscripts and books and ketubot, had been following my work for several years. I had done illuminated ketubot for a while by then, and I proposed to Richard that I create an illuminated Haggadah while in Israel, hand-written and hand-illuminated on animal vellum. I ended up spending three years on the project. Every page is a separate work of art that started with the idea, with what is interesting or unusual to me about the section, and I then created an interesting way of expressing that idea. Most of my research for the project was in old haggadot. I felt that mine was a Medieval-type process, one person commissioning one artist to do one book, which is what happened before printing, so I was mostly looking at old manuscripts, focusing in my research on commentaries to traditional texts, the artistic tradition of manuscripts, and the history of the development of the text. Two additional editions of the haggadah were subsequently produced: in 1985, Bet Alpha Editions was established to print a limited-edition facsimile of 500 copies [one of which was purchased and signed by Pres. Ronald Reagan in 1987, presented to Israeli president Chaim Herzog to mark the first state visit of an Israeli president to the U.S.]. In 1989, Bet Alpha printed a trade edition.
Q: Do you use your Haggadah at your seder?
A: We don’t. We use a different one every year – Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Marcus Lehmann – there are always new haggadot coming out, with new perushim [interpretations], so I will pick up a new one each year. We have a pile of different haggadot at our seder and each person picks up a different one, so we all share what’s in the various haggadot and get new insights on the text.
Q: What will you be doing as artist-in-residence in New Haven next month?
A: I’ll be working on something Israel-related with kids from both local day schools. I try not to come with an agenda so that I can hear where the kids are and create something on the spot that’s meaningful to them. I start by hearing them out and learning what’s important to them, then I take them through the process of how art is created, and each kid comes up with a creative idea and design, and chooses materials to implement the work.
I will also lead an artists’ workshop for working professional artists, focusing on infusing their work with more creativity if they want, and integrating a Jewish element into their work, if they want. As with the students, I will start where they’re at and work on specific problems they bring up. I always carry a list of artists’ questions about issues that we all deal with, and also address personal artistic issues.
“New Haven Celebrates Israel at 65” presents artist-in-residence David Moss: Apr. 7-15. Community events: Tuesday, Apr. 9, 5 p.m.: “From Word to Image: A Lifelong Quest,” A Conversation with David Moss, Yale University Sterling Memorial Library, 120 High St., New Haven; Sunday, Apr. 14, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.: Artists’ Workshop, JCC of Greater New Haven, 360 Amity Road, Woodbridge. Info: (203) 387-2424
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