Jeanette Kuvin was just about to complete a PhD program in epidemiology and public health at Yale when she picked up a calligraphy pen and changed the course of her life.
It was 1984, and she was about to be married to Dan Oren, and Rabbi James Ponet of the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale encouraged Kuvin to make her own ketubah.
Within a year, Jeanette Kuvin Oren had attracted enough commissions to leave her PhD program and make a full-time career of Judaic art. Over the last three decades, Kuvin Oren has illustrated Jewish life and passion through art, across the U.S. and all over the world, in more than 350 houses of worship, schools, community centers, funeral homes, and summer camps, as well as for countless individuals, couples, and families.
Her work is highlighted in a new book, The Art of Jeanette Kuvin Oren: Jewish Art for Synagogues and Families.
“As 2014 approached, I realized I had been working – oh so happily! – for 30 years; to mark this milestone, I created a retrospective of my work,” Kuvin Oren says. “The hardest part of creating the book was choosing which commissions to include. Each commission is so special and so much work, emotion, love, and time go into each piece.”
The couple settled in Woodbridge, where Kuvin Oren set up the studio in which she still works. They raised two daughters, who both graduated from Ezra Academy in Woodbridge.
A self-taught artist, the Palm Beach, Fla. native took only one formal art class, learning to sew at the local mall when she was nine. The family would spend summers in Jerusalem, where she and her mother created a Torah cover for the Kehilat Har El synagogue in 1973, in honor of her bat mitzvah year. She continued to create her own art, taking inspiration from The First Jewish Catalog, published that same year.
From ketubot, Kuvin Oren ventured into paper-cutting and silk-painting, acquiring the new skills by reading books and watching fellow artists. The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York commissioned some of her first Torah covers and ark curtains in 1995, and then she began to create fabric wall hangings and chuppot. When the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md. hired Kuvin Oren to create donor recognition art, she designed a wall-sized mosaic, which led to more commissioned mosaics, glass art, and other large installations.
“Jeanette is so talented, driven, such a lover of our people, such a visionary and a disciplined artisan,” says Ponet. “We are so fortunate that she has chosen to serve as she does in color, texture, and text.”
Kuvin Oren’s work has been commissioned across Connecticut, in synagogues, Jewish funeral homes, the JCC of Greater New Haven, and Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, as well as Yale University. Her international work has a local connection as well: Rabbi Marcelo Kormis of Congregation Beth El in Fairfield commissioned an ark curtain for Comunidad Israelita de Santiago, Chile in 2009 while serving as the spiritual leader of the congregation.
Kormis became spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in Fairfield in 2012. A native of Santiago, Chile, he received Seminario Rabinico Latinoamerico in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He
was serving as associate rabbi of Comunidad Israelita de Santiago / Circulo Israelita de Santiago, the largest Conservative congregation in the city, when, in 2009, the synagogue was renamed Circulo Israelita of Santiago and dedicated a new sanctuary, designed with a floor-to-ceiling modern, colorful stained-glass window as a backdrop to the ark. The congregation wanted an ark curtain that would match the style and design of the window, explains Kormis. Kormis began researching options and discovered Kuvin Oren’s ark curtain depicting the “Burning Bush.”
“The design was so beautiful and so colorful that it was a perfect match for the bimah, to achieve the look that we wanted to create,” he says, and matched the Burning Bush motif in the window – “the symbol of passion Jews have for the study of the Torah and our eternal commitment to the presence of God in our lives.”
The artwork, Kormis says, “is spectacular, a constant inspiration for worshipers in the synagogue and for visitors who come to visit the synagogue from all around the world.”
A visitor himself to the synagogue he now serves, Congregation Beth El in Fairfield, Kormis was amazed to find beautiful Torah covers inside the ark, bearing the motif of Jacob’s ladder. Only recently did he discover that the art was the handiwork of Kuvin Oren.
“After learning that she was the artist behind the design, I feel deeply connected to her work and the beauty of her art,” he says. “In this way, Jeanette has accompanied me in my spiritual journey from South America to the United States.”
When designing a commissioned artwork, Kuvin Oren works closely with the sponsor individual, committee, family, or organization, discussing the themes, colors, techniques, process,
and desired outcome of each project. “People often ask what I enjoy most about my work,” she says. “I like collaboration, working with other people to mold ideas into art that will inspire. I have been blessed in many ways, but my favorite part of my job is that I am never bored,” she says. “I enjoy all media and like working on a variety of projects at one time.”
Over the summer, Kuvin Oren researched the history of the pre-Holocaust Jewish community of Horovice in the former Czechoslovakia, venerated in a wood-and-glass memorial she created for Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, N.Y. At the same time, she was working with a committee at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y. to design 16 new Torah covers. “I love getting to know people who care enough about hiddur mitzvah [beautification of the mitzvah] to spend time on the commission process for their Torah covers, memorials, chuppot, and other Judaic art,” she says. “Each photograph in the book brings wonderful memories of people I’ve ‘met’ through our shared love of Judaic art.”
Many projects created for Jewish institutions are put together in communal workshops, where Kuvin Oren teaches others how to celebrate their Jewish identity through art. “The first step toward expressing one’s love of Judaism artistically, I believe, is striving to understand the meaning behind the inspiration, and understanding what you want to evoke from your art,” she says. “So, in short, I advise others to study, read, and learn as the best place to start. The artistic part of the Judaic art flows out of the understanding and appreciation of our wonderful heritage and religion.”
Kuvin Oren says that the relationship with Torah that lies at the center of her work makes her “the most fortunate person in the world.”
“Each art commission presents an opportunity to study Torah, speak with others about the meaning of Torah, and work to beautify our surroundings,” she says. “As it says in Pirkei Avot, ‘Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion than it.’”
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