Art and soul
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Art and soul

Artist David Moss teaches at Teaneck's Beth Sholom

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David Moss in his Jerusalem studio. David Lonner/Shma.com

David Moss calls himself a “mitzvah beautifier.”

It’s a variation on the Hebrew phrase “hidur mitzvah” – beautifying a commandment – used to describe the Jewish value of making art out of a ritual object, like a menorah or an etrog case.

But in Mr. Moss’s cases, that’s rather an understatement. Over the years, he has put his eyes and hands to work beautifying mitzvot to amazing effect.

In the late 1960s, he revived the practice of hand-drawn ketubot – Jewish marriage contracts – with calligraphic art that in effect create a whole old/new genre of Jewish art.

In the 1980s, he tackled the Haggadah. His version of the Passover story took three years to complete. Much of that time was spent on research: The Moss Haggadah alluded to centuries of artistic haggadah illustrations, even as it incorporated a wide range of Jewish texts into the art.

To cite one sample: On the title page, he includes the entire text of the Haggadah in micrographic writing as a border – because the beginning contains the whole.

Or another: For the passage of the Haggadah that says “In every generation one must see himself as having come from Egypt,” Mr. Moss drew profiles of many figures. Each wears the dress of a different Jewish community across the centuries. Interspersed among the profiles, reflective paper shows the viewer’s own reflection.

“David’s work is about both text and Jewish values and integrating the arts into Jewish learning in all ways,” said Elaine Cohen, explaining why Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck invited him to be artist in residence this Sunday.

Mr. Moss lives in Jerusalem; he is in the United States for a five-week tour, with some artist-in-residence gigs lasting a full week.

In Teaneck, Mr. Moss will work with teenagers in creating a Chanukah mural, and then meet with the congregation’s Artists Beit Midrash, which combines text study and artistic production.

On Monday, he will present a workshop for the Schechter Day School Network – which Ms. Cohen led for many years – on “Enhancing and inspiring students’ Jewish learning through the artistic and creative process.”

Mr. Moss has no formal artistic training.

“I’m sort of self-taught,” he said. “I started with calligraphy. I later got started with the ketubot as something to do with the calligraphy.”

He was raised in Dayton, Ohio, “in a very strong, committed Reform family, with a lot of connections to the teachers at the Hebrew Union College seminary in Cincinnati,” just an hour away.

“I got more involved and interested in Jewish learning in college and after college,” he said.

“I do what I call teachable art. Every piece starts with an idea, a Jewish value, a text, and then I bring it to life, creatively and aesthetically.”

When he works with young people, he said, “the main mission is to help them learn how the artistic process works. We start with nothing, and then I start them on deciding on some issue or problem that is important to them, and how that can be transformed into a creative artistic solution, and then designed and built and put together and presented.

“I take them from the beginning to the end of an example of an artistic process,” he said.

His own artistic work “usually will start with an insight or a question or a challenge or some kind of problem I’m trying to solve, and then I figure out the best way to solve that. Everything is Jewish, based in tradition and research and study, and ideally everything has the spark of creativity in it, freshness and difference. The other point is that the craft be well done,” he said.

“The medium is less important.”

He has designed buildings. He is working on “an ambitious large project, a garden of Jewish exploration, a kind of interactive aesthetic garden where Jewish values will be shared.”

And he has a subscription program to which fans and collectors can subscribe in advance and receive three or four works a year, “anything I send them.”

Ms. Cohen first saw his work 10 years ago, when she visited a day school in Atlanta where Mr. Moss had been artist in residence for a week.

“There were four lockers in the school that had been decorated as if they were the lockers of Rabbi Akiva and other rabbis of old,” she said.

“He’s not merely an artist who does gorgeous work. He’s an artistic educator. That’s a singular contribution.”

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