The more atomized we feel — the more we’re tucked away into tiny little bubbles as the world crashes and burns terrifyingly and improbably around us — the more we rely on the relationships with other people that can keep us sane, as our masking and social distancing and self-restraint keep us safe.
We also can rely on art; on art’s power to remove us from grim reality to another, often more pleasant place.
When you have an artist who makes personalized art — who is able to take events and symbols and people who have been important to you, and put them in a piece of art in a way that’s not tacky or kitschy or hackneyed but instead is both beautiful and true — you can use that art to help make sense of what’s going on around you. And it can make you happy.
When it’s Jewish art, it can reach even more deeply through your cultural assumptions and into your soul.
Lori Loebelsohn of Glen Ridge is such an artist.
She creates ketubot — marriage contracts — as well as haggadot, other pieces of Jewish art, and art commemorating life cycle events. She personalizes them, including symbols that are beautiful and intriguing to casual viewers but emotionally or historically or spiritually significant to the people whose stories they tell.
Ms. Loebelsohn, who grew up in Brighton Beach and then lived in Park Slope for many years, has been making art for a long time. She graduated from Cooper Union with a strong background in fine arts and “was making all kinds of formal portraits,” she said; she’s also a learning specialist, because it’s foolhardy to assume that you can support yourself as a fine artist. But when her daughter was studying to become bat mitzvah, she started thinking about the connections between Judaism, life cycle events, folk art, and her art. She was asked to create an artwork celebrating a bat mitzvah. The girl’s Torah portion was Bereishit, the story of Creation — an incredibly rich parsha for a visual artist — and that led Ms. Loebelsohn more and more deeply into the connections between traditional Jewish texts and visual imagery. That, in turn, led her more and more deeply into what she calls life cycle art.
Ms. Loebelsohn began working for ketubah.com, a website that provides a range of ketubot, both the texts and the art surrounding it, with a small number of artists. She found herself doing more and more personalized work, often coming not from ketubah.com but from people she’s met, friends of friends, through word of mouth. Through connections.
Her work is in some ways similar to the work of a reporter. She listens closely, asks questions carefully, lets the answers and their implications mix in her head and rattle around for a bit, and then put them together, necessarily through her own filter — but it’s her own filter, her own skew on what she’s heard, her own intuition of what’s important, that she’s engaged to provide. She puts her take on what she’s heard on paper, but in vibrant color rather than the black-and-white of print.
Here, we will look at three pieces Ms. Loebelsohn made; two ketubot and one painting commemorating a 50th wedding anniversary. All three couples have strong ties to northern New Jersey, but otherwise they’re different; of different ages, at different life stages, with different careers and aspirations. Ms. Loebelsohn tells all their stories.
Among her other interests, Ms. Loebelsohn is a bicycle rider. She joined the Bicycle Touring Club of North Jersey — BTCNJ for jawbreaking short — and met Rhonda Pekow. Ms. Pekow is an assistant principal at the A. Phillip Randolph Campus High School in upper Manhattan, right next to City College; what always is a rewarding and challenging job for an educator has been made much more challenging by the pandemic and the city’s response to it.
“I moved from Manhattan to Fort Lee,” Ms. Pekow said. “When I was a teacher, I lived in the Village, and it was a great place to live.” But when she became an assistant principal, it made more sense to live closer to work, and to have more space. “So I moved only a mile into New Jersey; everything I did was in Manhattan, my doctors, my hairdresser, my friends.” But she was a bike rider, so she joined the BTCNJ. That was 10 years ago.
“I learned about New Jersey through the bike club,” she said. “To this day, there are towns that I ride through that I have never driven through.”
It’s different riding a bike in New Jersey, she said. “When I lived in the city, I rode my bike. When I moved here, I became a cyclist.”
She met her husband, David Pawlyk, a computer programmer from Mahwah, through the club. “His parents had just passed away,” she said. “He was the one of his siblings who took care of them, so when they died, he joined the bike club.
“He’s a really nice guy,” she continued. “On the bike rides, he’s usually the one in the back, helping people, if someone is having trouble or doesn’t know how to ride.”
The two became friends. “We were hanging out,” Ms. Pekow said. She was in her 40s, she wasn’t married, and it was fine. “I was at the point in my life when it didn’t matter,” she said. “We were having a good time together. We were friends.”
By 2011, “we knew we were going to be a couple,” she said. “There was no rush. We knew we weren’t having kids, and we each had our own lives. We got engaged, and decided to get married. The more we got to know each other, the more we knew we liked each other.”
They set December 21, 2019, as their wedding date. Neither belonged to a shul, so they did some research and found a rabbi, Andy Dubin, whom they both liked, to perform the ceremony.
But they still needed a ketubah. Ms. Pekow had met Ms. Loebelsohn on a four-day ride late that summer; “I told her that I was getting married, and she said, ‘Oh really? I create ketubahs.’” They ended up “sitting in our sweaty bike clothes, but it was a business meeting, and I was sketching designs on napkins,” Ms. Loebelsohn said.
It was intensely and improbably romantic; “he’s a tech guy and she’s much more warm and talkative, and they balance each other in a beautiful way,” she continued. “Neither has been married before, and bicycling brought them together in a way that set them up to be married.”
The ketubah includes a full moon because the wedding was on the winter solstice; there is the George Washington Bridge, because Ms. Pekow lives in Fort Lee, the Hudson glowing and the city glittering behind it; there are two bikes, facing each other, “with the wheels overlapping,” Ms. Pekow said. “It has the tree of life, and it shows both New York and New Jersey because my life is in both places.”
“I wanted those things — the moon, the bridge, the bikes — but I didn’t want to hit you over the head with them,” Ms. Loebelsohn said. “It captured the essence of what they were saying.”
The couple got married in Paterson; “they invited me and my husband” — his name is David Goldstein — “even though we didn’t know each other so well,” because the act of creating the ketubah bonded all of them. The wedding venue was a historic house, a beautiful place with a glass greenhouse, a place you’d have to hunt to find. “Rhonda had been in the military,” Ms. Loebelsohn said, so “there was an honor guard.” The ketubah looked magical, and the evening bore that out.
Alexandra Weiser is a cantor at Congregation B’nai Shalom/Beth David, a Conservative shul in Rockville Centre, in the middle of Nassau County on Long Island. Her new husband, Jared Weiser, is a senior vice president at the Royal Bank of Canada. She grew up in Rockleigh, where her parents, Scott and Tobi Weinstein, still live; she went to Dwight Englewood and graduated from Northern Valley Old Tappan; and she and her family belonged to Temple Emanu-El of Closter. She was Alexandra Weinstein growing up, and she’s Xan Russell, an operatically trained Broadway singer and producer, professionally.
Mr. Weiser has less local yichus. He’s from Texas. Dallas, to be precise; he’s earned degrees in both civil engineering and finance.
They got married on January 18, not long before the pandemic lockdown began; they’re very aware of their luck. Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg of Temple Emanu-El performed the ceremony.
Everything was set, but, again, they needed a ketubah. If you don’t want something right off the shelf but are looking for a piece of art, a specific and just-right piece of art, you have to be willing to search for it. That was Ms. Weiser’s job. “I looked through probably hundreds of ketubah artists all over the internet, and I narrowed it down to 10, but Lori was my favorite,” she said. “I wanted to give my husband options, but after one look, Lori was his favorite too.”
They knew that they wanted their ketubah to be personal; they wanted to choose an artist based on her style, but then they’d want to work together. So they made an appointment, in those innocent precovid times, and drove to Glen Ridge to meet Ms. Loebelsohn. “Her gallery is in her home, so we walked up three flights of stairs into the attic, which she’d transformed into her studio, with a lot of windows and a lot of light,” Ms. Weiser said.
“She showed us design after design and it resonated with us. We also had a chance to get to know each other.
“What spoke to me was her sense of whimsicality and her use of color. The color seems to glow from her canvas, without being overpowering. It’s not bright, but it’s vibrant.
“She does a lot of blending,” Mr. Weiser said. “She’ll go from a green to a yellow, but blend it as she transitions from one to another. And then she’ll add a pattern to it. If you look closely, you’ll see that the colors have many colors within them, like papier-mâché. It’s all textured.” But it’s not really textured, he explained; it just looks like it is, through the skillful manipulation of color.
The whimsicality is a kind of musicality, Ms. Weiser said. And “it seems to go beyond its borders,” her husband added. “It looks like it’s in a dreamlike state. It isn’t rigid. It’s a little fluid.” It’s a bit like Chagall, he said.
There’s symbolism in the ketubah, they said. It has three stars, recalling the stars that say that Shabbat is over. One is for Alexandra; it’s a Broadway star. One is for Jared, the Texan; it’s his state’s lone star. And one, to join them, is a Jewish star. There’s a little man with a saxophone at the bottom that echoes a painting that Jared’s had since he was a small child.
It’s rooted in their separate pasts and looks forward to their shared future.
Neil Broder of West Caldwell wanted something different. He’s a lawyer, and he was looking forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary of his wedding to his wife, Carol. “I am a romantic at heart, and I adore my wife,” Mr. Broder said. She’s been recovering from cancer — it’s okay, she’s fine now, but it was a very touchy time. “I decided that I didn’t just want to send her a card or buy her clothes or flowers” he said. “I wanted to do something permanent.”
He learned about Ms. Loebelsohn at CBL, an art store in West Orange. “We started to discuss the project in December 2017 or January 2018,” he said; the anniversary was in June 2019. “I knew I really wanted something, but I didn’t know what I wanted. So I explained it to Lori, and she got back to me with a very rough proposal of a painting that described as best as I could remember 50 years of married life.”
The Broders have had a busy life, which meant that Ms. Loebelsohn had much to choose from but also had a lot of work to do. Carol was a teacher of Spanish and French, and Neil finished his clerkship for a federal judge in Manhattan and joined the Navy, which sent him through law school in Newark. He was in the Navy for eight years, eventually becoming a lieutenant. They moved around a bit, and landed in Washington, where the first of their two children, Jonathan, was born.
Mr. Broder had a fascinating time in Washington, where he was on the presidential clemency board, headed by Senator Charles Goddell, a New York Republican. Gerald Ford was president then, and Mr. Broder became the board’s acting pardon attorney. He worked with people who had been dishonorably discharged from any branch of the armed forces. Once the board reversed dishonorable discharges, it could recommend clemency. Because Mr. Ford believed that Vietnam War veterans deserved kindness, or at least decency, he could choose to grant clemency; often he did.
When his time in the Navy was over, the Broders moved back to New Jersey, settling first in Clark, and then in West Caldwell. That’s where their daughter, Kimberly, was born, and where Neil and Carol still live.
All of these events are symbolized or openly shown in the painting; so is the yellow Volkswagen Beetle they drove. So is their honeymoon, which they spent in France as Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, almost overhead. So is the Verrazano Bridge; at one point they lived on Staten Island because she worked in Jersey, he worked in downtown Manhattan, and they split the difference.
When Mr. Broder brought the painting home to his wife, she was surprised. Astonished, in fact, he reports; she also was very happy.
“It was a fascinating piece to do,” Ms. Loebelsohn said. “Neil’s a lovely guy, and he’s bought a lot of Jewish artwork over the years.
“He wrote me an amazingly wonderful letter about how the painting captured the story of their lives,” she said. She hadn’t heard from him after he’d taken the painting home; she’d wondered and then let it go. The letter came during the pandemic; “it was one of those really sad days,” she said. “It was a beautiful little surprise. It’s like a bookend to Rhonda and David’s story, or Alexandra and Jared’s — 50 years on.”
And it’s those stories, those links, those connections, those stories, that keep us going now.
Ms. Loebelsohn’s logically named website is loriloebelsohn.com.