Freeing the inner artist

Freeing the inner artist

Mordechai Rosenstein to engage both parents and children at Teaneck shul

Mordechai Rosenstein will be artist-in-residence at Temple Emeth in Teaneck.
Mordechai Rosenstein will be artist-in-residence at Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

When renowned artist Mordechai Rosenstein comes to Teaneck next week — he will be artist-in-residence at Temple Emeth there from March 9 to March 13 — he will bring his passion for color and a deep love of the Hebrew alphabet with him.

“I use a lot of color,” said the artist, who works from his home in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. “It’s the secret to my success.” Since he first unveiled his unique style at a 1979 Rabbinical Assembly convention at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills, Mr. Rosenstein has been displaying his works around the country and throughout the world, while helping others to create their own.

Until 2003, he focused mainly on displaying and selling his art. But with the addition of Barry Magen — “my right-hand man” —  to his staff, Mr. Rosenstein began to engage in artistic outreach, bringing his talent and teaching skills to synagogues and other community institutions.

“Mordechai feels that it is very stimulating and rewarding to interact with communities throughout the country and develop a rapport with them,” Mr. Magen said. That’s true whether Mr. Rosenstein is working with individual synagogue members or designing stained glass windows for the synagogues themselves, Mr. Magen added. In 1990, Mr. Rosenstein created an outdoor steel sculpture for Camp Ramah in the Poconos’ 40th anniversary.

Outreach gives him a chance to “connect with everyone,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “Creating in a studio — where you’re the captain of your own ship — is a lonely thing.” He enjoys the opportunity to “go out there and have a give and take with the public. It’s a chance to speak about the art.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by letters,” he said, adding that “the flowing forms of the letters have been an inspiration. Back in the 1940s, there were no books of instruction. There was no scribe in Philadelphia, and I had no idea where to learn. So I worked with letters and had total freedom with them. I wasn’t aware of any tradition.”

“In the early 1960s, Jay Greenspan” — a well-known Jewish calligrapher who lives in Teaneck — “started a class at the 92nd St. Y. And Reuben Leaf had a book before that, with alphabets from all over the world. It was reissued 10 or 15 years ago. I have an original with the wire binding.”

Beginning his own artistic career by producing prints, Mr. Rosenstein said that his life’s path was determined by something “bashert” that happened at a frame shop. But that story is for Teaneck, he said, and he will tell it on Friday night. On Saturday, his drash will touch on the Torah reading.

Mr. Rosenstein’s work, including “Dor l’Dor” often interweaves Hebrew and English letters.
Mr. Rosenstein’s work, including “Dor l’Dor” often interweaves Hebrew and English letters.

“The Torah paints a picture for you,” he said, referring to well-known Bible stories such as that of Jacob and the angel. For example, he pointed out, “It gives the time of day and what the sky looked like.” And when Abraham made a covenant by dividing his sacrifice in half and laying the pieces out on the ground, the Torah describes him “in his white robes, chasing birds away from the carrion. ‘Get off my sacrifice,’ he appears to be saying. The pasuk leads you to the design; it gives you a layout.”

On Thursday night, Mr. Rosenstein will work on an art project with adults in the congregation, as well as with interested members of the wider community. On Sunday, he will meet with students from the congregation’s Hebrew school.

Synagogue member Lynne Graizel, a member of the planning committee for Mr. Rosenstein’s visit, said that the synagogue’s rabbi, Steven Sirbu, “is always looking for innovative projects for the temple to get behind to draw our community closer and extend to the greater community.” She added that Rabbi Sirbu, who has been at Temple Emeth for 13 years, “always looks outside the box.”

Ms. Graizel also pointed out that while Mr. Rosenstein’s name may not be familiar to all who hear it, “when they see his work, they say ‘I know that.’” His paintings, she said, “are incredibly colorful and beautiful. They show his love for the alef-bet and make you love it as well.” It is especially meaningful “to study Hebrew and then to see a man so passionate about the alphabet we take for granted. He brings his enthusiasm to the audience.”

“Everyone has an inner artist,” Ms. Graizel continued. To prove it, Mr. Rosenstein will work with adults at a painting and dessert session. Everyone will paint the same thing, with the artist guiding each participant. “You are given canvas, brushes, and paint, and [the artist] will show you how to make the strokes and fill in the canvas,” she said. “All walk out with the same project, but it is unique to them.” Registration, $18 per person, is open to the community.

“You go home with the art,” Ms. Graizel added, noting that she has participated in painting programs before. “Adults are even prouder than kids,” she said.

Mr. Rosenstein said working with adults used to be more difficult. “They would come in with the children but not do [art]. Now, people are coloring things in. It’s legitimate. Everyone is drawing.”

On Sunday morning, Ms. Graizel said, children from kindergarten to third grade  — who are studying the Hebrew alphabet — will do “exciting things,” learning, for example, “What does this symbol mean?” and “Why read from left to right?”

Projects for children are age-dependent, Mr. Rosenstein said, and they depend on their knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet. In one exercise, he provides an image — for example, life, blessings, and peace — and asks them to do a self-portrait “of who they are and what they like.”

“King David’s Harp.”
“King David’s Harp.”

“The image needs color and interest,” he said. Some children may like mountains and rainbows, others may like trains. They might make pictures of their parents and friends, or they may like football “and have images all over the place. Children are less inhibited, and the younger the better.”

Mr. Rosenstein said that he learned over time not to name the images he sees in a child’s painting, in case he is wrong — like the time he identified a child’s drawing of his dog as a soccer ball. “I’ve learned to say, ‘Tell me about that.’” Throughout the program, Mr. Rosenstein’s work will be displayed, and a slide presentation of his paintings will be presented.

“I came up with idea of inviting Mr. Rosenstein when I met him at a CCAR convention a few years ago,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “This is a program he has offered successfully in other Reform congregations. It seemed a perfect fit. This is a congregation that embraces the arts, but most of our artistic program is built around the performing arts. I felt that this was an opportunity to showcase the visual arts. Because he can speak about art as an expert and a teacher, it’s a perfect way to bring in different modes of learning.”

Rabbi Sirbu said that over the course of the visit, the synagogue will involve “kids of all ages, including teens, so they will bring different levels of academic development to the table.” Their parents will be invited as well, Rabbi Sirbu added, and he plans to join the Thursday evening session, since he “likes sketching.”

As for the Friday night service, “The Torah paints a picture,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “That’s why it’s advantageous to bring an artist in, to look at the Torah through a different, more visual lens.”

Artist in Residence information

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