Holiness by design

Holiness by design

Meet the man who put Golda in the sukkah

Dov Abramson poses in his Jerusalem studio in front of the ushpizot posters his team created. (Maoz Vaystooch.)
Dov Abramson poses in his Jerusalem studio in front of the ushpizot posters his team created. (Maoz Vaystooch.)

In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense that it would be Dov Abramson who bears responsibility for hanging a stylized portrait of Golda Meir in sukkahs throughout Jerusalem and beyond.

Like Israel’s fourth prime minister, Mr. Abramson has American roots. Golda moved from Pinsk to Milwaukee with her family when she was 8, then immigrated to Palestine when she was 23. Dov “made involuntary aliyah” when he was 7 1/2, the son of an Orthodox rabbi who went on to direct the World Union of Jewish Students in the southern town of Arad.

And at 40, Mr. Abramson is young enough to be surprised at some of the anger that greeted his choice of Ms. Meir to be the face of his package of posters of Jewish women. Many Israelis of a certain age recall Ms. Meir with the disgust their contemporaries reserve for President Richard Nixon: Some blame her for the disastrous Yom Kippur war in which they served; other recall her disdain toward Sephardic community activists.

“I was a little taken aback by the people who were offended,” Mr. Abramson said.

But most of all, Mr. Abramson has built a career bridging the worlds of contemporary Judaism and graphic design. He is quick to disclaim credit for the idea of ushpizot, female counterparts for the male ushpizin, the ancestral guests that the Zohar has us invite into our sukkot. Ushpizin is the word the Zohar uses for guests. And while the Zohar generally is in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, here it borrowed a phrase from the author’s medieval Spanish neighbors, a cognate of the Latin word that is the root of the English hospice and hospitality. For the Zohar, the supernatural guests are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. For the past generation, though, it has been clear that this guest list is entirely — and uncomfortably — male.

So a couple of years ago, when he saw that people were printing out pictures of women to hang in their sukkot, his thought was: This deserves a professional design job.

“Part of our vision is to take these Jewish things and bring them up to the same level as something that comes out of a design studio,” he said.

“I walked into the studio and said, ‘Next year we’re doing ushpizot.’ Last year we launched it and it was a word-of-mouth hit. We sold 700 sets in three weeks. When it’s something people want and need, things sell themselves.”

The poet Zelda, Prime Minister Golda Meir, and the Bible teacher Nechama Leibowitz are among the 22 women portrayed in the ushpizot poster series.

In figuring out whom to include, the only criterion was akin to the rule for Israeli (and American) postage stamps: No living people.

He balanced the more traditional figures — the matriarchs, and other biblical and talmudic figures, like Yocheved and Bruria — with the contemporary, including poets, singers, and Torah scholars. He tried to balance Ashkenazim and Sefardim. Mostly, he said, “we just had fun.

“It’s very important to give 100 percent of the credit of the art to Elal Lifshitz, the illustrator, and Tal Hovav, the designer,” he said. “They did an amazing job. I just came in and gave them the idea.”

The team came up with 20 women last year and added two more this year. The new guests are Ruth the Moabite and Yonah Wallach, “a very edgy Israeli poet.

“We got a little flack on that,” Mr. Abramson said. “I have no interest in being controversial, we have so much of that here in Israel, but it’s important for me to test the boundaries.”

The broad range and large number — far more than the traditional seven male guests — let people decide for themselves who they want to invite to their sukkot.

Songwrite Naomi Shemer, singer Ofra Haza, and Rebbetzin Kapach, who received the Israel price for her charity work.
Songwrite Naomi Shemer, singer Ofra Haza, and Rebbetzin Kapach, who received the Israel price for her charity work.

“Some people love the traditional ones and put only them in,” he said. “Some ask to see only Nechama Leibowitz,” the modern Orthodox Bible scholar. “The pick-and-choose thing is a nice experience. If they want to give it to their mom and I don’t know, the singer Ofra Haza is too offensive, they could take it out and give seven or twelve that would fit well,” he said.

The posters are about the size of a standard piece of letter paper. They also come as smaller refrigerator magnets. And he’s thinking of making a middle-size one, like a post card, next year. “You want people to hang at least seven, so we didn’t want to make them too big,” he said.

The ushpizot are available as letter-size posters, as refrigerator magnets, and perhaps next year as postcards.
The ushpizot are available as letter-size posters, as refrigerator magnets, and perhaps next year as postcards.

The ushpizot is a side project for the studio, which supports its staff of eight by designing for clients ranging from the Avi Chai Foundation to the Zefat Academic College. Mr. Abramson hasn’t really figured out how to market the ushpizot to America yet. He sells them through a couple of stores in Jerusalem and through a Hebrew-only website ($18 for the prints, $8 for the magnets, but figuring out whether there is shipping to New Jersey and if so how much requires reading Hebrew fine print) but he really encourages visitors to schedule a visit to the studio and pick them up in person.

“Our designers sit eight, ten hours a day in front of their Macs,” he said. “It’s a nice opportunity to meet the public. It’s like an open house.”

His own favorite image is Nechama Leibowitz.

“My dad was a student of hers,” he said. “He took me to her house before my bar mitzvah. I was very impressed with what I saw there.

“A lot of people like the poets,” he added. Besides Ms. Wallach, they include Zelda, Leah Goldberg, Hannah Senesh, and arguably songwriter Naomi Shemer of Jerusalem of Gold fame.

He, however, confesses to being weak when it comes to Israeli poetry. “I was too busy learning Shas and poskim,” he said — the Talmud and books of halachah.

That was during his high school years in yeshiva. As a child, “I was always into drawing,” he said. “I think as a coping mechanism.” But during his adolescence and early adulthood, he put drawing aside. After his army service, though, when he had to figure out what do with his life, he realized he wanted to do something artistic. And he remembered his visits to the annual graphic design exhibits at the Emunah College in Jerusalem, where his mother was librarian.

So he enrolled in the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s four-year program in graphic design. He studied the basics of typography, color, lettering, form, and composition. His drawing, he realized, had suffered from neglect during his yeshiva high school years.

But that didn’t affect his ability to think like a designer.

“I approach design from a place of chochma” — abstract thought — “not of yofi,” — aesthetics, he said. “I don’t have yofi in my DNA. It’s not in my family.

“I love design because it’s problem solving, and I love solving problems. And I’ve been able to hire designers who are strong in the aesthetic department,” he said.

As the child of two Jewish educators who had moved from America to Israel, he was also grappling with his own Jewish identity during his time at Bezalel. But he never connected his passion for Judaism with his passion with art until the very end of his studies. For his thesis project, he redesigned the typography of the traditional Talmud page.

“It sounds much better than it looks,” he said. “The work itself wasn’t brilliant, but the conversation that it sparked was very cool.”

He presented his thesis to a microcosm of Israeli society. There were his Orthodox rabbi father, his mother, his yeshiva friends, his army friends, his art professors — all standing before an art installation about Talmud.

“The very secular Bezalal professors said some very interesting things. David Tartkover, very secular, very Tel Aviv” — imagine an Israeli Milton Glaser with a hard radical edge — said, ‘I love the project, but where’s the holiness? Sometimes we like those things to be further away from us. You made it more accessible to me.’

“I realized there’s so much to do in the conversation about the boundaries of kodesh and chol,” holy and secular.

He realized it was a set of questions that had interested him for a long time. “Why do I have to wear a white shirt on Shabbat? It’s not halachah, it’s not a law. What makes a white shirt more holy than a T-shirt? Can we switch kodesh and chol?

“The Talmud page was about that more than about typography or layout.

“That was my aha moment. There was something there I wanted to dedicate my career to.”

This was around the year 2000. As it happened, just then there was a growing renaissance of Judaism as part of Israeli culture, and Mr. Abramson found clients for his nascent design studio who wanted to have the conversations about Judaism, about the holy and the secular. These clients have included the various Jerusalem institutions of the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as the Sholom Hartman Institute and Bnei Akiva.

His work has kept him busy, and enabled his business to grow. Still he has found time over the years to pursue some  of his own art “as part of my own expression of Jewish identity.”

Ushpizot was one such project.

A piece of another, Line 70, reflecting his love of Jerusalem, opens in Jerusalem’s Tower of David on Friday, September 25, as part of the second Jerusalem Biennale devoted to contemporary Jewish art.

For Line 70, Mr. Abramson divided a map of Jerusalem into 70 equal-sized cells. ( “Dividing Jerusalem is a little tongue in cheek,” he noted.) He visited each and found a striking visual image.

“I took photos of different bits and pieces,” he said. “It could be a manhole cover, a drainpipe, a window. I drew the abstract lines. I gave each of those cells one of the 70 names of Jerusalem from classical Jewish sources. So there’s a faucet that looks like a belly button and I call it ‘navel of the land.’ It’s a study of looking at Jerusalem in a different way.”

From the Line 70 project. At bottom, three stages in the creation of one of the cells, starting with the photograph of an ATM machine on the right.
From the Line 70 project. At bottom, three stages in the creation of one of the cells, starting with the photograph of an ATM machine on the right.

Mr. Abramson married a Jerusalem native — the couple has three girls — and he feels strongly connected to the place.

“Most of my friends in Bezalel hightailed out of Jerusalem before they finished school,” he said. “Tel Aviv is the center. For the subject matter I deal with, for the things that are important to me, Jerusalem is the center. Even though it’s not an easy city to live in from a lot of different perspectives, we’re holding on.

“As a post-denominational Jew, the variety of people in the city is very important to me.”

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