Where you might see an old drawer pull, Elon Rov and Rebecca Marcyes see the beginnings of a menorah. A rusty spring? It could be painted over and turned into a mezuzah. A pair that met through the Urban Adamah fellowship in Berkeley, California, they have begun Shmutz and Bolts (shmutzandbolts.com), making Judaica from stuff usually relegated to the junk drawer.
Marcyes, 28, is originally from Ridgewood, New Jersey. Growing up, somehow she picked up the sentiment that “you shouldn’t do art unless you’re really good at it and it’s going to be in a museum, otherwise leave it to the experts.”
Though she’s also a musician, moving to Berkeley — and specifically into a cooperative household — she realized that one could create art just for the sake of doing it, “or maybe not even because you liked it,” she said, “but because it could be therapeutic or calming.”
In addition, she always loved scavenging in second-hand stores, and found Berkeley’s Urban Ore, which carries everything from clothing to household appliances and leftovers usually tossed during home remodels, to be “an especially magical place.”
One day while browsing in the hardware section, she found herself musing about “industry and technology and what we’re phasing out of, and I saw this spring. I don’t know why, but I thought, ‘This could be a mezuzah,’ and that was the beginning of it.”
Marcyes first came to Berkeley in September 2011 as an Urban Adamah fellow. After the program, she returned home, ready to get serious about finding a job. But she heard about an opening to be program manager of the Jewish farm’s fellowship. She stayed there for 2 1/2 years, and during that time had close contact with the newer classes of fellows.
One day, she showed fellow Elon Rov what she was up to. Independently, he had been working on menorahs, also from reclaimed materials. “He had created these super-cool menorahs, including one that’s made from part of a garden shovel that has a line of little nuts that are the candle holders, which he gave to Adam [Berman, founder of Urban Adamah] as a gift,” Marcyes said. “His ability to experiment and see the potential in materials was immediately evident.”
Recognizing kindred spirits who appreciate the beauty in old junk, they decided to make it official and launched a website earlier this year.
Originally from Irvine, Rov, 22, graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 2014, and did the Urban Adamah fellowship that fall. He is now working at the Natan Fund in New York and is part of a group of friends he met through Habonim Dror summer camp setting up a socialist commune in Brooklyn.
“Art had always been my hobby, and in hindsight, maybe I should have taken it more seriously,” he said. “My free time was often spent drawing and painting, but the sculptural element of this was completely new to me.”
Rov said he often doesn’t know what the finished object will be until he’s making it. “We pick up things we’re attracted to, that have a lot of history, things we don’t understand what they’re used for, or can’t recognize them as anything in particular,” he said. “We’re attracted to things that look shmutzy and that have a story to tell. We put things together that attract each other, and let the materials speak for themselves. We layer pieces that have interesting color and texture contrasts.”
Among the more recognizable items they use: bolts, keys, nails.
Ultimately, he said, “If I can create a mezuzah that I want to put on the door to my room, that’s how we know we’ve made something cool.”
While they began selling by word of mouth, they soon got Berkeley’s Afikomen Judaica to carry a few items and San Francisco’s Dayenu soon followed suit. Urban Adamah has also bought pieces.
They are concentrating on menorahs, mezuzot, and hamsas, as they got some good advice from Chaim Maghal, owner of Afikomen, which amounted to: There are certain areas where people will branch out and go the funky route, and others where the traditional look reminds you of your grandmother — in a good way.
“Our reclaimed hardware bolt candlesticks were maybe a miss,” Marcyes said, so they stopped making them.
Since they’re not living close by one another, Marcyes has most of the inventory and keeps up the website, while Rov does most of the sculpting. “We’re taking it day by day and order by order, now that we’re on separate sides of the country,” said Marcyes. “We decided early on that we have a variety of interests and this is one among them. We want this to feel like a fun, inspiring project and not a source of major stress in our lives, so for that reason, we’ll stay pretty small and just make pieces as needed or as we feel inspired.”
Both Marcyes and Rov say this practice has them thinking a lot about waste, and Jewish ritual, in interesting ways.
Speaking of the drawers of objects at Urban Ore that might otherwise be thrown away, Marcyes asked, “Who’s coming for these things? Maybe nobody. I definitely think there has to be Jewish anxieties we’ve inherited about being left behind or scarcity.”
Said Rov, “A lot of people experience Jewish ritual as not exciting, or boring or alienating. You wouldn’t kiss your mezuzah because you learned you had to, or because your grandma is watching, or whatever, but there’s a lot of beauty to be found in putting Jewish ritual literally at the forefront of your experience in your home. We wanted to make something so beautiful that you would want to kiss it.”
Reprinted by permission from J. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.