From its founding in 1906 the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts forged a national style and pioneered modernist design in Jewish ceremonial art.
The Bezalel School
Established in Jerusalem by Boris Schatz in 1906, the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts had among its goals to “develop visual expressions towards national and spiritual independence.” Schatz was born in Lithuania and had academic training as a painter and sculptor in Paris before meeting Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, in 1903. He sought to “create a synthesis between European artistic traditions and Jewish design traditions of the East and West and to integrate these with the local cultures of the Land of Israel.”
This lamp with art nouveau ornamentation includes the inscription, “These lights are holy.” In 1908 the School moved to new buildings allowing it to expand its activities. It included a museum as well as affiliated workshops in filigree, Damascene work, enamel, ceramics, sculpture, sign painting and other fine arts and craft practices.
Reminiscent of Islamic architecture, the eight arches on the backplate of this lamp echo the number of candle holders. The lamp, which also has features of European art nouveau, was designed by the Sharar Cooperative, one of the workshops operated in association with Bezalel.
Ze’ev Raban (1890-1970), born Wolf Rawicki in Łódź, Poland, designed the lamp pictured below. Raban trained at the School of Applied Art in Munich as well as in Paris and Brussels and emigrated to Palestine in 1912. Beginning in 1914 his designs could be found on many Bezalel creations.
Bezalel School, Kiddush Cup, Jerusalem, Palestine, 1909-1929, copper alloy; copper; silver, 4 x 3 x 3 in. (10.2 x 7.6 x 7.6 cm). The Ralph and Leuba Baum Collection, B.449.
This cup is an example of Damascene work with inlaid metals in intricately woven patterns. One side features Hebrew script, which is a prominent decorative element of Bezalel objects, with arabesque curves and flourishes.
The backplate of this lamp features Judah Maccabee directing the purification of the Temple following the victory over the Seleucids. The entire piece is framed by a border of interlocking circles in an art nouveau design.
Bezalel School, Bible Cover, Jerusalem, Palestine, 1919, silver: etched, repoussé, granulation and filigree; semiprecious stones, 3 1/4 x 5 1/4 x 1 1/2 in. (8.3 x 13.3 x 3.8 cm). The Ralph and Leuba Baum Collection, B.796.
Both sides of this Bible cover are decorated with acid-etched designs including six-pointed stars and seven-branched menorahs, as well as filigree and semi-precious stones. The stylized lettering Bezalel Jerusalem is etched into a circle contributing to the organic art nouveau character of the overall design. It melds traditional craft with modern design.
Secular Objects at Bezalel
The Bezalel School created secular as well as religious items. These included souvenirs, jewelry, vessels, carpets and other types of objects for personal and domestic use. Whether secular or ceremonial, they were decorated with themes connected to the Land of Israel and featured verses from the Bible. Bezalel artists combined Eastern and Western motifs as well as indigenous materials and craft skills. Included on this lidded box, which could have been used for powder, are the phrases: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” and “If not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14).
The lid includes lines from Psalm 137: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; Let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you.” The spies carrying grapes symbolize abundance and prosperity.
This brass frame is etched with leaves and vines, clusters of grapes and peacocks, as well as Bezalel and Jerusalem in stylized Hebrew characters.
This Damascene-work plate features a five-branched menorah and inscriptions of biblical verses in delicately inlaid silver. At the bottom center of the inner circle, Bezalel is written in stylized Hebrew characters.
Bezalel’s silver department, founded in 1908, offered a leading role to the Jerusalem Yemenite community, which had a long tradition in this craft in the southern Arabian peninsula.
This ring and brooch set were acquired in Jerusalem probably in the mid-1920s by a young American woman on a visit to Palestine.
Financial difficulties caused the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts to close in 1929. When it reopened in 1935 as the New Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, its focus shifted to a modernist aesthetic, such as that represented by Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert (1900-1981). Wolpert was a silversmith who had trained at a school of arts and crafts in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. He taught at Bezalel after immigrating to Jerusalem in 1933 and radically transformed its style, infusing it with the pared down streamlined functionality of modernist design exemplified by the Bauhaus, the influential German school of architecture and design founded in 1919 and forced to close in 1933.
This lamp was designed in 1939 and manufactured in the 1970s, many years after Wolpert moved to New York to lead the Tobe Pascher Workshop at the Jewish Museum in 1956. The Hebrew calligraphy at the top of the lamp is integrated into the overall design. The phrase, “It is fitting to praise you,” is from “Rock of Ages” (Ma’oz Tzur), a liturgical poem sung on Hanukkah.
This lamp was designed by Wolpert in Israel. Melding art and science, its glass oil containers come from the science laboratory of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The Hebrew phrase “It is desirable to praise you” is integral to the design of this lamp expressing the sacred and spiritual power of the Hebrew alphabet.
Free of unnecessary ornamentation, this modern lamp is pared down to essentials, with curving branches that interlace and form legs that, along with the center candle holder, the shamash, give it stability.
During Sukkot, a fall agricultural festival, observant Jews recite blessings over the “four species” (palm branch, myrtle branch, willow branch and citron, or etrog). This etrog container is inscribed: “fruit of the citrus tree.”
Wolpert’s daughter, Chava Wolpert Richard (1933-2015), studied at the Bezalel Academy beginning in 1954 and came to the United States after her father. She worked with him at the Tobe Pascher Workshop at the Jewish Museum in New York until he died in 1981.
Wolpert Richard designed this memorial light after the death of her husband. It is hand painted and lettered with the phrase, “The lamp of the Lord is the spirit of man.”
Contemporary Jewish ceremonial art up to today is marked by the innovative modernist design aesthetic that was transmitted from the Bauhaus to Bezalel and beyond to the United States by the Wolperts, their students and the teachers that succeeded them.
This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
All works from the collection of Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection.
Benjamin, Chaya. Early Israeli Arts and Crafts: Bezalel Treasures from the Alan B. Slifka Collection in the Israel Museum. Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 2008.
Braunstein, Susan. Five Centuries of Hanukkah Lamps from the Jewish Museum. A Catalogue Raisonné. New York: The Jewish Museum and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
The Jewish Museum. “Chava Wolpert Richard, 1933-2015.” https://stories.thejewishmuseum.org/chava-wolpert-richard-1933-2015-bff2035da9af