Saturday, July 6, 2013

Look to the east, young cutters of paper!

Last week I posted about what I do every summer at URJ Camp Newman – teaching kids to cut paper. This post concerns these fine young campers' first projects: mizrach plaques.

Mizrach (מזרח) means "east" — the direction that Jews outside of Israel traditionally face during prayer, and a mizrach is an ornamental wall plaque used to indicate the direction of prayer.

Each day at camp has a special theme, and the theme on the day we began our mizrachs was "chaverut" (friendship) — so in the spirit of friendship we started off with some group brainstorming, making a list of themes and ideas for a mizrach, such as the rising sun, Israel, a compass, Jerusalem, and so on.

Each camper was allowed to interpret the idea of a mizrach however they wanted, but they all started with the same pool of ideas. That's what made the project so fascinating: seeing how they all started with the same source material, and how their interpretations created so many variations.

The campers used cut-up colored papers and comic books to back their pieces, just as I do in my studio. Where did I get so many comics? So many that I could let the campers cut them all up and experiment?


From my friendly neighborhood comics shop, Brave New World Comics — so a big thank-you goes out to Portlyn and the rest of the crew there!

The campers made some incredible art – and art with a purpose. As with so much Jewish artistic expression, there is a second purpose (if we can call art for art's sake a purpose, which I guess is sort of oxymoronic): it serves a function.


In this case, the mizrach identifies a direction for prayer... but think about the beautiful menorahs we light at Hanukkah, and the care we take to select aromatic and attractive etrogs for Sukkot, or the fancy seder plates for Pesach...

Why do we go through all this work just to fancy up things we use so infrequently? Wouldn't a plain set of candles do the same job as fancy silver candlesticks? Yes... and no.


We do this because we are commanded to beautify our celebrations and rituals (and the objects we use in them). It's called "hiddur mitzvah" – the commandment to make our observance of mitzvot beautiful.

It was a pleasure to share with these campers not just the joy of making art, but to do so with a Jewish focus.


To share with them the pleasure of cutting paper and engaging with our culture and history — of being part of a tradition of Jewish artisans that extends back to Bezalel, in the desert, building the tabernacle.

My next post will feature photos of the campers' second project: paper midrash. In the meantime, enjoy their mizrachs.

And if you want any more information on these workshops, just ask!

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