WHEN Gary Rosenthal began his career as a sculptor in 1974, Shabbat candlesticks and menorahs were usually made of brass, silver or the predictable Israeli blue patina — and strictly functional. Same thing with mezuzzot and seder plates. A Havdalah set? What was that?
And Rosenthal himself was simply a budding sculptor with no particular bent to his work. He created sculptures that reflected hobbies, trophies and awards. His largest account at the time, though, was the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where the artist is based.
In the late 1970s, Rosenthal was showing his work in an art show at a Baltimore JCC when he noticed there wasn’t a single piece of Judaica for sale in the show. A patron liked his whimsical, contemporary use of materials like glass and metal in his sculptures, and asked, “Can you make me a menorah?”
Six months later, Rosenthal returned to the same Baltimore JCC with six menorahs. They were the first six pieces that sold at the show.
Rosenthal’s career was born. So was a new venue for the concept of “hiddur mitzvah” — “beautifying a mitzvah” — that is, glorifying G-d’s commandments by making the objects related to them aesthetically superior.
For the past 35 years, Gary Rosenthal has been almost exclusively a Judaica artist, and for the first 10 years of this span, he was one of the very few artists creating art as Jewish ritual objects.
As Rosenthal found his niche, the retail Judaica business evolved. Until the 1980s, he says, “Jewish people wouldn’t sell Judaica,” with the exception of synagogue gift shops which carried the blue patina objects from Israel.
Private art and gift shop owners were still in the post-Holocaust mentality, fearful that if they displayed a menorah or other Jewish ritual object in their shop window that there would be disastrous repercussions reminiscent of the horrors of Kristallnacht.
Rosenthal started by selling his work at non-Jewish stores in New England.
“Once the Christians started making all this money selling Judaica, the Jews joined in,” he says. Rosenthal’s career sprouted wings and took off.
ROSENTHAL’S work combines form and function.
“My mission back in the ‘80s was to make something with these two things combined,” he recalls. “I wanted people to ask, ‘Is that a piece of art that holds candles, or is it a candlestick that’s beautiful?’”
Since then, Rosenthal’s mission has evolved into a four-pronged approach to his art:
1. His pieces need to be beautiful;
3. reflect the spirit that goes into it (“what goes into it stays in it”); and
4) “I am a Jewish artist. I don’t become a Judaica artist until someone uses it. As soon as someone lights the candles and makes the blessing, I become a Judaica artist.”
Rosenthal affiliates as a Reform Jew. Now 60, he joined a synagogue for Hebrew school and Bar Mitzvahs when he was raising his children, His spiritual connection comes from his art and learning about the mitzvahs he is enabling with his ritual objects.
He also feels that he is performing mitzvahs every time he creates a new piece — mitzvahs with an extended shelf life.
“G-d has this wonderful math . . . He double counts.”
Sometimes He triple counts: The concept of hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the fulfillment of the commandment, is achieved by Rosenthal as the artist. Another mitzvah is performed by the one who asks for the ritual object, and, finally, another one by the one who uses the object.
“There are a lot of mitzvahs that go around. I think about my relationship to G-d every time I make something. Everything I make, I imagine it being used.”
THE concept of hiddur mitzvah is so important to Rosenthal that one of his pet projects is named after it. The Hiddur Mitzvah project helps people, whether they are artists or not, fulfill the mitzvah themselves by becoming Rosenthal’s partner in creating Judaic art.
At organized events, Rosenthal or members of his staff help groups, families and individuals make glass mosaics. Then, these mosaics are taken back to Rosenthal’s Washington, DC-area studio to be fired.
“We send them back the piece of glass that they make as part of a ritual object. The work is theirs, and their spirit stays in the piece forever.”
The Hiddur Mitzvah project is one of ways Rosenthal gives back to the community that has supported him. The events at which attendees become Rosenthal’s partner in producing art may be fundraisers for organizations, visiting artist programs or private, lifecycle celebrations such as Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties, milestone birthdays or anniversaries.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah children and their parents can work together to create their own yad (Torah pointer) for use on their special day.
Rosenthal is now “quietly starting” a Hiddur Mitzvah hospice program in which he donates materials and services to terminally ill patients so they can create, along with their loved ones, a way for their spirits to live on in a unique piece of Judaica.
GARY Rosenthal is an artist and a philanthropist, but also a small businessman. In fact, he studied industrial psychology at Cornell and has an MBA.
“I am not your typical artist. My work is largely a means to an end. I make stuff, stuff that’s important to people, stuff that I make a living with. Once I sell something, I don’t care about it anymore. I want to make the next thing.
“And I like to think my best work is still in me.”
Gary Rosenthal will bring a truck show to the Hillel of Colorado Spring Fling, on Sunday, April 27, 11 a.m., at RedLine in Denver.