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Confessional Notes

An Israeli designer crafts an unorthodox ritual object for Yom Kippur

Len Small
September 17, 2010

Over the last few months, Tablet Magazine’s art department has been investigating new trends in Judaica, inviting artists and designers to share their work with us. We’re not quite ready to reveal our findings just yet, but there’s one piece that struck our fancy and seemed particularly well-suited to the season: a xylophone bearing the words of the central Yom Kippur prayer Ashamnu. The piece, which takes its name from the Hebrew word for confession, is called Vidduy: The Musical and was created by Dov Abramson, a 35-year-old American-born, Israel-raised graphic designer.

“Being primarily a conceptual instrument, Vidduy: The Musical is not tuned to a standard key but does play tonal music when struck,” Abramson wrote in an email. “This is aligned with the concept of a ‘free-form’ confession, and holds a vague reference to the famous Hasidic tale of the boy who brings his flute to synagogue (even though it is prohibited to play, or even carry, a musical instrument on the holiday)—and the Rabbi says that this child’s flute sounds reached higher in the heavens than all of the other congregants’ ‘standard’ prayers.”

On a purely visual level, Vidduy appears austere and unadorned when compared with much of what’s offered in today’s Judaica shops. “The vast majority of people still equate Jewish visuals with a very limited spectrum of design, form, color, and type,” Abramson wrote. “That’s why I take so much pleasure in seeing the amazement in a person’s eyes when they see a Torah pointer in the form of a screwdriver, or a Kiddush cup that doesn’t look like ‘what a Kiddush cup is supposed to look like’; and even though I consider myself an old-school kind of guy, and my work stems and feeds off of these ancient traditions, I take much pride in being one of those designers who are exploring the boundaries of Jewish visuals and design.”

Indeed, in exploring Abramson’s broader body of work, it becomes clear that his inspiration comes from boundaries—both respecting and pushing them. Whether describing a mitzvah through instructions printed on a can or spontaneously organizing a minyan, rules are put to the test and presented in the context of everyday life. “Coming from an Orthodox background and studying in yeshiva for many years, I found Jewish knowledge to be expansive and vast—almost to a point where it is incomprehensible. I think that’s why I find comfort in lists, structures, and boundaries. I myself noticed only inadvertently that my work seeks a given structure (i.e., the 613 mitzvot, the 22 letters of the alphabet in the Vidduy piece, the 10 people for a minyan etc.). I also find the tension between abstract theological ideas and limited, non-flexible boundaries to be fascinating and thought-provoking.”

Len Small is Tablet Magazine’s art director.