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The High Priest of Handicrafts

More than a century after Boris Schatz—known as ‘Mr. Bezalel’—brought his wares to America, his impact endures on our Seder tables

Jenna Weissman Joselit
March 23, 2021
Matteo Omied/Alamy
Boris Schatz at the entrance of the Bezalel Art School, circa 1920Matteo Omied/Alamy
Matteo Omied/Alamy
Boris Schatz at the entrance of the Bezalel Art School, circa 1920Matteo Omied/Alamy

Right about now, American Jewish households across the country are retrieving a Seder plate from its customary resting place, dusting it off and giving it a quick shine before depositing the ritual object on the dining room table for its annual star turn. My Seder plate, usually under wraps (quite literally), is a modern affair, fashioned out of silver and Lucite. I vividly recall the circumstances by which it came to roost in our home: It was a wedding gift and a rather grand one at that. The object took my breath away when I first unpacked it ages ago and still does.

Perhaps your Seder plate is a more modest bit of business and its provenance shaky, adrift in the mists of time. In the spirit, then, of the Haggadah’s traditional Four Questions, why not add a fifth: How did we come by our Seder plate? Had it been purchased on a trip to Israel or from the “Israeli Corner” of a suburban synagogue’s gift shop? Was it something one of the kids had made in Hebrew school? Perhaps it’s an heirloom passed down through the family over time, maybe even the stuff of a domestic rift—and a good yarn?

If your forebears happened to be in the United States in the years prior to WWI and called New York, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, or Cincinnati their home, chances are they might have purchased a Seder plate or a kiddush cup, a pair of candlesticks, a vase, an ashtray, or a rug whose vegetable dyes “reproduced faithfully the shimmering green of the Palestinian landscape,” after having seen these items on display in 1914 when the Bezalel Exhibition of Jewish Arts and Crafts from Jerusalem came to town.

That year, much of the institution’s output—25 crates’ worth—was taken on a whirlwind tour of the United States, all with an eye toward drumming up support for the venture and its students who, by then, numbered in the hundreds. Under the tireless leadership of “Professor” Boris Schatz, or “Mr. Bezalel,” as he came to be known, the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts betokened the revival of a Jewish aesthetic consciousness, thought to be long dormant, much less downright imitative, ever since the days of the eponymous biblical figure who fashioned the mishkan, or tabernacle, as well as its furnishings.

An ambitious, even quixotic undertaking, the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts was made up of three distinct but interlocking components: a school to train future generations of artists and artisans; a workshop in carpet-weaving, metal work, woodcarving, and lace-making where they could put their skills to good use; and a museum of the “natural products of Palestine, animate and inanimate”—local flora and fauna, archaeological remnants, coins. What bound them together, synergistically, was the institution’s determination to “combine the ancient Hebrew spirit with modern techniques,” and, in the process, to spark the “regeneration” of the Jews both in the Holy Land and throughout the diaspora.

Upon arriving in the New World, the modern-day Bezalel and his “wares” were greeted with great fanfare, their visit an occasion for communal celebration. Wherever they went, American Jews pulled out all the stops, holding dinners and afternoon teas, sponsoring public lectures, and staging press conferences at which the emissary from the Holy Land met with the mayor and other civic heavyweights. American Jews “thronged” the exhibition, too, which, in city after city, was mounted in one of its grand urban spaces: Madison Square Garden in New York, the “magnificent” Union Central Life Building in Cincinnati.

Zionism didn’t enter into it or explain the warm welcome. You do not have to be a fan of the Zionist project to participate in and relish the occasion, the American Israelite pointedly noted in February 1914 when the Bezalel exhibition landed in Chicago. “There is not a single Jew in America or in other lands who does not heartily approve of work of this kind in the Holy Land,” it declared, adding with a flourish (and a couple of mixed metaphors for good measure), “if the Jewish genius can receive a new baptism along these lines, in God’s name, let the good work go on.”

At the center of it all stood Boris Schatz, who held forth exuberantly in a language all his own—a mix of Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian with a smattering of English words—prompting one man within earshot to observe that it was as if this otherworldly visitor from the Ottoman Empire had come up with his own version of Esperanto. What in other circumstances might have distanced audiences only enhanced Schatz’s allure, rendering him as much an exotic specimen as the items on view.

A warm and magnetic personality—“nobody will take him, even at first glance, to be a commonplace individual,” enthused a Mr. Burnett, a newfound acquaintance—Schatz played his part to the hilt, even going so far as to dress in a long white tunic said to be “Oriental.” It didn’t take much for those mesmerized by his presence to liken him to “one of the old Hebrew patriarchs,” or to a “high priest in the service of sacred art,” and to characterize the modest stone building in downtown Jerusalem that housed Bezalel as a “temple of handicrafts.”

And yet, for all the heavy-handed biblical references, which endowed Bezalel products with a pedigree, an imprimatur of authenticity, it wasn’t the past that drew audiences in droves to the exhibition, inspiring them to open their pocketbooks to purchase a hefty brass Seder plate that bore an embossed mark in Hebrew with the words “Bezalel, Jerusalem” on it, or that led the good folks of Cincinnati to pronounce Schatz’s visit “one of the rarest treats in the annals of the history of this city.”

It was the prospect of “sounding a new note,” of transformation and its twin, hopefulness. Bezalel’s offerings promised a fresh start, a way out of thinking exclusively dreary thoughts about the Jews. “In the conception of most of us,” wrote Schatz in a 1908 pamphlet about his big plans, “Jerusalem contained only the Wailing Wall.” The city, and by extension, the Holy Land, was bound up with gloom and doom, with piety and stasis. But with art as its catalyst, change was in the offing, he predicted, noting that “today, Jerusalem invites the young, the vigorous and the hopeful to come not to weep but to live and work.”

Even as Schatz made sure to showcase Jerusalem’s association with modernity, its break with the past, some of his contemporaries preferred to draw a direct line between the biblical Israelites and their modern-day counterparts, as if millennia of history hadn’t intervened. As The New York Times would have it, the goods that emanated from the Jerusalem workshop “bear witness to the fact that the [Hebrew] race has lost nothing since the days of Bezalel.” I don’t know about that. Though well-intentioned, this salute to continuity doesn’t ring true; it strikes me more as wishful thinking than verifiable fact. Besides, it’s a tad too close to essentialism for comfort.

What I do know, and even cherish, is how the history that does bind contemporary American Jews to their biblical ancestors surfaces this time of the year, around the Passover table. Whether we’re aware of where we—and our Seder plate—come from, or have to take a wild guess, let’s be sure to give Jewish history its due, and Boris Schatz a hearty round of applause.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.