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Forage the Earth and Make It Beautiful

Day Schildkret, a former Jewish day school director, creates ‘morning altars’ that inspire connection with nature

Rebecca Spence
March 14, 2017

Nearly every morning, artist Day Schildkret greets the dawn by collecting natural materials in a wicker basket—think acorns, leaves, and flower petals—and building a symmetrical altar from his foraged items.

A former Jewish day school director, Schildkret has been creating earth-based altars in one form or another since the age of 5. The ritual became a daily practice in 2012, after a break-up with his partner led Schildkret to take long walks in Wildcat Canyon, where he lives in the hills above San Francisco’s East Bay, and create his sacred offerings as a way to metabolize his grief. “It’s kind of my shacharit,” said Schildkret, 38, referring to Judaism’s daily morning prayer.

Part earth art and part Shamanic ritual, these “morning altars,” as Schildkret dubbed them, have caught on with his nearly 30,000 Instagram followers. Since he first began posting his mandala-like creations on social media, fans from Costa Rica to Australia have e-mailed pictures of their own Morning Altars to the award-winning Jewish educator.

While not every morning altar builder is a member of the tribe, Schildkret, who grew up “Conservadox” and majored in Judaic Studies at Binghamton University, is on a mission to reintroduce the ancient, pre-rabbinic practice of building an altar—or, mizbeach in Hebrew—as a contemporary form of Jewish prayer. “What I’m trying to do Jewishly is to create a renaissance in our people, to say this is part of our roots too,” he said. “It’s an older way to pray and connect with the place we live. It’s not disconnected, it’s part of our cultural heritage and our birthright.”

Schildkret’s deep connection to nature dates back to his childhood in Dix Hills, Long Island. After rainstorms, he would run outside to save displaced earthworms and, in the process, he’d decorate their holes with sticks and flowers. That relationship to nature is what inspired him to build altars from earth-based materials. “I don’t want to just make art from man-made things,” said Schildkret. “I want to connect with life.”

Most recently Schildkret, who last winter taught a Morning Altars workshop at a Portland, Oregon, cemetery and tours with the Wanderlust festival, teamed up with Indie Jewish band-cum-art project Darshan to star in the music video for their newest single, “Remember the Future.” A mash-up of a fifth century Jewish mystical poem and rap lyrics inspired by the poem’s Hebrew words, the song evokes the same ancient meets contemporary ethos as Schildkret’s Morning Altars.

Schildkret first met Darshan’s Shir Yaakov Feit—one third of the musical collaboration that also includes Eden Pearlstein and Basya Schechter—in 2001 on the bus to a Shabbaton sponsored by the Upper West Side synagogue B’nai Jeshurun.

Before long Schildkret and Feit realized that their mothers had attended the same high school in Forest Square, New York. The two went on to study Torah together, but lost touch when Schildkret moved to the West Coast. Fifteen years later, they were serendipitously reconnected through a mutual friend of Pearlstein’s, who had no idea that Schildkret and Pearlstein’s bandmate once knew each other in New York.

“We have a very aligned purpose,” Schildkret said of Darshan. “Which is to remember that which has been lost in our tradition, and to help people remember it.”

Rebecca Spence is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is currently at work on her first novel.

Rebecca Spence is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is currently at work on her first novel.