Monday, September 5, 2011

Plastic Judaica

Plastic Judaica
by Samuel D. Gruber

Plastic (phenol formaldehyde) memorial (yahrzeit) lights, replacing candles, in the collection of the Amsterdam Bakelite Collection. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2011.

As some of you know, for the past year I've been curator of the Plastics Collection at Syracuse University, and while have not given up my research and activism vis-a-vis Jewish art and architecture, I have launched into to a new work area. Usually, I just split my interests - plastics by day, and teaching "Art and Architecture of the Synagogue" at night. But occasionally I can bring these two seemingly disparate disciplines together.

One such occasion came last July, when I was in Cologne, Germany, to comment on the ongoing archaeological excavations of the medieval synagogue and Judengasse. I took the opportunity to visit the Amsterdam, and the Amsterdam Bakelite Collection of Reindert Groot, to discuss possibilities of collaboration. Besides showing me hundreds of notable plastic objects - mostly from the 1920s-1940s, Reindert knew I would want to see the above pictured plastic yahrzeit "candles." Today we are used to seeing plastic lights, including memorial lamps and Hanukah menorahs, but these are very early examples.

For the most part, despite its popularity for novelty items and souvenirs, plastic has been slow to find a foothold for religious use. In Judaism, to the best of my knowledge, plastic has not been used in synagogue ritual objects, especially those in association with the Torah. The concept of Hiddur Mitzvah (embellish the commandment) encourages the decoration of the Torah with fine art of precious materials and unique design and artistry, and cheap mass produced plastics simply do not fit the bill. But there are still plenty of plastic mezuzot on the market, and I would not be surprised to find some plastics - especially hard and bright acrylics - used in some contemporary Ark designs somewhere.

In 500 Judaica: Innovative Contemporary Ritual Art (Sterling Publishng, 2010) and I see that only two featured works include plastic - and these are textile works than include polyester fibers.

Plastics are widely used for celebratory purpose, such as Purim graggers and Hanukah dreidls, and I recently saw a youtube video advertising a plastic "shofar."

For Christians, especially Catholics, there are plastic rosary beads and crosses, and beginning in 1935 General Plastics,Inc. manufactured a plastic portable "sick call " kit so priests could easily carry candle bases, a holy water bottle and a crucifix when visiting the sick, and these and similar products were more widely used during World War II. That war was also the first time to my knowledge that plastic crosses were mass produced so that every solider who wanted could have one. Was there any sort of Jewish equivalent?

I'd love to hear about more plastics in Jewish and other religious contexts. Send me information, pictures, or even consider donating the objects to the Plastics Collection at Syracuse University.

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