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Setting the seder table with her mother is one of Joy Stember’s cherished childhood memories. Before their Melrose Park home became filled with friends, laughter and prayers, Stember and her mother had their own ritual.
“For place settings, we used my grandmother’s fine china with gold edging, which we only used at Passover and Rosh Hashanah,” Stember says. “Then we put the ceremonial objects on the table. Mom had a round Lenox seder plate with gold writing and a gold edge. The matzah cover was a beautiful, hand-painted piece. The Elijah’s Cup belonged to my father’s grandfather. It is silver, with very straight edges and a small base.
“Mom and I set the table every year, and it was a really special time,” Stember says. “It instilled in me the art of the table, and the art of tradition and making sure that I knew that these objects were important, and why.”
Now, that seder table is set with objects created by Stember herself. She is one of America’s newest, hottest Judaica artists. Since opening her Metal Arts Studio in Abington in 2010, the 28-year old has won national awards and commissions from synagogues across the country. Her pieces are carried in the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia and in the shops of Jewish museums from New York to San Francisco.
Stember’s style is modern and metal. Her seder plate is square and made of pewter with six round, moveable, brass cups. “The wording is hand-pierced brass with hand-engraved letters inlaid into the cups,” Stember says. “I wanted it to be a sculpture in and of itself.”
What is the meaning behind her design? “I wanted the seder plate to take the sadness of Passover and make it beautiful,” she explains. The sadness, she says, is the plight of the Israelites before their freedom. The beauty, she hopes, comes from the mixture of metals and shapes. The jurists of the NICHE Awards, which celebrate excellence and innovation in American and Canadian fine craft, saw that beauty. Stember’s seder plate — and one of her menorahs — were two of the five pieces chosen to be finalists in the 2012 NICHE Awards’ Judaica category.
Stember has other Passover pieces. Her matzah plate is strikingly literal. “I made a mold of a piece of matzah, then cast it in pewter so the plate looks like a piece of metal matzah,” she says. “Once you take the matzah off, it could be a plate for anything. So I thought, let it be unmistakably a matzah plate.”
Her Kiddush cup is unmistakably Stember. Made of bronze and silver, the cup sits on a base with two sets of three angles that, seen from above, form a Star of David.
Cups are a specialty of Steve Resnick, and glass is his medium. From his studio in Silver Springs, Md., Resnick creates stained, etched and carved glass works that have been exhibited at museums across the country and presented to Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Al Gore.
Although he has reached international acclaim as a glass artisan, Resnick got his start as a stone sculptor. “A professor said, ‘Here’s a rock. Take away everything that you don’t want it to be,’ ” Resnick says. “That’s still how I look at my glass etching. Creating each one comes from a ‘Eureka!’ moment when I see what I want the piece to be by figuring out what to take away.”
Many of Resnick’s pieces are hand-blown in Europe by expert craftsmen, then delivered to him for etching. Such is the case with his Elijah’s and Miriam’s cups. “They are made of flint crystal, which is much safer than lead crystal and much more durable,” Resnick says. “It is so hard that, when people visit my studio, I smack a piece of flint crystal against the wall to show that it won’t break.”
Resnick’s cups come in a variety of hues — pink, blue, green or clear — and incorporate imagery and symbols that represent Elijah and Miriam. His seder plates come in round and square shapes and carry several of Resnick’s influences. “The Tree of Life is one of my favorite motifs,” he says. “The Moorish seder plate resulted from a commission I got to make a gift for a defense minister of Spain who was from Córdoba. I looked up Córdoba in the Jewish Encyclopedia and found a synagogue with beautiful latticework in the women’s section. So, I made a paperweight for the defense minister. He loved it and so did I. Even though etching that latticework onto a seder plate is a lot of work, I wanted to create it.”
Clay is the medium through which Howard and Renée Vichinsky interpret Passover’s themes. Their work is on display in museums in the United States, Canada and Israel. At their pottery studio in upstate New York, the husband-and-wife team create seder plates, matzah plates, saltwater bowls, and Elijah and Miriam’s cups. For the Vichniskys, Passover Judaica is largely about evoking connections to where the Israelites went after the exodus: Israel.
“We have a number of different glaze finishes that we hope are evocative of our heritage,” Howard says. “We have an antique patina glaze that evokes an archaeological look of oxidized copper and gives an ancient feeling to the pieces. Although it is contemporary, it perhaps visually hearkens to our tradition. We also have a glaze that looks like Jerusalem stone and connects people, we hope, to Israel. There is also a blue-and-white glaze that is a contemporary reference to modern Israel.”
As for the seder plates, “the main purpose is to fulfill the mitzvah of the seder and show the different foods and symbols, and we use Hebrew writing for instructive purposes, as in ‘this is the food that goes here,’ ” Howard says.
We also use Hebrew because it is beautiful and decorative,” Renée explains. “It is art in and of itself. For example, one of our Elijah’s cups is inscribed only with ‘Eliahu Hanavi’ in Hebrew letters and nothing else. It’s striking just like that.”
Another of the Vichinskys’ most striking pieces is their Splitting Of The Sea seder plate. “It is more sculptural than our other pieces,” Renèe says, “and it tells a story.”
“All of the bowls are shaped like Moses’s basket that he was put in as a baby to float down the river,” Howard says. “Through the splitting sea is a scene of Jerusalem. So our intention was to symbolize that all of these baskets are floating down the sea towards Jerusalem. On the back of that splitting sea that rises to the side are the four expressions of our redemption: ‘I will bring you out, deliver you, redeem you and take you as my people.’
“That’s the story of our people and of Passover,” Howard says. “And it’s all right there on the seder plate.”
Where to Find Works by the Artists
National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia
Bala Judaica, Bala Cynwyd
N.K. Thaine Gallery, Haddonfield
Mah Tov Gallery in the Betty and Milton Katz Jewish Community Center, Cherry Hill
Melissa Jacobs is the senior editor of Inside magazine.