Festival Features Hebrew Letters as Art and Elton John/Billy Joel Tribute

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Purple Peace by Mordechai Rosenstein | Artwork provided

A dinosaur makes a great Lamed.

“And the Aleph can be drawn out of baseball bats,” exclaimed Mordechai Rosenstein, a painter who creates his most prolific art based on the Hebrew alphabet.

Rosenstein and his letters take center stage at the Arts, Music & Dance Festival at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia, which began May 17 and runs through May 21. The festival is open to the public, although advance registration is required for some events.

Also headlining the festival is musician Neil Berg, best known as the composer/lyricist of the hit off-Broadway musical, The Prince and the Pauper. He performs his musical tribute to Billy Joel and Elton John, PIANOMEN, on May 21.

Rosenstein heads six events. The festival at Shaare Shamayim, he said, offers an opportunity to interact with the community he values so deeply.

“This is my home,” he said of Philadelphia, where he’s lived since childhood.

Mordechai Rosenstein

It was during his childhood that Rosenstein first grew interested in the Hebrew alphabet.

“We would get the newspaper, the Yiddish newspaper, and I was intrigued by beautiful letters,” he explained. “And when I was older, I saw the siddur also had them.”

On the night of May 18, Rosenstein will share his reverence for the alphabet by hosting a “Pinot & Painting” session, in which he’ll instruct attendees in the creation of art based on the Hebrew alphabet.

Advance registration is required; the event starts at 7 p.m.

Throughout the festival, Rosenstein will guide students through the creation of alphabet art at Shaare Shamayim’s preschool and Hebrew school.

He recalled his own time in Hebrew school, spent painstakingly tracing letters. Now, he thinks, “Let’s have some fun with it. We don’t ask them to sit and make the perfect Aleph for 45 minutes.”

Eschewing the traditional rote method, Rosenstein encourages students to design the Hebrew alphabet using familiar shapes, ranging from flowers to footballs.

“By the end, they never want to stop painting and never look at the letters the same way.”

The engagement with his pupils drives Rosenstein, who noted that “working alone in the studio is a lonely thing.” Instead, he paints in the hallways of schools and synagogues.

“It can get pretty busy, but I love it,” he said. “People stop to talk and ask about the art.”

He will replicate that experience during the festival when, on May 19, he’ll paint for the synagogue in front of an open audience. Observers of the free event may even be allowed to add a brushstroke to the work, which will be painted from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

May 20 events feature traditional services and a lunch-and-learn about the art within Shabbat held by Rosenstein. The lunch-and-learn also requires advance registration.

Neil Berg

On May 21, Berg introduces his traveling concert to Philadelphia at 3:30 p.m.

“I grew up influenced by Elton John and Billy Joel. I idolized Billy Joel,” Berg said. “The show is interesting from the Jewish perspective. Billy Joel’s father was a Holocaust survivor. His lyrics resonate even more in a synagogue.”

Tickets are available in advance or at the door. Select patron tickets require advance registration and include front-row seats and dinner with Rosenstein.

“The show is about storytelling. The songs make up the Great American Songbook,” Berg said.

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