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Symbolism Meets Modern Life
Symbolism Meets Modern Life
For all of us at Spertus Institute, it's a pleasure to see Chicago architect and designer Amy Reichert profiled in The New York Times! We'll be showing her work beginning October 5 in a small one-woman exhibit
titled Amy Reichert: Reinvented Judaica.
By Eve M. Kahn for The New York Times
Amy Reichert, an architect and exhibitions designer in Chicago, devotes part of her time to creating custom-made limited-edition Judaica, a challenge that requires adapting ancient synagogue fittings to modern clients’ needs, and then explaining them to craft artists who may never have attended a Seder. She has turned floating brass flowers into menorahs, has decorated silver Sabbath goblets with pearls and has had elm Seder plates carved to resemble desert dunes.
In an interview from her home in Evanston, Ill., Ms. Reichert, 54, talked about how she balances scholarship with experimentation and playfulness. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q. What kind of Judaica were you surrounded by when you were growing up?
A. I grew up in Parsippany, N.J., one of those suburbs that had been farmland and then was developed in the ‘60s, so that it didn’t even have old trees. The Conservative synagogue we went to a few times a year, a lonely little building, didn’t even have pretensions to being an interesting design. If anything, it was a kind of reverse inspiration for my career. My father was a doctor, a tinkerer with a very artistic side, and my mother was from Hungary; her family had fled before World War II on one of the last boats out of Genoa. There weren’t a lot of heirlooms around, but we did have a 1950s dark green glazed menorah from Israel that I’m fond of.
So how did you start designing Judaica?
My husband, Sam Fleischacker, is a philosophy professor. We’re part of a Modern Orthodox community, and when we were living in Scotland in the mid-1990s I submitted a Seder plate design to the Spertus Institute competition. It ended up winning second prize, but I’d started working on it figuring, worse comes to worst, we’ll have a really beautiful Seder plate for the rest of our lives.
I started learning then about all the layers of symbolism and materials, the commentaries and interpretations of legal documents, that can go into a piece of Judaica. I realized that this is a really rich program for a designer. It’s endlessly fascinating to excavate how the words can be translated to determine what something should look like and feel like.
The Torah is very specific about materials and measurements, right?
Down to the cubits and handbreadths, the lists of bronze, brass, silver and acacia wood, where openings should be, how far off the ground a wall should be. That’s really thinking like an architect. And for generations, people have had this fascination for trying to draw based on those specs, and of course, every time there’s the taste of their own era. Everyone imagines their own aesthetic back into the documents.
How do craftspeople react when you explain what you’re after?
I sort of coax them into this new arena, and they’re really intrigued, even if they’ve never seen a Seder plate and can’t understand why there’d be a platter with a shank bone and a little parsley on it. I make models in clay and paper and metal, and then there’s a wonderful back-and-forth of collaboration.
What’s your next project?
An eternal light for an Orthodox synagogue in Newton, Mass. We’re still playing around with the design, deciding how closely to follow texts that talk about pillars of fire and clouds, how much poetic license to take. It will probably be brass and bronze and silver, but exactly how the materials will come together, and is it mesh or is it perforated, we don’t know yet.
I do a lot of little thumbnail studies, models out of scraps, paper, metal, clay, Popsicle sticks. It’s really hands-on, and it’s so different from architecture, where you don’t see anything full-size until it’s under construction.