Moss Musings


If you’re new to our newsletter, I’d like to extend a warm welcome. If you’ve been with us from the start, welcome back. We’re so glad you’re enjoying these musings.—David Moss

Warmest Wishes to You for a Joyous Chanukah Filled with Light

I often share with you, my dear friends and loyal community, the goings-on of my life. This Chanukah, I’d like to ask you to share with me a favorite holiday custom your family treasures or a favorite Chanukah memory. Unless you tell us not to, we may share some of these in future newsletters.

As this Chanukah approaches I am extremely grateful to have completed another one of my third-generation Ketubot. This one for my dear grandson, Yair and his bride-to-be Hannah—two incredible  human beings. What a privilege to have been able to create this work for them.

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The Chanukah Menorah from the Tree of Life Shtender

by Noah Greenberg and David Moss

Each of the fourteen ritual objects in this unified work of art is based on a different plant of the Land of Israel. The miracle of Chanukah was that the small container of olive oil lasted for eight days. Here each little brass olive on the carved olive branch is a small olive-oil burning lamp. Though the olives seem to be randomly distributed as they would be in nature, in fact, their wicks all line up perfectly and are evenly spaced as required by Jewish law.

This cool video was made about our shtender:

Also the same museum that did the video did a nice zoom with Noah Greenberg and me about the project you may find interesting.

An Incredible Story

A few months ago a man named George Flesh came into my studio. He remembered that we had been together at Brandeis Bardin Institute in California in the early 80s. I caught him up on my work, which he enjoyed. He especially liked my Love Letters book and ordered one on the spot.

A few weeks later he called me to order five more. I was curious why he wanted so many copies and he said he’d explain when next he visited my studio. When he returned he related a remarkable story of how he intended to use these books as special gifts for the children of the man who had saved his father’s life during the Holocaust. I was moved by the original story and how he was pursuing his meeting in Spain with the children of this hero. He provided me with a text listing the names of all of his family who owed their lives to this one man. I incorporated this into a bookplate I designed for the occasion. I was delighted that I thought of a perfect verse to include on the bookplates.

The Angel Who Rescued Me from all Evil

Genesis 48:16

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You’ll learn why this is so appropriate as you read this well-researched and moving story as George related it in this talk he gave in July at his synagogue, Congregation Beth El-Atereth Israel in Newton. (Incidentally this synagogue was founded by our son-in-law’s grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Koolyk.)

With deep gratitude to George Flesh for agreeing to include his inspiring story in this newsletter…



from George’s talk at Congregation Beth El-Atereth Israel in Newton Centre, Massachusetts: Shabbat, Tammuz 17, Parashat Balak

Budapest 1944:

Laszlo Flesch and the Spanish Consul

My talk today is in loving memory of my father, Yehuda Leib ben Avraham, Laszlo Flesch, alav hashalom, whose Yarzeit is on the 20th of Tammuz, next week.

The story I’m about to tell begins in the early 20th century, but I’m going to start in October, 2021, when I saw an article in the Jerusalem Post about the Centro Sefarad-Israel, an agency of the government of Spain, whose mission is stated as “a cultural and educational bridge between Spain and the Jewish world.” They were seeking survivors and their descendants who were saved from the Nazis by the Spanish Consul in Budapest in 1944. The Consul, Angel Sanz-Briz, and his successor, Giorgio Perlasca, issued thousands of documents to Jews certifying that the recipients were under the protection of the government of Spain.

My mother had told me the story of how my father was saved by the Spanish Consul in Budapest. My father died when I was 19, and he never talked to me about his experiences during the war.

When I saw the Jerusalem  Post article, I wrote to the Centro Sefarad-Israel about our family story and asked them to send me a copy of the actual list, the “listaSanzBriz.” They sent me a  copy of the original list, typed on an ancient typewriter, and on it I found my father’s name, Laszlo Flesch. He was number 441 on the list, complete with his year of birth and town of birth, Szikszo, a small town in the northeast of Hungary near Slovakia. I was in tears when I saw my father’s name, as this was the first confirmation I had of any part of my father’s life during the war.

I informed the Center in Madrid that my father’s name was on the list.  Maria de Miguel and Yessica San Roman wrote back to me: “We are all in tears as you are the first response we have received.” We then had a zoom call and several emails about my father and our family history. I asked if they could arrange for me to meet the five children of Angel Sanz-Briz in Madrid.

But before continuing this story, I would like to skip back to the early 20th century. My father was born in 1911 in Szikszo, Hungary. Angel Sanz-Briz, the Spanish Consul, was born a few months earlier in 1910 in Zaragoza, Spain. His successor, Giorgio Perlasca, was born in 1910 in Como, Italy. In Budapest in 1944, all three were nearly the same age, 33 or 34. How their fates came together, I will try to explain.

First a little background about the history of Jews in Hungary. After the Ottoman Turk occupation of Hungary from 1541 to 1699, a 158 years which depopulated and destroyed most of the country, Jews began to migrate into Hungary in the 18th and 19th centuries from Poland, the Ukraine, Eastern Europe. In 1867 Jews gained full civil rights in Hungary under the rule of the Emperor Franz-Josef. In the half century from 1867 to the first World War, Jews enjoyed a flourishing renaissance of achievements in the economy, banking, law, medicine, academia, engineering and architecture, especially in Budapest. By the onset of World War I, Jews occupied roughly 40 percent of the positions in the universities while they were only six percent of the population.

After World War I, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territories and population in the Treaty of Trianon at Versailles, and, you will not be surprised, a large part of the population blamed the loss on the Jews. To make matters worse, there was a catastrophic Communist revolt in 1919 which was led by a Jew named Bela Kun. When this regime fell after a few months, the new government, led by an Admiral Horthy, supported Jew hatred and encouraged pogroms against the Jews, the White Terror of 1920-21.

In 1920, the Hungarian parliament had the honor of enacting the first anti-Jewish law of 20th century Europe, the Numerus Clausus, the closed number in Latin. The law limited each ethnic or religious group in university admissions to its own percentage of the population. This reduced the chance of a Jewish student to be admitted to law school or medical school by about 90 percent. For my father, the possibility of fulfilling his dream of medical school was out of reach, so he became a businessman selling commodities and buying real estate.

In the 1930s, the Hungarian government enacted a series of laws similar to the early anti-Jewish laws of Germany. Starting in 1938, Jewish men of military age, including my father, were taken into forced slave labor groups attached to the Hungarian army. Many of these men died of random physical abuse and killings. For example, on the eastern front they were forced to walk through minefields to set off the explosives.

Sometime in 1943 or 1944 my father escaped from his slave labor group and made his way to Budapest. Probably he thought he had a better chance of survival in a big city with a large Jewish population. Jews were 23% of the population of Budapest before the war.

In March 1944 Germany invaded Hungary for two reasons. Russian forces were approaching Hungary and the Germans wanted to stop their advance before they reached Germany. The second reason is that Hitler was angry with the Hungarian government which, although strongly anti-Jewish, was not willing to deport Jews to extermination camps. As soon as the Germans entered Hungary, they installed their own pro-Nazi Hungarian government, and the Hungarian Jewish Holocaust began. Nearly a half-million of Hungary’s 600,000 Jews were murdered.

Before we talk about the Spanish Consulate, I will tell you about one incident in 1944. My father was picked up on the street by one of the numerous Hungarian Nazi gangs marauding through Budapest killing Jews. He was taken to the banks of the Danube along with dozens of other Jews and forced to strip. Before the killers could get to his point in the line, he jumped into the river, evading bullets, and made it to the other side. With no other choice, he went to the first building. The residents immediately understood why this naked man was at their door. They gave him clothing and told him to go away.

Now, what happened in the Spanish Consulate in Budapest in 1944? A career diplomat named Angel Sanz-Briz became the Spanish Consul in June 1944. Because of reports from Sanz-Briz and the previous Spanish Consul about atrocities and deportations, as well as diplomatic pressure from the US government, Sanz-Briz received permission from Spain to issue 200 passports to protect Jewish Spanish nationals [not other Jews]. He then changed this to 200 families, mainly people who had minimal or no connection to Spain. But then on his own initiative he continued to print additional “letters of protection” on the pretext that these people were about to emigrate to Spain [although Spain would not allow any Hungarian Jews to enter Spain]. Eventually 5200 documents were printed and circulated.

The Hungarian Nazi authorities reluctantly agreed to respect these documents. [Why this happened is a long and complex story]. Why did the Franco government not interfere with the activities of Sanz-Briz? Franco understood that Germany would lose the war and saving Jews might help his relations with the victorious Allies.

My father somehow obtained one of these protection documents, I wish I knew how. Sanz-Briz also rented several apartment buildings, partly with his own money, to house the protected Jews, and flew the Spanish flag with signs in front of these houses to show they were part of the Spanish legation. He arranged for food provisions to reach the safe houses.

At one point my father was picked up on the street by the German SS. My father pulled out his Spanish documents and threatened the SS that they would be in big trouble with the Spanish Consul if they took him away. My father was a very confident and forceful man. He insisted that they call the Spanish consulate, which they actually did. The Spanish Consul came in a car and took my father away.

Why did the SS officers let my father go? I can only speculate that the Germans were aware of Spain’s friendly relations with Germany, and they also knew that the Russians were coming soon, and they no longer felt invulnerable. So thanks to the intervention of the Spanish consul, my father ended up in one of the Spanish safe houses instead of on a train to Auschwitz or shot to death on the street.

At the end of November 1944, the government of Spain, anticipating the imminent arrival of Russian troops in Budapest, ordered Angel Sanz-Briz to leave the country and reassigned him to Switzerland. They feared that since Spain was a friend of Nazi Germany, the Russians might murder any Spanish officials or take them prisoner.  Sanz-Briz left Budapest on December 1, 1944.

In 1963 Angel Sanz-Briz was named as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. But the Spanish government would not allow him to go to Jerusalem to accept the honor because they were afraid of negative reactions from Arab countries. After Franco was gone, in 1991 Yad Vashem was finally able to award the recognition to the children of Sanz-Briz.

Now comes the incredible story of Giorgio Perlasca, who became the Spanish Consul after Sanz-Briz left.

Who was Giorgio Perlasca? He was originally an Italian Fascist and supporter of Mussolini. He joined the Italian forces assisting Franco during the Spanish Civil War. As a reward for his fighting in the Civil War, the Franco government gave him a letter of appreciation which stated that if he ever needed assistance anywhere in the world, he could go to the Spanish Consul.

Perlasca became disillusioned with fascism. After the Mussolini regime fell in 1943 and the Italian army was disbanded, Italy was no longer an ally of Germany. Thousands of Italian soldiers on the Eastern front were arrested by the Germans and deported to Germany for slave labor. At that time Perlasca was working for an Italian company in Hungary purchasing meat and cattle for export. When the Germans invaded Hungary in March 1944, the Italians in Hungary were in trouble. After several months of evading the Germans and time in a Hungarian internment camp, in October 1944 Perlasca went to the Spanish Consulate for protection.

Sanz-Briz and Perlasca became friends. Sanz-Briz enlisted Perlasca to help out with the effort to protect the Jews. Perlasca saw Jews insulted, beaten and killed. He saw a 10-year-old boy shot to death on the street. When he asked the killer why, he was told “he was a Jew.” He was enraged by what he saw.

When Sanz-Briz left Budapest on December 1, he told Perlasca he would be in danger, and he advised Perlasca to leave with him. But a crowd of Jews at one of the safe houses begged Perlasca to stay, and he promised he would not leave. When asked after the war why he stayed, Perlasca said “after I swore to stay, I could not do anything else.”

Perlasca, without the knowledge of the Spanish government, then named himself the official representative of Spain. Perlasca printed official documents at the Consulate to show to the Hungarians confirming his appointment, and the Hungarian foreign ministry accepted him as the new Spanish Consul. He told the Hungarians that Sanz-Briz’s absence was only temporary, and meanwhile Perlasca was taking his place. Perlasca continued to print thousands more Spanish protection documents for Jews.

Perlasca was a tall and imposing figure who spoke excellent German. He confronted Hungarian Nazi gangs attempting to attack Spanish safe houses. He went to police headquarters to rescue prisoners and protest assaults. He brought food to the safe houses. He bribed Hungarian authorities. He went to the train station to pull Jews off deportation trains. In his memoir he tells the story of taking two children off a deportation train. He was confronted by an SS officer and started arguing that the children were under the protection of Spain. The junior officer called his senior officer to decide what to do. The senior officer said, “Let them go. Their time will come.” The senior officer was Adolf Eichmann.

After the war, Perlasca never spoke about what he did in Budapest. But more than three decades after the war a group of survivors from the Spanish safe houses located him in Padua, Italy and provided documents and testimonies to Yad Vashem. In 1982 Perlasca came to Jerusalem to be honored as a Righteous Among the Nations. My next project is to locate the children of Perlasca so I can express my gratitude for their father’s actions.

Now we will fast forward to May, 2022. The Centro Sefarad-Israel arranged for me to meet two of the five children of Angel Sanz-Briz in Madrid. That morning I gave a talk to a big group of high school students about the Shoah and my family’s history. Then Holly and I went to a very emotional and moving meeting with Pilar and Angela Sanz-Briz at a beautiful patio overlooking the royal palace in Madrid. Both of these sisters give talks about their father and the Shoah to schools all over Spain. We felt like we were long lost cousins.

I presented each of them with a book, Love Letters, a collection of the ketubot designed by the American-Israeli artist David Moss. So why a book of ketubot? Holly and I met David Moss 40 years ago, the same summer we met each other, at Brandeis-Bardin Camp. He was the artist in residence, working on his Haggadah which became one of the most celebrated ones produced in the 20th century. So when I walked into his studio in Jerusalem last January and saw his beautiful book of Love Letters, I knew this would be the perfect gift for the children of Sanz-Briz.

As I read the inscription and we then looked through the beautiful illustrations, we could not stop the tears. Pilar invited us to return to Madrid soon so she could have all five siblings and all her grandchildren celebrate together with us. Two weeks later we had another moving and emotional meeting with the oldest sister, Adela, in Puerto Santa Maria on the Atlantic coast of Spain, with her daughter, also named Adela, and a granddaughter Violetta. A week later we had a lovely evening with the younger Adela and her husband at their historic home in the heart of Seville.

Bookplate Inscription:

To Adela, Paloma, Pilar, Angela and Juan Carlos Sanz-Briz Quijano

With deepest gratitude for the heroism of your father, Angel Sanz-Briz.
Our family is living because of his righteous actions.
We will always remember.

We feel our families are bound together by a spiritual bond of love,
As illustrated in this book of Love Letters
Ketubot, traditional marriage contracts,
Created by the Israeli artist David Moss.

From the family of Laszlo and Hedy Flesch with affection and appreciation

Children: George Flesh [and Holly, his wife]
Grandchildren: Joseph, Jacob, Hanna [and Yotam, her husband], Sara
Great-grandchildren: Hadar and Noam

Children: Nancy Flesh Brundige [and William, her husband]
Grandchildren: David and Emily [and Aaron, her husband]
Great-granddaughter: Hedy

Children: Lucy Arlene Flesch [and Scott Fields, her husband] Children:  Simon and Benjamin

El Angel que me ha rescatado do todo mal
The Angel who rescues me from all evil

Bereishit [Genesis] 48:16
Parasha Va’yechi

To The Next Generation

After his meeting with the daughters, George wrote to me with the following account:

Dear David,

Your beautiful book of Love Letters was the perfect gift and introduction to the children of Sanz-Briz.

My meetings with the Sanz-Briz family were among the most memorable days of my life. After a morning where I gave a talk on the Shoah to a large group of high school students and then a video interview about my family’s history, we went to meet two of the daughters of Angel Sanz-Briz for lunch. This was a wonderful, emotional experience I will never forget. We sat on an outside patio overlooking a formal garden and Spain’s Royal Palace in the heart of Madrid.

Pilar is exactly my age [75], her sister Angela perhaps six years younger. Both speak excellent English. Pilar’s husband is a retired diplomat, ambassador of Spain to several countries during his career. Angela went to English and French schools growing up. Both Pilar and Angela give talks about their father and the Shoah all over Spain. They were so warm and engaging I felt like we were long lost cousins. At the end of our lunch I presented them with Love Letters and read to them the bookplate which you produced for the inside. I placed it on the first blank page.

As I read the inscription on the bookplate, Pilar was in tears and did not stop as I showed more of the ketubot, explained the meaning of the ketuba and the Jewish wedding ceremony. When we were ending our lunch, Pilar made me promise that we would return to Spain to meet again.

A week later in Puerto Santa Maria on the Atlantic coast we met Adela, the oldest sister who was born in Budapest in 1944 when Sanz-Briz was the Spanish consul, her daughter [also named Adela] and granddaughter Violetta. We had lunch at a beautiful seaside club. Again we felt such warmth and kindness that we have a real emotional connection with the family. The younger Adela invited us to dinner at her home in Sevilla, which was our last city to visit in Spain.

Adela and her husband Santiago live in a historic mansion in the heart of Sevilla. We had a wonderful evening together talking about family, history, politics.

Pilar insisted that I promise to return to Spain soon so that she can arrange a party in Madrid with her whole extended family. The siblings I was unable to meet are Paloma and Juan Carlos, who will receive the books through the Centro Sefarad-Israel, and I hope to meet them when we again travel to Spain.

I feel we started a friendship which I hope will become deeper over the years. Despite Spain’s nightmare history with the Jews, we have a real emotional connection with the Sanz-Briz family and also the wonderful staff at the Centro Sefarad-Israel.

David, your beautiful work in Love Letters and the magnificent volume you produced were the best way for me to express my appreciation for Angel Sanz-Briz. His children understood the feelings I wanted to convey.

With much gratitude to you for your brilliant career expressing the beauty of the Jewish tradition,

Chag Sameach,


It’s the Merry Merry Merry Month of Adar

We just had such a delightful  Zoom session about my international Esther project. Wonderful turnout. Embarrassingly positive responses like:

  • the beauty and creativity are unbelievably outstanding.
  • thank you for one of the most moving and emotional presentations I have ever experienced.
  • I’m in tears of amazement and joy!
  • the perfect thing to bring us to Purim.
  • an amazing presentation and project of love!

Here’s the link if you missed it.

And there’s a live exhibit at our Kol HaOt gallery across from my studio till April 10th. It’s open Sunday to Thursday, 10 to 5.  Studio 9 Jerusalem Artists Lane, Chutzot Hayotzer.

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If Purim’s here, Passover can’t be far behind

And you shall teach your children

We just did a remarkable Haggadah-based project with our Teacher Institute for the Arts, the year-long program for any Jewish day school in North America where we help art and Jewish studies teachers tap the powerful magic of synthesizing creativity and Jewish studies. As part of our recent seminar for our current (sixth) cohort we challenged each school team to work with a different section of the Haggadah and create an imaginative, impactful project plus lesson plan to bring to various populations in their schools—students, other teachers, parents. The results were stunning. Each very different, but each so impressive. Either these are just naturally brilliant teachers or we’re really doing our work with them well; probably a bit of both. It’s been so gratifying to watch these teachers just blossom throughout the year.

Pesach history at the Met

Thought you might like this talk by our remarkable niece, Elana Gerson. For decades she’s worked as a devoted museum educator at the Met and in this talk she takes us through their Egyptian galleries and relates the objects and history to the Passover story.

A Pre-Pesach Tour of the MET’s Ancient Egyptian Art Collection – Ideas and Inspiration – OU Torah

In case you missed it; My free Siman Tov Seder project

Though I created it for the Passover of the deepest Covid isolation two years ago as a way to help trigger and stimulate the Seder experience for those who had perhaps not led a Seder before, it’s still very relevant.

It’s a set of fifteen little downloadable booklets, each devoted to one of the fifteen steps of the seder, each focused on an important topic, value or idea. Each booklet is shared by two people who together use the prompt questions, the poetry and the art to stimulate a lively discussion that can then be shared with everyone at the Seder.

Wishing you and your loved ones a joyous Purim and a meaningful Pesach—David

Looking Back, Looking Forward at the New Year

Fifty years ago, on the full moon, the 15th day of the month of Elul, the very day this little blog is being sent out, my bride, Rosalyn Paul and I were married in Chicago. This full moon was the central panel of the Ketubah I created for her.

The exquisite fullness of the moon that night was perhaps a harbinger of the overwhelming fullness of our life together. We have been blessed with four truly remarkable children, their wonderful spouses and fifteen grandchildren—one for each of those days in Elul. We have built a warm, loving home in Jerusalem, we have traveled the world and made deeply rewarding friendships in every corner of it. With Rosalyn’s unwavering support even during rough times I have miraculously been gifted with a career of constantly creating beauty and meaning, of sharing that beauty with others, and of teaching the magical integration of creativity, beauty and Jewish ideas.

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Now, with my dear Rosalyn’s serious illness, those 50 precious years of delight loom even larger as the gratitude for their remarkable radiance swells. The miraculous effectiveness of the current treatments have greatly increased her responsiveness so we can lovingly recall together and with others so many of these wonderful memories of a truly charmed life. And though this period of our own expansive married life together currently feels finite, we glimpse the future now more through our descendents.

Those of us living in Israel get to experience the remarkable early maturity and responsibility of our children and grandchildren as they are abruptly transformed from carefree kids to responsible adults through their military service. We were recently at the ceremony for our grandson Yair’s completion of his officer’s training course. What a thrill to see these hundreds of young people choosing to devote themselves to the service of their country through this intensive, demanding, and often dangerous path. We are so proud of Yair.

Our dear friends, Judy and Benjy Segal, also immigrants here, witnessed their own grandson’s induction into a commando unit of the Golani Brigade. I was touched by Benjy’s description and wanted to share it with you as a glimpse into life here with its wildly exaggerated joys and concerns.

With the cycle of life turning, it’s reassuring to see such a wonderfully committed new generation in our offspring.

The New Year is about such transformational renewal as the past moves inexorably to the future and the old gives way to the new.

Some Reflections by Benjy Segal

I do not know how to encapsulate my feelings now. All I can think of is the phrase from Psalms, gilu bira’ada, “be joyful in trembling.”

Yesterday Judy and I took a two-hour trip north. We were going to attend the graduation ceremony for my oldest male grandchild, this, from a more than year-long training program to enter one of Israel’s crack commando units. In the Corona era, family members had not been able to share with him the joy of completing any stage in the army. This was the first.

By way of overview, I was carried on by winds of exhilaration, but they felt like they were engulfing me on two different planes, the personal and the national, even if they were blowing in the same direction.

On the personal level, this was my first male grandson. To a degree I was lost in a moment from many years ago, soon after my aliyah, a moment when I was holding my then-only son in my arms. The choices we had made were also for him: the incredible rewards of life in Israel, but also its obligations. My prayer was both that those obligations would be diminished, but whatever they were, that they be engulfed by the rewards, both as motivation and as the essence of his national identity. Now it is my grandson who has long passed infancy, and having seen my prayers answered for my children I now see them in him as well, even in this moment of great obligation, for him totally a part of dedication and love. Added to my joy now is seeing my daughter and her husband witness to this moment in their child’s life.

On a national level—pride and privilege. As one of the officers articulated to the soldiers, they are among those who made sure they got to the Army, then among those who volunteered for combat unit, then among those who volunteered for the division which is called up regularly first in any moment a battle, and then for a commando unit which is the first to go out in front of the troops—the best of the best of the best. It was an honor to be among them.

Again on the national level, I listen to the words of the general in charge of the entire division. His story included his having lost his eye in battle, awaking in the hospital to find over him a man his senior, whose oldest grandchild was a soldier in his unit. This older man subsequently came every day at seven in the morning to be with the future general, and they became closest friends since. He then revealed that the man’s younger grandchild was among those graduating that afternoon. The grandfather had been a sole survivor of his family from the Holocaust. The general turned to the graduates who represented all of Israel’s variety (which he articulated: all colors, all diaspora backgrounds, all shades of religiosity) and he recalled to them that they are all their grandparents’ continuation, which they undertake in full intention that they as grandparents will also celebrate with their grandchildren in even better years.

On the more personal level, my grandson had some personal challenges growing up. School was hard, leading to a somewhat experimental school and then one year homeschooling. It is hard to know what root causes were and what were results, but he also had some degree of lack of confidence and fears. All that time the parents only exuded support, love and confidence. Entering high school, progressively but rapidly, things changed. An outstanding student emerged, even a leader. A gap year leadership program set the stage for even greater growth.

I have to admit that both Judy and I were kind of hoping that he would get one of those few awards they offer for outstanding participants in the course. When they called out the names of the three winners by unit, not to include him, we were disappointed. (All of this was internal. Neither of us had shared with the other.) Then came a special award for the most supportive of the soldiers in the whole group, and again we were disappointed when he was not chosen. Then came the outstanding soldier for the whole course for the whole time, and when his name was called…

I feel guilty that I cannot share what everyone felt. (By nature we get wrapped up in personal feelings at such a movement. I think everything I wrote above was part of that second for me.) I know that we the grandparents cried and later found out that the parents did the same. (Inside, I was saying, “the best of the best of the best of the best.”) I know from my grandson’s reactions as people came up to him afterwards that he felt a little awkward and embarrassed. Driving him somewhere after the ceremony, we heard him speak only of the other great soldiers in the course.

In retrospect, I also now recall how personal and value oriented the whole ceremony was. Families kept being mentioned. While the soldiers all got certificates at the end of the course, the unit also presented their girlfriends (some of whom are also in crack units and or in officer training courses, like my grandson’s girlfriend) with a certificate thanking them for bearing with all of this and encouraging and supporting for over a year. I was fascinated in that the course leaders after thanking all the appropriate support troops each thanked their wives. This up-close very human tone further lifted everything that was being done and said.

It is now the next day. How to explain the fulfillment and satisfaction in a moment like that, when your grandson is committing himself to such responsibility in danger? Perhaps it is that it is so clear to him. He seems to have no equivocation, fully dedicated to helping others, to defending them, to build the future however it has to be built, and to give everything that he can. There is a purity there that I cherish.

And now another prayer arises, a blessing from Psalms: “May you see your children’s children—peace upon Israel.”

Judy adds the following: “Yesterday was Nevo’s (Ilana’ & Michael’s 20-year-old son) ceremony for completing his course in the Commando Unit of the Golani Brigade. It was an unbelievably moving experience for us as grandparents. To say that we are very proud and happy is an understatement. As Ilana turned to me and said at the end: ‘For this, you made aliyah’.

This was an experience being a part of the good Israel—no politics—just Jews in their own land, caring for each other and willing to sacrifice for their fellow man and for their country.”

Let There Be Art—A Virtual Art Festival

Dear friends,

Several Jewish artists—I am among them—will be participating in this event. It promises to be a fun and interesting time and I hope you can join us. I’ll be speaking on Thursday, May 27th at 10 a.m. Pacific time. Tune in to all or some of the talks and be sure to take a look at the gallery of art work.

Click “Read More” for details. See you there!


The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

In this blog I have shared with you many delightful gems—interesting programs I’ve been part of, special family events, art projects, curious sites, fascinating people we have met. But as the Mishneh states “A person must recite a blessing for the bad just as one recites a blessing for the good, as it is written: ‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.’”

And today my heart is very heavy indeed.

Over the past months, our family has experienced a constantly darkening nightmare with my beloved wife, Rosalyn. Beginning with difficulties walking, then grasping, she passed through a medical labyrinth until receiving a diagnosis of brain tumours. She is now reaching the end of a series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments which we pray will bring healing to our dear Rivka Chanah bat Tziporah.

But as we must bless for the bad as we do for the good, we must also see the good in the bad.

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Having our whole family —all 26 of us—here, all within a 10-minute walk of us at this moment has been nothing short of miraculous. Yoni and Saskia are right across the hall; Elyssa and Dovi a short walk away. By ‘chance,’ Ariella and Nachum’s family from Los Angeles are here this year on a working sabbatical. Jackie and Phil just ‘happen’ to have moved back in the summer after seven years in Chicago and Roz found them an apartment right in our complex. Every one of them and their beautiful caring children have just been fantastic with an unbelievable non-stop outpouring of love, concern, warmth, organization, management, support. Friends have been so genuinely and lovingly responsive. Welcomed calls, emails and visits are constantly pouring in from around the world. Our entire grand piano is covered with hundreds of flowers each smiling warmth. Lovingly prepared meals constantly appear at our doorstep.

The medical attention at Hadassah and through our state health plan has been just wonderful. Professional, loving, caring. Except for the masks, there is no way one would know we’re in a pandemic. We have been especially fortunate that our son-in-law, Phil Blumenfeld, a radiation oncologist, has been extraordinary in shepherding us through the medical system, advising, comforting and being with us every day at the hospital where his office, ‘by chance,’ is located right next to where Roz is getting her treatments. We’ve also had an amazing daily home-care group of doctor, nurse, social worker, PT and OT, dietician who have been fantastic and with whom Roz connected deeply.

But for me, the shining light in this nightmare is the phenomenal way Rosalyn has been dealing with all this. She is truly an inspiration to us all. She naturally and seamlessly unites a very practical, realistic, rational, acceptance with fierce hope and determination. She expresses such overwhelmingly genuine gratitude to all—from every hospital orderly to her loving and embracing family. This truly remarkable, constant outpouring of love and appreciation of others and constant concern for them we’re all witnessing is an exceptional flowering of exquisite beauty in deep adversity.

The dedication of the book of my ketubot, Love Letters, now feels especially appropriate:

“Artists have created thousands of sketches, drawings, portraits and sculptures of their beloveds. With creative energy that knows neither weariness nor boredom from every angle, in every season, they constantly pour their love onto paper and canvas or engrave it into stone.

Though each ketubah I made was created for a different bride, all of them were also made for a certain bride.

Hundreds of ketubot,
Each unique,
Yet each celebrating a single love—Rosalyn.”

By a rather bizarre timing coincidence, amidst all this upheaval, a lovely cover story on my work by David Geffen appeared in the Jerusalem Report. I’m very grateful to David and to the editor, Steve Linde, for persisting over the past couple years to make it happen.

Click this text to view article.


Museum Moments

I wanted to let you know about a nice program I’m part of.

One of our Tree of Life Shtenders was donated to the museum at Temple Israel in Detroit. They’ve put together a professional on-line video program called Museum Moments that my partner in the project, Noah Greenberg, and I participated in. It was quite nostalgic to reminisce about the artistic process and international adventures this decades-long major Judaica project involved. I think you’ll find it interesting.

It’s available at

Pre-Chanukah Greetings To You, My Dear Community

My heartfelt thanks to you for your continued interest and support during these difficult times. Esther recently told me how many of you actually read these blogs and I was frankly stunned—as well as honored and so appreciative.

So I’m wondering how you are all doing? Would you let me know how you’re getting along during this plague? Have you found any positive, creative ways of coping that you’d be willing to share with me and perhaps with this list? Maybe how you’re processing all this? How it’s changing you or your world view? Meaningful or amusing stories?

Lilach Schrag interviewed 16 working Jewish artists about how the epidemic is effecting us and our work. She then curated and created the remarkable series of Studio Stories 2020 for Kol Haot. I was the final artist in the series:

She also did two live zooms with artists during Sukkot where we shared our thoughts and were each asked to imagine one person from Jewish history to invite into our Sukkah. I chose my father, Jack Moss. That segment of the video is at 52:15 here:

May the light and joy of Chanukah enlighten your life during these dark times.

Kibbutz Galuyot—The Ingathering Of Some Rather Eccentric Exiles

As someone with a fairly quixotic life project (giving creative visual expression to a highly verbal culture) I’ve always been interested in other examples of how people transform offbeat personal passions into reality. Roz and I devoted a nice part of our 49th anniversary long weekend getaway in Caesarea to exploring a few such visions. We found two of them on one of our favorite travel websites: Atlas Obscura—Curious and Wondrous Travel Destinations.

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But the Nisco Museum in Ein Hod we had discovered by ourselves and I was determined to see if I could get an article about it on Atlas Obscura. On Friday I went to interview Nissan Cohen, the 93-year-old proprietor. Here’s what I wrote and submitted:

Nisco Museum, Ein Hod, Israel

Before iphones there were DVDs. Before DVDs there were Walkmans. Before Walkmans, cassette players. Before tapes, vinyl. And before vinyl, Edison wax cylinders.

But according to 93-year-old Nissan Cohen, what came before all this was even more magnificent. He explains: “All these post-Edison machine technologies were merely the mechanical replication of real musical instruments. But before Edison, for a period of about 70 years, there existed a magnificent flowering of machines that played LIVE music—magic musical machines that were themselves the instruments.”

These charming, beautifully-crafted instruments could be called music boxes. But if you’re thinking of little cranked ballerinas dancing to Happy Birthday, think again. This place of enchantment will bring you into a bygone world of large, intricate, unbelievably complex wonders of sound and sight.

The very name of this place, The Nisco Museum, hints at the fact that this is a personal delight of a passionate collector who loves sharing his lifelong assembling of antique, miraculous music-making instruments with all. “Music is the highest degree of human contact and creation,” Nissan says. “It reaches beyond the bounds of the spoken word.”

The museum is located in the glorious hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, in a large building at the entrance to the quaint Israeli artist village, Ein Hod. (Ein Hod itself is worth a visit with its many artists and its unique, surprising Janko-Dada museum.)

You enter through the small, crowded gift shop, which gives no hint at what awaits you just a few steps below—a large hall filled with hundreds of carefully selected examples of the art, science and technology of creating mechanical music that flourished from about 1830 to 1900. It’s no surprise that this tradition sprang originally from precision Swiss watchmakers who added musical devices to some of their pieces.

It’s hard to believe that large pierced disks, revolving cylinders intricately planted with hundreds of carefully placed pins, or punched paper cards or scrolls could be used as information programs to create magnificent, full-bodied music as a comb containing all the notes and sometimes even bells are struck. Yet this is exactly what the remarkable Swiss, German and French firms managed to do. And it is indeed the rich, beautiful, full-bodied, live experience of real instruments rather than recorded music that will enchant the visitor to the museum just as it first enchanted Nissan Cohen, the filmmaker, when he first heard one of these in an antique shop in Caracas, Venezuela, where he was making a movie on JFK in 1961. His soul was struck as forcefully as the tiny moving pins struck out the notes. He had to buy the piece and he’s still collecting to this day.

The collection grew in Nissan’s warehouse in New York after he moved to Israel around the year 2000, but waited six more years until Nissan found an appropriate place large enough to house the collection.

Everywhere you turn in this dizzying, rich, musical mine, you find yet another example of the human need to have music always close by, in your town, your home, your living room. Often the music is accompanied by a display of whirling autonamata—animals, humans, and dolls. Delight for the eye and imagination as well as the ear. Children, jaded with modern technology, will be mesmerized and adults amazed and charmed.

The finale of a visit to this museum of sight, sound and delight is the unveiling of what was the culmination of the life of another mechanical music aficionado and musician—the Belgian, Arthur Prinsen. Prinsen played music, composed and arranged for the organ and brought the old art of mechanical organ playing from punched books well into the 20th century. Nissan managed to acquire the huge 84-key mechanical organ—named Primar—in Belgium and lovingly reassembled it in Ein Hod. Its magnificent, rich, immense sound will resonate within you long after you bid farewell to Nissan Cohen and thank him for sharing both his remarkable resurrection of reverberations from 150 years ago and his passion for music magic with you.

You can get a sense of the place from this video:

Sunday we headed north again to see the remarkable Or Torah Synagogue in Akko—the lifetime dream of a Tunisian immigrant, Zion Badash, a postal worker who was inspired by the ancient synagogue mosaics unearthed around Israel. He was determined to translate Jewish history and especially the Land of Israel into a mosaic wonderland. Every wall, floor and ceiling of this four-story synagogue is covered with mosaics. Each plant and animal of Israel is lovingly depicted. Zion Badash has passed away but his vision lives on in the active synagogue and the stories his daughter, Yaffa, so graciously shared with us.

From Tunisia, we traveled on north to Yemen, in this case to the stunning painted apartment of Afia Zecharia in Shlomi. For me, this is a story of the indomitable artistic drive of a woman thwarted for decades. Married at 10 in Yemen to prevent her being kidnapped by non-Jews, she painted before she moved to Israel. She never gave up her dream to paint again, but her jeweler husband apparently wouldn’t let her. She raised six children and from when her husband died when she was 80 till she died at 94 in 2002, she transformed her small Amidar apartment into a screaming visual testament to her long-suppressed creative drive, her delight in pattern and color and the exuberance of her inner world.

Third and Final Video For High Holidays

Here is the third of our three Kol HaOt videos for the High Holidays based on  “Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah”.

It was done by one of my fellow Kol HaOt co-founders (and daughter!) , Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz. Its theme is Repentance—especially as seen in the Book of Jonah, the Haftarah read on Yom Kippur.

I hope you’ve appreciated this series of videos. It was one way we felt we could share
some of our Kol HaOt programming online.

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If you missed introduction to the series, head here:

Wishing all of us a much needed inscription and sealing in the book of life!


Here is the second of our three Kol HaOt videos for the High Holidays based on  “Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah.” It is by one of my fellow Kol HaOt co-founders, Rabbi Matt Berkowitz. Its theme is Tzedakah—Charity. I hope you enjoy it.

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If you missed the first video I made on the topic of Prayer and my introduction to the series, head here:

The final video by my daughter and Kol HaOt co-founder, Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz,  based on Repentance, will be coming soon before Yom Kippur.

Wishing all of us a much needed inscription and sealing in the book of life!


The Art Of The High Holidays

Three Short Videos From My Kol HaOt Team

“Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah have the power to soften the harsh decree.”

My video on Prayer is available now here:

We’ll be sending you the other two during this holiday period.

Here’s the backstory:

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Fairly early on in my career, as I shared my art with individuals or groups, I was struck by the immense, almost magical power this art had to convey Jewish texts and ideas. I could be sharing the same concepts that one could read in a book, hear in a lecture or experience in a class, but when my art also embodied these ideas right in front of them, the viewers were often touched deeply and the impressions strengthened. Realizations like this were what pushed me to develop a kind of parallel career as an educator and what impelled my daughter, Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz, Yair Medina, Rabbi Matt Berkowitz and me to found Kol HaOt about ten years ago.  Kol HaOt—The Art of Jewish Learning—harnesses art as a means of educating and inspiring Jewishly. We’re housed in a large, magnificent space across from my studio in our Artist Lane, Chutzot HaYotzer, just outside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. Here we run engaging, interactive, hands-on programming for missions, synagogue groups, family tours etc. Many of our programs are based on my works, but always include a component in which the participants use the art as a jumping-off point to create their own meaningful Jewish art to take home. We have a rotating artist-in-residency program, changing exhibits, large free public artistic events every Passover and Sukkot. We sponsor or produce musical, dramatic and culinary events. We’re always exploring how the power of the arts can be combined with Jewish experience and learning. Our Kol HaOt team is responsible for our wonderful ongoing Teacher Institute for the Arts where we mentor art and Jewish studies teachers from Jewish day schools in North America for a full year on how to use the arts and creativity to elevate Jewish learning. We’re now in our fifth cohort. This has all been so incredibly gratifying to me. Especially working with my brilliant daughter and our dedicated team to bring this potent vision to the world. Visit

Given the world-wide scramble to figure out how to address the High Holidays during the Covid shut-down and at the urging of one of our friends and supporters in Florida, our Kol HaOt team has created three videos to help prepare for the season. It’s also a good chance for you to meet part of our team and perhaps be artistically inspired for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We took the potent, stirring phrase from the Holiday prayers—”Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah have the power to soften the harsh decree,” and made three short videos, each based on one of these three elements. We used contemporary Jewish art to expound each one.

The Latin origin of the word Corona means a crown and refers to the crown-like shape of the

virus. But the Jewish origin of the word is, obviously, the three-letter Hebrew root—Koph, Resh, Nun  קרן—which means a horn. Shofar, So Good.  These videos are our little Shofar Shout-Out for the new year for you from Jerusalem.

With deep wishes for health, connection, love and inspiration during these trying times.

Shanah Tovah,


Reflections On Our Recess

As restrictions are beginning to ease, I look back at this bizarre period of isolation, social distancing and social turmoil and a few things stand out.

  • What a delight to isolate with Rosalyn Moss. I moved my studio to the house for several weeks so it was truly full time. And lovely.
  • The care and concern of our children and grandchildren is so touching and gratifying. Our grandsons Yedidya and Yair and our son Yoni did all our shopping.  Our granddaughter Shir created a beautiful new work of art for our Shabbat table every single week. All of our kids and grandchildren checked on us constantly and offered to do anything at all we needed.
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A huge disappointment caused by Corona was the cancellation of our plans for our whole clan to be together for Passover in California. We had done it two years ago and it was truly a highlight of our entire lives. And so we were all heartbroken when all the plans and all the flights were cancelled. Instead of all six families being together, there would be six separate Seders in Jerusalem, Chicago and Los Angeles. Talk about disappointment!

But a few hours before Seder, our son from across the hall knocked on our door. He handed us a package and a cell phone. On the phone was our married granddaughter, Hallel. She informed us that since at every Seder we lead we always ask all the guests to bring some contribution to the service—a song, a poem, a skit, a game, a quiz, an activity; each person tells me in advance when their contribution is relevant and I call on them at that point in the Seder; it makes for such diverse, engaging, meaningful and fresh insights into the Seder; therefore…

Hallel announced that she had reached out to everyone in the family from toddlers to adults to each send a written or visual contribution to the Haggadah. She collected these into her own unbelievably beautiful, rich, new edition of the Haggadah. All the Israeli families got printed copies. The American families got pdfs to print. We all used this same Haggadah that night. When we pulled out our copies from the envelope we read the cover:

Because we were still in fairly strict isolation we only celebrated with our family across the hall. Rosalyn and I moved a small table near the front door of our apartment. Our son’s family sat on the floor right near their own entrance so we could all hear and see each other. We were all together until the meal when we each ate separately. Then we all came back together to finish the Haggadah. I wondered if this might just be what the strange ancient custom of opening the door at Seder foreshadowed: The Door l’Door Seder.

  • This period was one of reflection for me. With the perspective of age, and intimations of deadly contagion lurking about, I looked back at the span of my life. The main feeling was one of utter amazement. My family, my friends, my career, my art, my experiences have been nothing less than miraculous.  I was particularly struck by the last verse of Psalm 23: “Only goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life…”

The word that struck me deeply and personally was ‘yirdefuni’ (‘shall follow me’). The root meaning is not just follow but suggests chasing, hunting, pursuing. This felt apt. For none of the blessings I’ve been given have I sought. Yet they chased me. Goodness hunted me down. Kindness pursued me. They overwhelmed me in their plentitude and grace.

But the one thing I’ve learned is that blessings like these hunt you down for a reason. These are gifts—unsolicited, unearned and undeserved. The gifts of family and friends, talent and abilities, openings and opportunities and rich remarkable experiences.  And they all chase me for a single reason. And that reason is to pass them along for the benefit of others.

And so I chose to use the Corona recess to give on the gifts.

As Passover approached I tried to imagine what gift I could give to all the families and individuals who would be making Seder alone, many for the first time. I envisioned a free downloadable companion to the Seder and designed the set of 15 booklets that used the themes of the 15 steps of the Haggadah to stimulate thought and discussion. Each one contained a broad topic, questions, a poem and a collage. I called it The Siman Tov Seder and I worked furiously to make them available in English and Hebrew in time for Passover.  My daughter, Elyssa, orchestrated the whole translation and adaptation for the Hebrew version.  There were hundreds of downloads.

I also made a set of fifteen small, colorful, original works as gifts for our grandchildren.  Each one was based on that child’s name. It was such an intimate experience reflecting on and connecting deeply with each child as I worked meticulously on each little painting.

I created a new print based on Zacharia’s vision of the Menorah. I’m intending to include it as a gift with the next subscription installment for my wonderful, hugely appreciated Minyan subscribers.

And, in a way, this entire passing on of gifts culminated in the deeply moving colloquium of my Teacher Institute for the Arts. Instead of our whole cohort of staff, mentors and teachers meeting in person, we had to do it virtually. And because of the reality, all these teachers had been thrown an impossible task—to instantaneously transform their classes from school to home.  Despite all this, the warmth and deep gratitude from each teacher as they testified to how much our program had transformed both their teaching and them was overwhelming. This was gift-giving at its best. What we gave them, they took in so beautifully and we watched as each demonstrated how they passed this all on to their students and their families. Goodness and kindness chasing in action.

Three remarkable events also fell into place during this period. Perhaps influenced by realizations spurred by the Coronavirus or perhaps just the right time:

Our daughter Jackie’s family decided to move back to Israel after an eight-year stint for a medical residency and work in Chicago. Our son-in-law, Phil, was offered jobs in several hospitals, and the kids are set in schools. Best part is that Rosalyn found them an apartment right in our complex, less than a minute’s walk from us.

Our son’s family has been renting the apartment right across the hall since they returned from Yale six years ago. It’s been just wonderful.  The owner, our friend and former neighbor, has decided to move back to England and things look very promising for a sale. This would make a temporary, remarkable arrangement permanent.

Our daughter Ariella’s family has been abroad for twelve years. She was the assistant director of Camp Ramah in Canada and is now the director of Camp Ramah in California. They just confirmed that next month they’ll all be arriving for a year-long sabbatical here in Jerusalem and are looking at a couple places near us as well.

Is this a dream or reality? It’s so hard to believe our fantastic fortune to have all 26 of our clan within a few minutes of us. What could be better?

So these are some of my thoughts during these historic times. I’d love to hear how you’re processing all this. I was surprised to learn from Esther, my publisher, how many of you open these blogs. Thanks! But it shouldn’t be one-way. Let me know that you’re safe and healthy and how this is affecting you.

With wishes for health, goodness, kindness and healing.


Did You Know?

Little-Known Tidbits About The Moss Haggadah

  • The original, hand-done, commissioned Haggadah on real parchment was not intended to be printed when it was created. That’s why David included elements such as real gold leaf, papercuts, inserted mirrors, turning cup, and tipped-in little book.
  • The original was projected to take one year but ended up requiring three years of full-time work. It has been exhibited only once. The most definitive exhibit on the Hebrew book ever assembled opened at the New York Public Library in 1988. Of the thirteen most important and beautiful Haggadah manuscripts shown, only one was created after 1717: The original Moss Haggadah.
  • The creation of the perfect, limited-edition facsimile took about a year and half to produce in Verona, Italy.  Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of the United States Congress, called it the tour de force printing of the twentieth century.
  • The facsimile has been purchased by the rare book rooms of major libraries, museums, and institutions such as Princeton, Yale, Duke, Harvard, and Stanford University libraries, the New York Public Library, the British Library, the Getty Museum, the Yeshivah University Museum, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Hebrew Union College libraries.
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  • In November of 1987, the White House purchased a copy of the facsimile which President Reagan signed and presented to President Chaim Herzog as the United States’ official gift on the occasion of the first State visit of an Israeli president to the U.S.
  • The trade edition is in its fourth printing.
  • Many people tell us that they select one or two pages of the Haggadah each year, read the commentary, study the art, and present it at their Seders. The following year they continue with another page.

Imagine 127 Lands

It all began on the unimaginably lush, gorgeous, and fascinating island of Bali. I was first on this tiny Hindu island plunked in the center of the world’s largest Muslim nation of Indonesia around 1990. I was there on a quixotic quest to find a shop that could perfectly copy the many intricate carved pieces my talented artistic collaborator, Noah Greenberg, and I had designed. My idea had been to create a work of art based on the simple, practical Jewish study/prayer stand known in Yiddish as a Shtender. I envisioned a wooden Shtender that would function as a little treasure chest to house all the Jewish ritual objects of daily, weekly, and annual use. I had approached Noah, a very talented wood artist, to partner with me on this multi-decade project. (You can learn more about it here.)  We worked through the set, object by object, and Noah hand-carved exquisite prototypes of each piece. After eight years of work, the time had at last come to figure out if, how, and where these pieces could be reproduced. It was obvious that it had to be in a region rich in delicate hand wood carving traditions. We set out first in Europe and then in Asia in search of carvers. Noah headed to Taiwan and I was assigned to explore Bali. I did find extremely talented carvers and ultimately Bali was one of the two contenders for our project.  But apart from my work assignment, Bali itself intrigued and captivated me. I had so many fascinating experiences and encounters—a few even Jewish-related.

The social structure of Balinese society was highly hierarchic and ritualistic. Palaces, princes, courts, celebrations, and banquets were intimately woven into the structure of their lives.  As viewed through my Jewish lens, it brought to mind the Book of Esther. A somewhat bizarre notion occurred to me—what might the Esther story have looked like if it had been played out right here in Bali?

The natural beauty I saw in Bali was reflected in the artistic beauty of virtually everything this exceptional people turned their hands to, whether agriculture, architecture, music, drama, sculpture, or painting. As an illuminator, I was particularly taken by the extremely delicate, detailed miniature paintings that the artists were creating.

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So I had an idea. When I returned to Bali, I brought a couple of copies of Esther translated into Indonesian (I couldn’t find it in Balinese) and two long sheets of parchment. I circled six verses in the story and penciled in six small rectangles on the parchment. I then sought out two artists from two different villages, gave them each the same six verses and commissioned them to illustrate these verses as if they were happening right in their own villages. One artist was in Ubud, the other in Keliki. When I received the results I was totally stunned. The two versions were very different but each unbelievably well executed and totally charming. The settings were perfectly reflective of Balinese style in every detail— people, dress, architecture, and objects. Little details only highlighted the success of the experiment for me. In the final scene, in which Esther was writing the Megillah to be sent out to all lands, she is composing a palm leaf book—the format they use to copy out sacred scriptures. The horse executed by the artist from Keliki was clearly drawn by someone who had never seen a horse and provided instead donkey ears.

Once I had these two works in my hands it struck me that the Megillah begins with and stresses the fact that the rule of Achashverosh covered 127 lands.  Why not extend my little Esther experiment to other peoples, lands, and cultures?  When a student of mine was headed to India, I charged her with the task of repeating my little exercise if she found any interesting artists on her journey.  She returned with a perfect Moghul interpretation and an absolutely delightful black and white version in the Warli style of Rajasthan.

And so it continued slowly, occasionally, and randomly over the years and decades. Always with the same six verses. Always with the same request to visualize the story happening locally, and intimately tied to the place of its creation.

In a globalizing world of cookie-cutter mass production, my tiny collection stresses and exemplifies the particularistic and the vernacular while at the same time acknowledging the universal appreciation of a good story well told.

On your next visit to my studio ask me to pull them out and share them with you. I promise you’ll be stunned.

And if, by chance, you’re headed somewhere exotic or interesting, be in touch and I’ll deputize you, as I have deputized others, to help me slowly get to 127 artistic versions of a bizarre tale of hatred and love and of  very particular little people with its own customs and laws, different from all others, yet somehow embracing them all.

Happy Purim.

So Thankful

A True Story of Love, Surprises, and Masks in Honor of Purim

by Roz Moss

David and I recently returned from a working trip to Seattle. David was brought for Limmud, was sponsored by the Samis Foundation, and worked in five Jewish day schools where he taught, lectured and ran workshops intensely for nine days…except for one, intentionally not scheduled: our mutual birthday.

We spent a beautiful day on Bainbridge Island, concluding with an unforgettable repast back in Seattle at Harvest Beat, a vegan restaurant which offers a fixed menu of five courses with either wine or elixir pairings. The experience was wonderful: visually, physically, and socially. There were two other birthday celebrants in the section where we dined, which was also sweet. We concluded David’s next and last day of intense work with a late-in-the-day visit to the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum in Seattle.

Through the many galleries and lush outdoor garden of glass, one gets a comprehensive look at the inspiration and influences that have informed the career of Dale Chihuly. This includes his collection of Native American baskets, blankets, weavings, and reproductions of Edward Curtis sepia photographs. Then we flew to LA to spend the long weekend with our California kids. I was looking forward to the warmth of family and LA weather after January in wintry Seattle (weather-wise, that is; the people were warm and welcoming). Soon after we arrived, our daughter Ariella asked David and me to sit down, as her kids wanted to do something. They all began singing “happy birthday” to us. Midway through, our other three kids, from Israel and Chicago, appeared one by one. I was overwhelmed, gasping with surprise! After hugs, tears, and astonishment, my dear childhood friend Helen, from New Jersey, walked down the stairs. More astonishment and joy! This was one of the highlights of my life. And it wasn’t over yet.

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Shabbat all together was wonderful. Sunday’s plan was brunch at The Butcher’s Daughter, a delicious vegetarian restaurant on Abbot Kinney Blvd. in Venice, a mile-long, cool, hip street with shops and eateries and several outdoor wall murals. As our table wasn’t yet ready, we stopped in a store where my daughter supposedly wanted to show me something. Suddenly my sister from St. Louis appeared, wishing me a happy birthday! Once again, I was overwhelmed and unsuspecting! Following our delicious brunch in our own private enclosed outdoor room (like a succah) we continued to the LACMA, LA County Museum of Art. Weaving through the lamposts installation at the entrance were a couple in commedia dell’arte type masks, carrying small “happy birthday” signs.

Believe it or not, I was still unsuspecting. Surely there couldn’t be any more surprises. As they approached me, I said: “Oh, it’s my birthday, too!” I thought they were a kooky LA couple being artsy in an art installation! How ridiculous I felt when they removed their masks and I saw my dear friends, Roen and Don! Soon after, another dear friend from our early Berkeley days, Linda, appeared near the ticket windows. And the surprises kept coming with Vivienne arriving from NYC and Rosie, Ron and Carrie from Culver City!

I am thankful for these blessings and want to express my huge thanks to David, Yoni, Ariella, Jackie and Elyssa for the careful choreographing of every step and for all my friends and family for going to the great effort of coming.

I could not have asked for a better birthday or a more sublime way to enter my new decade.

Reunion and Realization

It was begun about one hundred fifty years ago. I glimpsed it about sixty-five years ago but never forgot it. And now, suddenly, it was in my hands.

Reunion and Realization photoI remember as a young child being at a boring family event, when some relative pulled out a small handwritten book. At that point I didn’t know what it was, where it came from, or who had written it, though I was told it had been in the family a long time. Yet mysteriously, some very deep, powerful memory of that few-seconds glimpse stayed with me and haunted me ever since.

Later I learned whose book it had been. I’m a fifth-generation Ohioan. My great-great grandparents, Israel Marcus Schlesinger and Eva Lobenberg Schlesinger, came to Columbus from small towns in southern Germany, probably in the 1850s, and were among the founders of that now-thriving Jewish community.  I.M. Schlesinger (as he was known) was the secretary of the community. He was also the Mohel and it was his ledger recording the circumcisions he had performed that I had glimpsed. I always wondered what had happened to it.

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At some point I heard a family rumor that the book had ended up in the archives of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. I searched their extensive database but came up with nothing. I was recently in touch with the director of the library, Laurel Wolfson, since they are part of my Minyan—my ongoing subscription plan of limited edition, signed works that come out every few months. I asked her if she would be willing to see if she could turn up anything related to the Mohel book and amazingly she did.  Laurel sent me a twenty-page pdf of a hand-written copy of all the names, dates, and places of all the circumcisions recorded in the book.  It was prefaced by a letter from Marion Camin in which she stated that the original book had been in her possession for 45 years and upon her death it would go to her son, Alan. I was excited and jumped on the internet to see what I could turn up. I was able to track down a Dr. Alan Camin in Chicago, but unfortunately he had just died this past December. This is where the detective work got challenging and it took me quite a while to turn up anyone who might have known him—a friend or a relative.

Eventually I was able to track down a woman I believed had to be his daughter.  I gingerly left a message on what I thought might be her work phone number. She suspiciously responded but I was able to provide enough information to satisfy her. She, my wife, my sister, and I met in downtown Chicago in August. We were able to piece together exactly the relationship and we were all delighted.

She brought the original book with her to the meeting. The moment I opened it, I had a sudden, extremely powerful revelation. All these years I had thought I was searching for this book because of familial connections, genealogy, history, and a family-related artistic project I’m slowly plodding away at. But when I opened the book and saw the remarkable hand calligraphy of my direct ancestor, I had no doubt that my seeing that book for a few seconds as a child was somehow connected to my unexplainable, powerful infatuation with the Hebrew letters, and thus my whole artistic career.

In his book, The Soul’s Code, James Hillman suggests that who we are meant to become is hidden deeply within us from birth. He calls it his “acorn theory.” We’re each an acorn from our very beginning, just waiting to become unique oaks. He says that when we experience something that touches that inner core of our destiny, we somehow recognize it and it resonates powerfully. I can think of no better example of this than that fleeting childhood glance that augured who I was to become.

This month I have a Chanukah treat for you: An article by a guest blogger, Saskia Swenson Moss, who, aside from being a talented writer, happens to be my wonderful daughter-in-law.

Don’t let the light go out: Growing up Jewish in northern Vermont

What makes Jewish identity stick?

In Johnson, the small Vermont town that I grew up in, there were hardly any Jews. None of our neighbors was Jewish. There was no synagogue, no Jewish community center, no Jewish summer camp. Even Chabad had not made it to where we lived, off a dirt road surrounded by smooth, blue mountains and up the hill from a decrepit farm where cold cows shivered out the winters up to their ankles in manure.

My Dad’s grandparents had been Swedish Lutherans. He had met my mom at Oberlin. When they got engaged, my mother’s grandmother quizzed him on whether he might be willing to change religions. Knowing she was strong in Chicago’s Reform movement, my dad joked with her. “Gram-Gram,” he said, “the day that you keep kosher is the day I’ll convert.” Everyone had a good laugh and the question of my Dad’s religious preference was dropped.

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And so I grew up making bows and shooting arrows in the summer and carving igloos out of snow piled high by the plow in winter. No Talmuds lined our shelves, we ate pork, and sometimes shrimp and ham. No one in my house knew what the Mishnah was. But we were Jewish.

Why? What made it so clear that we were unequivocally members of the tribe? Asking myself that now, living a Modern Orthodox life in Jerusalem, I close my eyes and see the following:

Snow is falling. It’s black outside. No sign of any other human beings. And it is cold. The kind of cold that makes you feel deeply lonely looking up at the night sky and seeing the tiny pricks of thin stars. They may be suns, but the light is so far away that you feel completely inconsequential. To keep warm, you shrink your face deeper into your coat and puff out your warm breath. If you stay out too long, your cheeks and the tips of your fingers will go numb.

As these dark nights got longer, my mom, with a religious regularity that never appeared any other time, would begin to get ready for Hanukkah. A day or two before the holiday began, our three menorahs would appear. My sister’s and mine were delicate and tiny, inlaid with colored tile, bought for us as toddlers. They took birthday candles and burned out within a minute. My parent’s menorah was a simple gold, large enough to hold the beautiful array of blood red, off-white, gold and blue Hanukkah candles.

I see us standing in our small yellow kitchen. My mom is orchestrating the turning off of lights. Hushing everyone into solemn silence she lights the main menorah and then sings, “Baruch ata Adonai, Elohenu Melech Ha’olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu, lehadlik ner, shel Han-u-kkah! My sister and I light ours and repeat the blessing.

As the flames shine against the frosty kitchen window, we go to open presents. Years later, at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, I learned about the mitzvah of putting your menorah where people can see it. If anyone had been driving up the road and looked down at our house during Hanukkah, they would have noticed the twinkle of candles. How did my mom know to put them there?

My dad believed in a present for each night. Seven small presents and then, on the last night, the grand finale. The bike, the tape recorder, whatever the one thing you had really wanted, that was the present that appeared on that final night so that Hanukkah, sometimes just a day or two shy of Christmas, could go out with a bang.

Long after I had grown up and moved away, my dad continued sending me packages with eight small gifts wrapped carefully to keep the tradition of a present a night alive.

In a few weeks, it will be Hanukkah time again and I think back to my mom. How on her own she crafted Jewish experiences that gave us joy. And, as I watch my children speak Hebrew, daven and weave Jewish stories into their own lives, I think, “It’s thanks to you, Mom, that the light did not go out.”


Saskia Swenson Moss works for the Harold Grinspoon Foundation on PJ Our Way, a program that is changing the paradigm of Jewish education and engagement for American tweens. Saskia lives in the never boring city of Jerusalem with her husband, Yoni and her three children, Akiva, Yovel and Heleni.

This article was first printed in The Times of Israel

It’s the Magic

People often ask what led me from doing art to also teaching Jewish values through art. It’s the magic.
The magic that happens in the moment. You can see it in this photo of Haredi kids listening with rapt
attention as I show them the art in my Haggadah and talk about its meaning. When I realized that reaction is constant regardless of the audience, I knew I had to share it. And that led me to my work in education.

“When one teaches, two learn”
Robert Heinlein (American science-fiction writer,1907-1988)
(thanks to Avraham Roos for this quote?)

MiKol Milamdai Hiskalti (from all who have taught me, I have learned)
Mishlei (Book of Proverbs)

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Harnessing the magic of the arts for Jewish inspiration, whether for a few minutes, as in the photo,
or for a week-long artist-in-residency, is my guiding principle. The delight, interest, and excitement
appears across all denominational Jewish lines. These Haredi boys have the same look of intensity as
do members of the secular kibbutzim and reform synagogues I speak to. It’s rare that the same thing sparks appreciation across the spectrum in that way.

To learn more about the educational work we do at Kol HaOt, please visit I do many artist-in-residencies across the US and right here in Jerusalem, so please sign up for our mailing list to be
alerted to upcoming gatherings in your area.


Virtually every year for decades now, I work with a small group of campers at Camp Ramah in Ojai on an art project. Rosalyn helps me with these intense workshops and ourprocedure is unique, for we have absolutely no idea what the project will be, coming in.

Our first stage is to simply listen carefully to the campers and find out what’s on their mind—what’s an important issue at camp or in their lives that they want to address by making a permanent artwork for camp. We then take these young people through the entire process of how real
artistic creation happens as we define our problem and apply principles to come up with a fresh, unique solution. Then we design, scrounge materials, build, and present the project to the whole camp.

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Last year at Ramah, the issue selected was how to increase communications and friendships between different age groups at camp who don’t normally interact. Our solution was to create a beautiful
meeting space under a large tree just outside of camp. We spun a colorful, physical “web of interaction,” created discussion prompts hanging from the tree, and made a large sign with a quote in Hebrew from Psalms.

Then, in October, terrible wildfires raced through the area, leaving destruction in their wake. Rabbi Joe Menashe, camp director, wrote of driving up with his colleagues to assess the damage to the camp and thank the firefighters for their heroic work. He was profoundly grateful to find no structural damage, and wrote that “The firefighters, who came from all over California and Oregon to bravely serve our community, shared honestly that they did not expect to be able to save the entire camp. They were especially moved after hearing of our grateful multigenerational community that spans the globe and considers this place a home for our kehillah kedosha (holy community).”

Rabbi Joe was astonished to see just where the fires had stopped. Almost miraculously, it was at the exact spot of our art installation that the raging wildfire’s consuming blaze stopped, just yards from the camp. The sign with the quote from Psalms reads, “This is the gate of the Lord. Let the righteous enter therein.” “Little did our community know,” wrote Rabbi Joe, “that a few short months later, courageous and righteous men, none of whom were injured in their efforts to save camp, passed under that very sign.”

4/1/18—Counting years and counting days….

I guess it was an exciting time for my parents when they moved from our tiny house in the old neighborhood of Dayton View to their suburban dream house. It was 1958 and my dad got to pour his overflowing creativity into this new house. Workshops upstairs and downstairs; radiant heating in the floors; low-voltage wiring so he could start my mom’s coffee in the kitchen from their bed at the other end of the house.

But as a shy, awkward twelve-year-old, all I knew was that I was leaving everything familiar and venturing into a frightening unknown.

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Especially a new school where I knew no one. However, the transition was made tolerable by a new-found friend, Paul. And what a precious, life-enhancing sixty-year friendship this has been. We shared our discovery of the world. We shared our interests, our hopes, and our dreams.  In our brand-new high school we were an inseparable pair. We ran the photography lab together. We made explosives in the chemistry lab together. We copied and got caught copying the master keys to the school. We released and saved the frogs from dissection in biology. Paul and David. And to this day this friendship remains a precious part of our lives.

Paul is one of the most knowledgeable and competent people I’ve ever met. He knows everything and forgets nothing. But his talents are as much in his hands as his head. His skills include exquisite wood turning, car and motorcycle mechanics, machining, woodwork, musical instrument making, fine cooking, farming, Belgian beer making, and wine making. He built his own house in Ohio. After he retired from his medical device engineering career, he ran Bet Alpha Editions for me for 10 years. He has been my companion, confidant, advisor, and co-conspirator for six decades.

Paul met his wife, Lee, at Antioch College, where they’re both still involved trying to keep it alive. Lee’s skills are in textiles—weaving, quilting, sewing, embroidery. She’s never without a challenging major project.

When my ongoing series of Minyan artworks came along, she decided to translate some of the more graphic pieces into fabrics. The stunning results are what I’d like to share with you today.

My print, called Aleph is for Ox, is a bold serigraph based on the original ancient Hebrew alphabet. Lee transformed it into a beautiful textile (we use it for a challah cover) by skillfully sewing around each letter and adding quilting. She re-imaged my original set of 22 prints of the Alphabet of the Angel Metatron, as a large, striking quilt which now hangs proudly in our home.

And it’s perhaps symbolic that as I now count the preciousness of each and every year of this sixty-year friendship, Lee transformed the giclee print I made for the counting of the Omer into a gorgeous quilt. Every colored area and shape was precisely cut out, pieced, folded, and sewed in place. The texture, depth, and sheer craft have added so much dimensionality and contour to this work (besides correcting the mistake I made in it!) that it feels like a totally new creation.

Yes, the yearly counting during the 49 days between the second day of Passover and Shavuot gives us a strong awareness and consciousness of the passing of time—perhaps the greatest gift we’re given. Each day we announce it in its context, not only as consecutive days, but its place in its week and for some even noting the unique mystical significance of every day. The message is clear: time is not a characterless, anonymous flow of sameness. No, every day is unique, with its own character, purpose, and destiny. Every moment is bursting with power, potential, and individuality, with presence and presentness. Indeed, every day is a present, a gift presented to us to encounter afresh and fashion anew. As we say in praise of God every morning before the recital of the Shema, “And in His goodness, every day He continually renews the act of Creation itself.”

How grateful I am to have basked in this special sixty- year friendship of caring and sharing and growing together. And how lovely that this Omer period we are about to enter has been so lovingly stitched into a physical embodiment of the preciousness of time, of devotion, and of friendship.

A Touching Reunion

I recently reunited with a dear, old, and intimate friend—my Haggadah. I was artist-in-residence at Bnai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida. It was a wonderful four-day residency, kicked off by my introductory slide talk at an elegant reception at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. I worked with all sectors of this community: pre-school teachers and staff, teens to seniors.

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One of the highlights of the visit came when the Levy family attended one of my sessions and brought the original of my Haggadah with them. They had commissioned the entirely hand illuminated manuscript in 1980. It was wonderful to see them and very moving to again page through the soft parchment pages of their family heirloom that I had devoted three years of my life to creating. It’s probably been 15 years since I last saw it. My reaction each time I see it is the same. I’m always stunned at how unbelievably faithful and accurate the 1987 facsimile edition is.

Memories of the year and a half we spent creating that large format, two-volume edition are also fresh, since in a few days Rosalyn and I are going to have another long-awaited reunion. Next week we’ll be meeting in Verona, Italy with the genius who produced that masterpiece of the art of fine printing, Martino Mardersteig and his wife Gabriella.
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2/1/18—Origins of the Moss Haggadah: It Happened In Verona

Many of you have asked me over the years about the origins of the Moss Haggadah you enjoy using every Pesach. Well, gather round and I’ll tell you a story.

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My original Haggadah was commissioned by Beatrice and Richard Levy from Florida in the early ’80s. It was entirely handmade and executed on parchment. A dream project to work on. Once I delivered the original, I assumed that was the end of it. But there was to be much more.

We’ve been celebrating the 30th year since the first publication of the Facsimile edition. How did that come about? Vivid memories take me back to the moment when Neil and Sharon Norry first saw the photographs I had of the original. We were in their hotel room in Jerusalem. Neil immediately said: “It’s unacceptable that there is only one original of this book sequestered in a safe. It must be reproduced and shared. We’re going to do that.”

My response—remembering all my hand-applied gold leaf, the many papercuts, attached mirrors, micrographic writing, turning cup and more—was that it was impossible to reproduce this work faithfully. But Neil was someone who wouldn’t accept the word impossible. He responded, “Somewhere you will find someone who can do this to your standards. Start looking.”

So our young family traded apartments with a family from Nice for a summer and I spent the weekdays taking the photographs off to Italy, France, Switzerland, and Austria in search of the perfect printer. I’d return each Friday for Shabbat and spend the weekend with my family. When I stepped into the offices of Mondadori, one of the major art book printers in Verona, they looked at what I had and immediately said: “This is for Mardersteig.”

I knew that name: the finest letterpress printer/hand press book publisher/typographer/book designer of the twentieth century—Giovanni Mardersteig. I said: “Isn’t he dead?” They laughed and said, “Well, yes, but his son Martino continues his work.”

They scrawled a Verona address on a sheet of paper and I walked down the hill, following my street map, to the Via Marsala.  I arrived at a vast 17th or 18th-century villa, passed through the gardens, and knocked on the door. I didn’t realize I had arrived at the Mardersteig home until Mrs. Mardersteig greeted me. I tried my best to explain what I was looking for. She spoke virtually no English and my Italian was almost nonexistent. Somehow she conveyed that I should walk down the street a couple of doors to the workshop. There I was greeted warmly by Martino, whose English was fortunately perfect. He looked at the photographs of the pages I had brought. He said simply: “I can do this.” I looked at examples of the books he had produced for the finest art publishers throughout the world and responded: “You can do this.”  He offered to make a sample to back up his statement. He perfectly reproduced the large-format “Search for Leaven,” a challenging page filled with gold that required perfect registration.

Neil Norry had hoped for someplace closer to home than Verona, Italy. He lived in Rochester, New York, perhaps the graphic arts capital of the United States, and felt certain the project could be done there. Neil convened a meeting with the top experts from Kodak, Xerox, and the finest local experts in the graphic arts. I arrived at the meeting and pulled out my Mardersteig sample, printed in about thirteen colors on a single color press with rich hot stamped gold leaf. When I passed it around the table, the looks on all faces were of astonishment. All immediately agreed that nothing with that level of perfection could be done in America and told us clearly that if we could get that kind of printing we should grab it.

The next powwow was in Verona, to define and negotiate the project. I carefully explained all the difficulties in producing a perfect facsimile of this complicated handmade book, all the special techniques that would be required. Martino patiently took notes and was unflustered. He did seem somewhat surprised when Neil said he’d want all 550 exemplars bound in full gold-stamped calf leather. Usually bindings were done in batches as books sold. I imagined Martino visualizing 550 poor calves running for their lives all over Italy. The facsimile was carefully defined down to all its details. An acceptable price was agreed on.

I then hesitatingly added one more thing that felt essential to me. “This book is really not just about the art. For me, each page is a story. Each page is its own little world built up by my years of research, my seeking the perfect creative expression of a fresh idea into a design, and the dedicated crafting of that design into the final page. The owner of this book must be able to know that story to fully enter the world of this Haggadah. I propose I write an article for each page of the book about exactly what the art is conveying. There should be a second volume of my notes, as large as the facsimile itself, printed both in English and Hebrew, with a slipcase to contain the two volumes.” Martino made some more notes. He asked to be excused while he consulted with his craftspeople. He came back to the room and said:

“This second text volume can, of course, be printed with our fine offset facilities. But I’m thinking that if I told you what it would cost to produce this volume by letterpress printing (the finest method of text printing in which the inked text is actually impressed into the paper by raised metal type) you would balk. So this will be my gift to this project.”

Thus Bet Alpha Editions was founded and we got to work. It took a year and a half to complete the printing and binding. I was constantly going back and forth between Jerusalem and Verona to supervise the work. The Norrys, Mardersteigs, and Mosses became life-long friends.

The paper-cut pages had to be printed in Verona, sent to Santa Rosa (the only place doing high-quality laser cutting at the time), and sent back to Italy for binding.  The 550 calves were rounded up. The eighteen little mirrors, the leather seal, the turning cup (engineered by my friend Paul Feinstein) were added by hand to each book. The book was finished. Martino flew in for the warm and beautiful opening exhibit initiated by Erica and Luddy Jesselson at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York. We had somehow managed to produce a virtually perfect replica of the original. I was told that the former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstein, called it the “tour de force of printing of the twentieth century.” It’s entered the collections of the rare book rooms of The New York Public Library, The Getty Museum, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the British Library, and the Canadian National Library. President Reagan presented a copy as his gift of State to Israeli president Chaim Herzog. But most importantly, it and the two other versions that followed, the Moss Haggadah trade edition and the Moss Haggadah deluxe edition, have become part of the Seder for hundreds of families annually, celebrating  humanity’s most ancient continually performed ritual and encouraging new generations of children to look, to admire, to wonder, to ask and be answered. I’m very blessed.

12/1/17—Behind the Scenes Glimpses

A wonderfully meaningful Ketubah for my granddaughter, Hallel

Almost 40 years ago, I started the contemporary revival of the old, lost tradition of creating custom-designed Ketubot of beauty and meaning for individual couples. I’ve now even done a few third-generation Ketubot—yes, Ketubot for the grandchildren of my earliest customers. Oh, did someone ask what a Ketubah is? It’s a Jewish marriage contract. One of my personally most significant Ketubot was my wife Rosalyn’s. I was also privileged to create Ketubot for all four of our children.

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And now I’ve just had the wonderful honor of writing and designing a Ketubah for our granddaughter, Hallel. Three generations. I can hardly believe it. I read it at their remarkable wedding and a number of guests commented that for the first time they understood the text. This was simply because I could phrase it perfectly since it’s probably the only text I know by heart!

See Love Letters, a collection of custom Ketubot I’ve designed over the years and the story behind each one.

My Doors Are Open

Next time you’re in Jerusalem, please visit my studio in Chutzot HaYotzer, the artists’ lane behind the King David Hotel.

Personal Website—
Publisher’s website—
Shtender website—
Kol Haot website—
A Little Video—

The Man Who Planted Trees

By Jean Giono

Translation from French by Peter Doyle
In order for the character of a human being to reveal truly exceptional qualities, we must have the good fortune to observe its action over a long period of years. If this action is devoid of all selfishness, if the idea that directs it is one of unqualified generosity, if it is absolutely certain that it has not sought recompense anywhere, and if moreover it has left visible marks on the world, then we are unquestionably dealing with an unforgettable character.

About forty years ago I went on a long hike, through hills absolutely unknown to tourists, in that very old region where the Alps penetrate into Provence.

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This region is bounded to the south-east and south by the middle course of the Durance, between Sisteron and Mirabeau; to the north by the upper course of the Drôme, from its source down to Die; to the west by the plains of Comtat Venaissin and the outskirts of Mont Ventoux. It includes all the northern part of the Département of Basses-Alpes, the south of Drôme and a little enclave of Vaucluse.

At the time I undertook my long walk through this deserted region, it consisted of barren and monotonous lands, at about 1200 to 1300 meters above sea level. Nothing grew there except wild lavender.

I was crossing this country at its widest part, and after walking for three days, I found myself in the most complete desolation. I was camped next to the skeleton of an abandoned village. I had used the last of my water the day before and I needed to find more. Even though they were in ruins, these houses all huddled together and looking like an old wasps’ nest made me think that there must at one time have been a spring or a well there. There was indeed a spring, but it was dry. The five or six roofless houses, ravaged by sun and wind, and the small chapel with its tumble-down belfry, were arrayed like the houses and chapels of living villages, but all life had disappeared.

It was a beautiful June day with plenty of sun, but on these shelterless lands, high up in the sky, the wind whistled with an unendurable brutality. Its growling in the carcasses of the houses was like that of a wild beast disturbed during its meal.

I had to move my camp. After five hours of walking, I still hadn’t found water, and nothing gave me hope of finding any. Everywhere there was the same dryness, the same stiff, woody plants. I thought I saw in the distance a small black silhouette. On a chance I headed towards it. It was a shepherd. Thirty lambs or so were resting near him on the scorching ground.

He gave me a drink from his gourd and a little later he led me to his shepherd’s cottage, tucked down in an undulation of the plateau. He drew his water – excellent – from a natural hole, very deep, above which he had installed a rudimentary windlass.

This man spoke little. This is common among those who live alone, but he seemed sure of himself, and confident in this assurance, which seemed remarkable in this land shorn of everything. He lived not in a cabin but in a real house of stone, from the looks of which it was clear that his own labor had restored the ruins he had found on his arrival. His roof was solid and water-tight. The wind struck against the roof tiles with the sound of the sea crashing on the beach.

His household was in order, his dishes washed, his floor swept, his rifle greased; his soup boiled over the fire; I noticed then that he was also freshly shaven, that all his buttons were solidly sewn, and that his clothes were mended with such care as to make the patches invisible.

He shared his soup with me, and when afterwards I offered him my tobacco pouch, he told me that he didn’t smoke. His dog, as silent as he, was friendly without being fawning.

It had been agreed immediately that I would pass the night there, the closest village being still more than a day and a half farther on. Furthermore, I understood perfectly well the character of the rare villages of that region. There are four or five of them dispersed far from one another on the flanks of the hills, in groves of white oaks at the very ends of roads passable by carriage. They are inhabited by woodcutters who make charcoal. They are places where the living is poor. The families, pressed together in close quarters by a climate that is exceedingly harsh, in summer as well as in winter, struggle ever more selfishly against each other. Irrational contention grows beyond all bounds, fueled by a continuous struggle to escape from that place. The men carry their charcoal to the cities in their trucks, and then return. The most solid qualities crack under this perpetual Scottish shower. The women stir up bitterness. There is competition over everything, from the sale of charcoal to the benches at church. The virtues fight amongst themselves, the vices fight amongst themselves, and there is a ceaseless general combat between the vices and the virtues. On top of all that, the equally ceaseless wind irritates the nerves. There are epidemics of suicides and numerous cases of insanity, almost always murderous.

The shepherd, who did not smoke, took out a bag and poured a pile of acorns out onto the table. He began to examine them one after another with a great deal of attention, separating the good ones from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I offered to help him, but he told me it was his own business. Indeed, seeing the care that he devoted to this job, I did not insist. This was our whole conversation. When he had in the good pile a fair number of acorns, he counted them out into packets of ten. In doing this he eliminated some more of the acorns, discarding the smaller ones and those that that showed even the slightest crack, for he examined them very closely. When he had before him one hundred perfect acorns he stopped, and we went to bed.

The company of this man brought me a feeling of peace. I asked him the next morning if I might stay and rest the whole day with him. He found that perfectly natural. Or more exactly, he gave me the impression that nothing could disturb him. This rest was not absolutely necessary to me, but I was intrigued and I wanted to find out more about this man. He let out his flock and took them to the pasture. Before leaving, he soaked in a bucket of water the little sack containing the acorns that he had so carefully chosen and counted.

I noted that he carried as a sort of walking stick an iron rod as thick as his thumb and about one and a half meters long. I set off like someone out for a stroll, following a route parallel to his. His sheep pasture lay at the bottom of a small valley. He left his flock in the charge of his dog and climbed up towards the spot where I was standing. I was afraid that he was coming to reproach me for my indiscretion, but not at all : It was his own route and he invited me to come along with him if I had nothing better to do. He continued on another two hundred meters up the hill.

Having arrived at the place he had been heading for, he begin to pound his iron rod into the ground. This made a hole in which he placed an acorn, whereupon he covered over the hole again. He was planting oak trees. I asked him if the land belonged to him. He answered no. Did he know whose land it was? He did not know. He supposed that it was communal land, or perhaps it belonged to someone who did not care about it. He himself did not care to know who the owners were. In this way he planted his one hundred acorns with great care.

After the noon meal, he began once more to pick over his acorns. I must have put enough insistence into my questions, because he answered them. For three years now he had been planting trees in this solitary way. He had planted one hundred thousand. Of these one hundred thousand, twenty thousand had come up. He counted on losing another half of them to rodents and to everything else that is unpredictable in the designs of Providence. That left ten thousand oaks that would grow in this place where before there was nothing.

It was at this moment that I began to wonder about his age. He was clearly more than fifty. Fifty-five, he told me. His name was Elzéard Bouffier. He had owned a farm in the plains, where he lived most of his life. He had lost his only son, and then his wife. He had retired into this solitude, where he took pleasure in living slowly, with his flock of sheep and his dog. He had concluded that this country was dying for lack of trees. He added that, having nothing more important to do, he had resolved to remedy the situation.

Leading as I did at the time a solitary life, despite my youth, I knew how to treat the souls of solitary people with delicacy. Still, I made a mistake. It was precisely my youth that forced me to imagine the future in my own terms, including a certain search for happiness. I told him that in thirty years these ten thousand trees would be magnificent. He replied very simply that, if God gave him life, in thirty years he would have planted so many other trees that these ten thousand would be like a drop of water in the ocean.

He had also begun to study the propagation of beeches. and he had near his house a nursery filled with seedlings grown from beechnuts. His little wards, which he had protected from his sheep by a screen fence, were growing beautifully. He was also considering birches for the valley bottoms where, he told me, moisture lay slumbering just a few meters beneath the surface of the soil.

We parted the next day.

The next year the war of 14 came, in which I was engaged for five years. An infantryman could hardly think about trees. To tell the truth, the whole business hadn’t made a very deep impression on me; I took it to be a hobby, like a stamp collection, and forgot about it.

With the war behind me, I found myself with a small demobilization bonus and a great desire to breathe a little pure air. Without any preconceived notion beyond that, I struck out again along the trail through that deserted country.

The land had not changed. Nonetheless, beyond that dead village I perceived in the distance a sort of gray fog that covered the hills like a carpet. Ever since the day before I had been thinking about the shepherd who planted trees. “Ten thousand oaks,” I had said to myself, “must really take up a lot of space.”

I had seen too many people die during those five years not to be able to imagine easily the death of Elzéard Bouffier, especially since when a man is twenty he thinks of a man of fifty as an old codger for whom nothing remains but to die. He was not dead. In fact, he was very spry. He had changed his job. He only had four sheep now, but to make up for this he had about a hundred beehives. He had gotten rid of the sheep because they threatened his crop of trees. He told me (as indeed I could see for myself) that the war had not disturbed him at all. He had continued imperturbably with his planting.

The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old and were taller than me and than him. The spectacle was impressive. I was literally speechless and, as he didn’t speak himself, we passed the whole day in silence, walking through his forest. It was in three sections, eleven kilometers long overall and, at its widest point, three kilometers wide. When I considered that this had all sprung from the hands and from the soul of this one man—without technical aids —it struck me that men could be as effective as God in domains other than destruction.

He had followed his idea, and the beeches that reached up to my shoulders and extending as far as the eye could see bore witness to it. The oaks were now good and thick, and had passed the age where they were at the mercy of rodents; as for the designs of Providence, to destroy the work that had been created would henceforth require a cyclone. He showed me admirable stands of birches that dated from five years ago, that is to say from 1915, when I had been fighting at Verdun. He had planted them in the valley bottoms where he had suspected, correctly, that there was water close to the surface. They were as tender as young girls, and very determined.

This creation had the air, moreover, of working by a chain reaction. He had not troubled about it; he went on obstinately with his simple task. But, in going back down to the village, I saw water running in streams that, within living memory, had always been dry. It was the most striking revival that he had shown me. These streams had borne water before, in ancient days. Certain of the sad villages that I spoke of at the beginning of my account had been built on the sites of ancient Gallo-Roman villages, of which there still remained traces; archeologists digging there had found fishhooks in places where in more recent times cisterns were required in order to have a little water.

The wind had also been at work, dispersing certain seeds. As the water reappeared, so too did willows, osiers, meadows, gardens, flowers, and a certain reason to live.

But the transformation had taken place so slowly that it had been taken for granted, without provoking surprise. The hunters who climbed the hills in search of hares or wild boars had noticed the spreading of the little trees, but they set it down to the natural spitefulness of the earth. That is why no one had touched the work of this man. If they had suspected him, they would have tried to thwart him. But he never came under suspicion : Who among the villagers or the administrators would ever have suspected that anyone could show such obstinacy in carrying out this magnificent act of generosity?

Beginning in 1920 I never let more than a year go by without paying a visit to Elzéard Bouffier. I never saw him waver or doubt, though God alone can tell when God’s own hand is in a thing! I have said nothing of his disappointments, but you can easily imagine that, for such an accomplishment, it was necessary to conquer adversity; that, to assure the victory of such a passion, it was necessary to fight against despair. One year he had planted ten thousand maples. They all died. The next year,he gave up on maples and went back to beeches, which did even better than the oaks.
To get a true idea of this exceptional character, one must not forget that he worked in total solitude; so total that, toward the end of his life, he lost the habit of talking. Or maybe he just didn’t see the need for it.

In 1933 he received the visit of an astonished forest ranger. This functionary ordered him to cease building fires outdoors, for fear of endangering this natural forest. It was the first time, this naive man told him, that a forest had been observed to grow up entirely on its own. At the time of this incident, he was thinking of planting beeches at a spot twelve kilometers from his house. To avoid the coming and going—because at the time he was seventy-five years old—he planned to build a cabin of stone out where he was doing his planting. This he did the next year.

In 1935, a veritable administrative delegation went to examine this natural forest. There was an important personage from Waters and Forests, a deputy, and some technicians. Many useless words were spoken. It was decided to do something, but luckily nothing was done, except for one truly useful thing: placing the forest under the protection of the State and forbidding anyone from coming there to make charcoal. For it was impossible not to be taken with the beauty of these young trees in full health. And the forest exercised its seductive powers even on the deputy himself.

I had a friend among the chief foresters who were with the delegation. I explained the mystery to him. One day the next week, we went off together to look for Elzéard Bouffier, We found him hard at work, twenty kilometers away from the place where the inspection had taken place.

This chief forester was not my friend for nothing. He understood the value of things. He knew how to remain silent. I offered up some eggs I had brought with me as a gift. We split our snack three ways, and then passed several hours in mute contemplation of the landscape.

The hillside whence we had come was covered with trees six or seven meters high. I remembered the look of the place in 1913: a desert…the peaceful and steady labor, the vibrant highland air, his frugality, and above all, the serenity of his soul had given the old man a kind of solemn good health. He was an athlete of God. I asked myself how many hectares he had yet to cover with trees.
Before leaving, my friend made a simple suggestion concerning certain species of trees to which the terrain seemed to be particularly well suited. He was not insistent. “For the very good reason,” he told me afterwards, “that this fellow knows a lot more about this sort of thing than I do.” After another hour of walking, this thought having travelled along with him, he added : “He knows a lot more about this sort of thing than anybody—and he has found a jolly good way of being happy!”

It was thanks to the efforts of this chief forester that the forest was protected, and with it, the happiness of this man. He designated three forest rangers for their protection, and terrorized them to such an extent that they remained indifferent to any jugs of wine that the woodcutters might offer as bribes.

The forest did not run any grave risks except during the war of 1939. Then automobiles were being run on wood alcohol, and there was never enough wood. They began to cut some of the stands of the oaks of 1910, but the trees stood so far from any useful road that the enterprise turned out to be bad from a financial point of view, and was soon abandoned. The shepherd never knew anything about it. He was thirty kilometers away, peacefully continuing his task, as untroubled by the war of 39 as he had been of the war of 14.

I saw Elzéard Bouffier for the last time in June of 1945. He was then eighty-seven years old. I had once more set off along my trail through the wilderness, only to find that now, in spite of the shambles in which the war had left the whole country, there was a motor coach running between the valley of the Durance and the mountain. I set down to this relatively rapid means of transportation the fact that I no longer recognized the landmarks I knew from my earlier visits. It also seemed that the route was taking me through entirely new places. I had to ask the name of a village to be sure that I was indeed passing through that same region, once so ruined and desolate. The coach set me down at Vergons. In 1913, this hamlet of ten or twelve houses had had three inhabitants. They were savages, hating each other, and earning their living by trapping : Physically and morally, they resembled prehistoric men . The nettles devoured the abandoned houses that surrounded them. Their lives were without hope, it was only a matter of waiting for death to come : a situation that hardly predisposes one to virtue.

All that had changed, even to the air itself. In place of the dry, brutal gusts that had greeted me long ago, a gentle breeze whispered to me, bearing sweet odors. A sound like that of running water came from the heights above : It was the sound of the wind in the trees. And most astonishing of all, I heard the sound of real water running into a pool. I saw that they had built a fountain, that it was full of water, and what touched me most, that next to it they had planted a lime-tree that must be at least four years old, already grown thick, an incontestable symbol of resurrection.

Furthermore, Vergons showed the signs of labors for which hope is a requirement : Hope must therefore have returned. They had cleared out the ruins, knocked down the broken walls, and rebuilt five houses. The hamlet now counted twenty-eight inhabitants, including four young families. The new houses, freshly plastered, were surrounded by gardens that bore, mixed in with each other but still carefully laid out, vegetables and flowers, cabbages and rosebushes, leeks and gueules-de-loup, celery and anemones. It was now a place where anyone would be glad to live.

From there I continued on foot. The war from which we had just barely emerged had not permitted life to vanish completely, and now Lazarus was out of his tomb. On the lower flanks of the mountain, I saw small fields of barley and rye; in the bottoms of the narrow valleys, meadowlands were just turning green.

It has taken only the eight years that now separate us from that time for the whole country around there to blossom with splendor and ease. On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913 there are now well-kept farms, the sign of a happy and comfortable life. The old springs, fed by rain and snow now that are now retained by the forests, have once again begun to flow. The brooks have been channelled. Beside each farm, amid groves of maples, the pools of fountains are bordered by carpets of fresh mint. Little by little, the villages have been rebuilt. Yuppies have come from the plains, where land is expensive, bringing with them youth, movement, and a spirit of adventure. Walking along the roads you will meet men and women in full health, and boys and girls who know how to laugh, and who have regained the taste for the traditional rustic festivals. Counting both the previous inhabitants of the area, now unrecognizable from living in plenty, and the new arrivals, more than ten thousand persons owe their happiness to Elzéard Bouffier.

When I consider that a single man, relying only on his own simple physical and moral resources, was able to transform a desert into this land of Canaan, I am convinced that despite everything, the human condition is truly admirable. But when I take into account the constancy, the greatness of soul, and the selfless dedication that was needed to bring about this transformation, I am filled with an immense respect for this old, uncultured peasant who knew how to bring about a work worthy of God.

Elzéard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the hospice in Banon.