Jewish artist Moss blends tradition with creativity

David Moss’s Haggadah took three years to create and is known worldwide for its beauty. Photo courtesy of
David Moss’s Haggadah took three years to create and is known worldwide for its beauty. Photo courtesy of

David Moss’s artwork is beautiful, meaningful and incredibly detailed. Creating everything from ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) to school campuses, Moss is always careful to take everything that is important to the person or organization and incorporate it into the piece in one way or another.

Moss’s presentation last Thursday afternoon in the Jewish Religious Center started with showing various ketubot. Each ketuba is individualized to the couple, and each is uniquely and distinctly beautiful. As he explained his process, it was clear that Moss truly cares about what the couple wants and is not afraid to deviate from traditional designs. For example, there was a couple who were wheat farmers in Nebraska, so he took that and painted beautiful, small wheat stalks on the bottom as a tribute to the couple’s work. Each ketuba’s text is written in calligraphy, the main text larger, and sometimes, additional phrases and psalms are written in micro-calligraphy along the sides. I was struck by the intricacy and devotion with which Moss treated each contract. He explained that ketubot had lost their physical importance and had become simple pieces of paper that were folded up and put in a drawer, as opposed to the intricate and beautiful ones that were traditionally framed and hung on a wall. Moss wanted to revive the old style, and in the late 1960s and 1970s he started the movement back to wall-worthy ketubot.

One of his biggest projects was to create a Haggadah, which is the prayer book used on the holiday of Passover during the seder, the special meal on the first night with different rituals and symbols. The project was anticipated to take one year, but ended up taking three. Each page is beautifully hand-drawn, and includes everything from paper cutouts to gold leaf, as it was originally created to be one of a kind and not reproduced. The page that struck me most was a fold-out page where the front page was a series of door frames with the door open and the page behind it included small maps of different countries with the prayers for Passover written in the original language of the Jews from that country. It intrigued me greatly to see everything from Yiddish to Polish to Ladino written in Hebrew letters, but all saying that same thing. Moss’s Haggadah became so popular and so loved that it was reproduced (albeit without the paper cutouts and gold leaf) and is now known around the world for its artistic beauty.

Moss then started to talk about the various projects he’s been commissioned for, ranging from working with summer camps to building a school campus for a Jewish school in Dallas, Texas. In each project, he always starts by talking with the people, whether they are 13-year-old campers or adult men and women who are leaders in their communities. He listens to what they want, or the problems they think are present, or the vision they have for the space, and then researches and plans until he emerges with a final project.

Moss did not grow up in a particularly religious household, but started studying texts and stories after college. He spends a significant portion of each project researching to find just the right psalms, stories and verses to fit. To him, Judaism, creativity and excellent craftsmanship are the main focuses of each piece. It is clear that he puts his heart and soul into every step of every project and the results are beautiful and meaningful.

My favorite piece that he showed was two pieces of glass that appeared as if they were two pages of a book. On each piece were lines – vertical on one, horizontal on the other. When the pieces were closed together, the lines fit perfectly and formed Hebrew letters, and Rabbi Nacham of Bratzlav’s Prayer for Peace emerged. This was created to show how there are two sides to a problem or story, but if they can be put together and worked through, then something beautiful could come of it.

David Moss’s visit to the College was an event that I was thankful to be a part of, and if he’s still creating art when I get married, I will definitely be going to him for my ketuba.

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