Mordechai Rosenstein’s artwork and Hebrew calligraphy have brought to colorful life biblical images, talmudic wisdom, Jewish folklore, and the Hebrew language.
It has graced seder plates, ketubot, wall hangings, stained glass windows, seriographs, silk screens, tapestries, and murals. He has designed wedding and bar and bat mitzva invitations and framed images, some of them three-dimensional.
They are in homes, synagogues, and institutions, and a piece was even commissioned by B’nai B’rith International as a gift for Pope Benedict XVI. He ran through this roster of artistic achievement as he showed a colorful slide presentation to a group on May 12 at Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, where Rosenstein served as artist-in-residence May 12-15.
Among the dignitaries and artists who have been presented with Rosenstein pieces are Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, Israeli President Yitzhak Shamir, violinist Isaac Stern, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In a series of programs at the temple, he talked about his creative inspiration and worked with congregants — adults and children — on creating their own masterpieces.
Much of Rosenstein’s inspiration, he said, comes from the Bible and Hebrew alef-bet, and the vast majority of his works incorporate phrases in the holy tongue or biblical passages and quotations translated into English.
“I can work for days on a design,” said Rosenstein in an interview with NJJN at the synagogue. “I will contort the same letter over and over.”
On Thursday and Friday during his time at the temple, Rosenstein held lunch and learn sessions, where he instructed participants on how to fashion their own artwork. In addition to showing his slide presentation on the 12th, he gave a d’var Torah during Shabbat dinner on Friday. On Saturday night, he held a “pinot and painting” art exhibition, with visitors enjoying an array of his output while sampling wines; the next day, he conducted a session with families.
Since 1979 Rosenstein has been creating Jewish art from his home studio in Elkins Park, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb.
“The Hebrew alphabet is my vehicle,” he said. “Like any other artist, I am concerned with form and color and hope there is a good result.” He focuses on Hebrew letters, “which I look to in forming my abstract shapes.”
“The flowing forms of the letters have been an inspiration to me since my youth,” said Rosenstein, noting that after he graduated from Akiba Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia, “I bought a pack of Camel cigarettes and a pair of dungarees” and went on to the Philadelphia College of Art. It was there that he developed the notion of using Hebrew calligraphy in a contemporary manner.
“I became intrigued by Hebrew letters,” he said. “They were kind of exotic. In high school, I began writing a megilla by copying one. There were no examples in those days.”
Rosenstein worked as a textile designer, living in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. “My friends started getting married so as a gift I would make them a ketuba,” he said.
Unlike today, back then it was unheard of to create a work of art for the traditional Jewish marriage contract.
He studied under abstract artist Franz Kline, famed for his use of black and white, learning the importance of each in creating light, darkness, and space.
Among his favorite letters, Rosenstein said, is the “lamed” because of its versatility as it lends itself to being twisted around shapes and incorporated into a variety of styles. The yud also makes frequent appearances.
“The rabbis have a saying, ‘The yud contains all the letters of the alphabet,’” he said, and when he conducts workshops he always asks both young and old to incorporate the letter into their own works.
“The yud can be stretched out, but still retain its shape,” explained Rosenstein. “They start to look at the letter differently.”