Judaica artist Lizzie Katz wants to redefine the nature of Jewish ritual objects, navigating as she does across the physical and conceptual boundaries of sculptural, industrial, architectural and decorative forms.
Her limited-edition sculptural bronze Hanukkah menorah, commissioned in 2014 by The Jewish Museum in New York City, is both ultra-modern and symbolic, with the nine branches created from a single sheet of metal – “just as the Jewish people share a common origin,” she says.
Her “Seder Tray” is a reconceptualization of the traditional seder plate used at the Passover table. Handcrafted from a single sheet of bronze, the modern form echoes the parting of the sea, the miracle at the heart of the Passover story. Rather than assuming a traditional round shape, the piece is linear, representing the linear “order” of the seder. But that circular symbolism is preserved in the six rectangular stainless-steel dishes that hold the symbolic Passover foods and are designed to be passed around the seder table.
“At my family seder growing up, we had a conventional round seder plate that displayed each symbolic food but then my mother would fill extra bowls of these foods to pass around the table,” Katz recalls. “My design is in response to this separation. The dishes on my seder tray are what is passed around the table. The participants of the seder all get to interact with the seder ‘tray,’ not just the ‘leader’ of the service.”
Katz chose a combination of bronze and stainless steel not only for the striking look, but also for practical reasons. “People in my generation are not interested in polishing silver,” she says. “Stainless steel is an industrial and beautiful alternative. Bronze, conventionally associated with sculpture, is hypnotic and helps in my mission to design useful objects that are elevated to the status of art.” Indeed, the seder tray literally elevates symbolic Passover foods above table level.
Katz’s Jewish background ranges from small community to big city, and from South and North America to Israel. Born Lizzie Bassuk in Rock Island, Ill. to a Cuban-Jewish mother and Argentinian-Jewish father, the future artist grew up in Miami from age 8 on. She earned a bachelor’s degree from University of Florida and a master’s degree in architecture from Florida International University in Miami in 2012. “I decided that working in architecture in Israel would be a dream come true, so I made it come true,” she recalls. “Helping to build and beautify the state of Israel added a dimension of meaning to the practice of design.”
While in Israel, she met and married Phillip Katz, an architect from Milwaukee whose design repertoire includes Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. In 2014, the couple relocated to Milwaukee’s east side, where they are raising their two daughters.
“Since moving to Milwaukee, I have fallen in love with the industrial component of the city and I have turned my focus towards industrial design,” Katz says. “Always exploring my Jewish identity through design, I started fabricating some of my Judaica designs. I strive to create modern Judaica that can be displayed in the house year round, like sculptures, and be conversation pieces.”
Katz is a member of the Jewish Artist Laboratory, a collective of Jewish artists who do partner programing with other Midwestern Jewish artist communities, with support from the Covenant Foundation and the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay.
Informed by her background in architecture, Katz’s designs are the result of lengthy design processes that include prototyping, physical and digital modeling and sketching. She is interested in design at all scales, including furniture, industrial objects and Jewish ritual objects. “Essentially, underlying my Judaic design practice is the desire to connect my generation of Jews to their heritage through the tool of industrial and modern design,” says Katz, who strives to create Jewish ritual objects that are relevant and appealing to her contemporaries.
Being back in the heartland gives Katz an opportunity to rediscover her early roots. “My Midwestern early childhood had a great effect on my Jewish identity,” she says. “I believe Jews here in the Midwest feel a bit more ‘other’ than in coastal and diverse cities like Miami, New York or Los Angeles. We are stranded in the middle of America, a pronounced minority. In my experience, this makes Midwestern Jews feel more Jewish and seems to support a sense of Zionism.”
As an artist, Katz is proud to be part of a renaissance of sorts in what she calls “Milwaukee’s industrial underworld.” She has collaborated with metalsmiths and blacksmiths in the Milwaukee area.
“We’re creating designs that are making their way to coastal collectors and museums,” she says. “American manufacturing and craftsmanship are alive!”