From generation to generation
The highlights of the renovation project at Monmouth Countys oldest synagogue a grouping of colored-glass windows in the social hall and a donor wall in the lobby of Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon represent the latest inspirational design of three generations of Judaic artistic tradition in New Jersey. Ascalon Studios, which created the artwork, was founded by famed artist Maurice Ascalon, considered by many the father of the modern Israeli decorative arts movement, who brought his talents and creativity to fruition in New Jersey.
Ascalon studios now located in Berlin, NJ, under the direction of Maurices son, David features a team of artisans who execute Ascalon concepts in metal, stone, ceramic, stained glass, and mosaics. Among them is Davids son, Eric, who holds the position of general manager; his brother Brad, an industrial designer with his own studio, often collaborates with Ascalon Studios.
Born Moshe Klein in Hungary in 1913, Maurice Ascalon abandoned his familys Hasidism and, to pursue his artistic ambitions, at age 15 attended the Academy des Beaux Arts in Brussels and later continued his studies in Milan. In 1934 he made aliya to prestate Palestine, where he met his future wife, Polish-born Ziporah Kartujinsky. She herself became a sculptor late in life, creating bas reliefs of the shtetl of her childhood. She died in 1982.
Ascalon designed and created The Scholar, the Laborer, and the Toiler of the Soil the 14-foot-tall hammered copper relief sculpture that adorned the facade of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair.
In the late 1930s, Ascalon founded Pal-Bell, an Israeli company that manufactured Judaic and secular decorative arts and functional items. Ascalons designs some Art Deco, others more traditional introduced the use of verdigris, which became a hallmark of Israels crafts industry. During the 1948 War for Independence, he retrofitted the Pal-Bell factory to produce munitions, which he also designed for the Israeli army.
Shortly before relocating to the United States in 1956, he adopted the name Ascalon after the ancient biblical city.
During the 1950s and 60s, Ascalon lived in New York and Los Angeles, where he gained a reputation as a master silversmith of ritual objects. His works were installed at synagogues and public spaces throughout the United States and Mexico and are among the collections of such major museums as The Jewish Museum in New York, the Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, where, for a time, he served as a professor of sculpture.
In the late 1970s, Ascalon Studios was established in Cherry Hill, where it became and still is today a multifaceted art center dedicated to the creation of monumental sculpture and art for houses of worship and public spaces.
Shortly after the death of his eldest son, Adir, also an artist, in August 2003, Ascalon died at the age of 90.
From November 2005 to March 2006, Ascalon was posthumously honored with a major exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, which coincided with the release of Nurith Kenaan-Kedars book Modern Creations from an Ancient Land, in which Ascalon is deemed one of early Israels most important designers.
Eric Ascalon told NJ Jewish News that the Beth Miriam project represents a true collaborative effort between congregants and artisans.
The committee had sophisticated taste and that makes our job a lot easier. [We] dialogued with them to get a sense of their preferences in terms of theme and style. Once we felt we had a grasp of what was appropriate to suit the preferences of the committee and the nature of the space, we undertook the actual design of the elements.
In keeping with the temples desire to embrace its past, pay homage to Jewish tradition, and herald its future, the studio designed a series of floor-to-ceiling colored-glass windows for the social hall that depict creation, Shabbat, and Havdala.
Although the windows were created with a contemporary aesthetic, the motif is purely traditional, said David Ascalon. Flanking each side of the hall is a column of glass dedicated to the six days of creation. The seventh day, the day of rest, is honored in two windows at opposite ends of a wall.
On the right side of the room, a window welcomes Shabbat, and a setting sun on the left side signals the start of the Havdala ceremony, he added.
The donor wall in the lobby is a freeform matrix of several dozen glass rectangles in various sizes, Eric Ascalon explained. Donor names and dedications are carved on the front of the glass pieces, and deep-sculpted carvings on the back form an abstract composition that suggests waves or water in motion. The entire installation is mounted on a cherry-wood panel flanked by natural stone.
Above the matrix is a verse from the Talmud: As my ancestors planted for me, so too do I plant for my children.
The verse evokes the purpose behind the spirit of giving and the link between the past, present, and future that the temple members wanted to emphasize, said Eric Ascalon. The rededicated Temple Beth Miriam is truly a spiritual space. In Judaism, aesthetics has always played a key role in helping to transform an earthly space into a spiritual space.
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