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Tin, Tzedakah and Seeing the Ordinary

L'Chaim-Kiddush-Cup-InvitationalIn 1997 I was invited for the first time to participate in the invitational show hosted by the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I'd seen (and was inspired by) a few of the previous shows where they invited contemporary artists and makers to create pieces of Judaica.  The results were beyond expectations or gift store tchotche.

This was a very exciting opportunity -- but what to make? The theme was the kiddush cup.

While considered the theme, I wanted to use recycled tin cans, something that I had been working with for about 7 years at the time. Racking my brain, vague memories of the tin Tzedakah boxes from my childhood came to mind. I hadn't seen one for a long time..... no one collects charity a penny or nickel at a time.

I asked my father, "Do you have a tin Tzedakah box in a closet somewhere?"  Or do you know anyone that might have a Tzedakah box stuck in a corner somewhere?"Tzedakah-boxes-Jewish-National-Fund-box

Within 10 days he sent me 14 boxes just like the one above. This tzedakah box design for the Jewish National Fund design dates from the mid-20th century.

From those first tin boxes I made this Kiddush cup.

Kiddish cup constructed from Pushke Boxes for Jewish National Fund  by Harriete Estel Berman

Making Judaica from recycled tin seemed heretical.

What would people think? Making a ceremonial object for a museum exhibition from unwanted, ordinary "pushke boxes" seemed irreverent. Working with recycled materials was very rare at the time, even embarrassing. Recycled and repurposed materials had not yet become the eco-trend of the 21st century.

The big surprise for me was how well received this new direction was at so many levels.

A lesson for everyone to try unexpected solutions for their art or craft. This risk started a whole new series of work that continues to this day.  

Since then, many people have given me their tin tzedakah boxes. Instead of throwing them away, they give their boxes a new life. Tzedakah boxes 015

The ordinary tin boxes carry memories of ritual, and observation from another generation. It is odd that the boxes have no value, but they are too valuable to be thrown away. That was why it was so exciting to see "Tzedakah Boxes at The Magnes Collection."

Tzedakah boxes historical Jewish National Fund Box for charity 

Reusing materials can carry information
 beyond the humble materials. The history of the object or the materials carries meaning. The materials contribute to the new purpose.

Berman Scents of peaceSpice Box Besamin from recycled tin cans

Since 1997, humble tin "pushke boxes" have been used in many peices.

Tzedakah 9 envelopes made from tzedakah Pushke boxes and recycled tin cans.

This photos shows "Tzedakah" 50 envelopes from recycled tin cans. 


So are there ordinary objects or materials that could bring new meaning to your work?