'Visual art that inspires people.' Torah scrolls (archives)
Photo: Micha Doman, courtesy of Chabad Center, Tel Aviv
When the High Holidays began Wednesday at sundown, Torahs throughout the world were taken out of their everyday covers and "dressed" in their holiday best, traditionally in whites with muted tones.
At Temple Emanu-El in Livingston, New Jersey, and dozens of other synagogues worldwide, that change is all the more artfully inspiring because the covers are made by renowned Judaic artist Jeanette Kuvin Oren of Woodbridge.
"Her artwork is so striking, you're drawn into looking. It's so vibrant, you just look at it and it connects with you, with people of all ages," said Rabbi Mark Kaiserman of the New Jersey synagogue. "It exhibits the joy and brightness you want the Torah to have. It sort of gets you in the mood for the holidays that are about to happen."
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The Torah is a scroll containing the five books of Moses that are central to Judaism. The High Holy Days include Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The holidays emphasize the personal, reflective and introspective.
Kuvin Oren, who makes her covers from white silk that she dyes, quilts, sews and details herself, made four colorful everyday covers for Kaiserman's congregation and four for the holidays that include images in muted tones of a dove carrying an olive branch and flying over Jerusalem and a shofar or ram's horn.
Her commissioned works are so in demand all year round that she's always busy in her sprawling home studio, but a little pressure let up recently when she shipped off 30 Torah covers to different parts of the country just in time for the holidays.
"I love thinking about Judaism and translating it into visual art that inspires people," Kuvin Oren said. "I have never not loved a day's work in 27 years."
That's about the time Kuvin Oren decided to make art a career instead of an avocation.
No formal training
It was a choice she never saw coming, as she was a Princeton graduate and doctoral candidate at Yale University who was 80 percent through her dissertation in the field of epidemiology. Her goal was to do health policy research. Becoming a professional artist "never crossed my mind," she said.
Newly married to Dr. Dan Oren, a psychiatrist whom she had met at Yale, she remembers the day in the 1980s when she called her parents to discuss a change in her career plans.
Her parents — a little shocked that she was departing after all that education — asked, "Can you support yourself?" She said yes, not sure that was really the case.
Although she has had no formal art training, Kuvin Oren was always artistic as a child and her parents embraced that, even allowing her to paint the walls of the bedroom. But they discouraged art as a profession.
At age 14, she designed and sold T-shirts to her classmates and as a girl making her bat mitzvah, created a Torah cover with her mom to donate to the synagogue in Jerusalem where the event was held. She did the painting on the cloth cover and her mother did the needlepoint.
Today, she and Oren have two adult daughters who are also artistically talented.
Kuvin Oren grew up in Palm Beach, Fla. "before there were Jews" there, she said and her family was not overly religious.
The desire to become a Judaic artist kicked in after she made her own ketubah, a special Jewish prenuptial agreement, at the suggestion of a rabbi who know her artistic talents.
She went on to design many ketubahs and many other Judaic items, teaching herself techniques along the way, as she still does today. Kuvin Oren produces art on fabric, mosaics and stained glass.
Kuvin Oren said she's lucky to have come into the field at a time when a renaissance was underway in Jewish art.
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