Home January 2012 Aleph Bet Artistry

Aleph Bet Artistry

When observing Modechai Rosenstein’s art, the eye is at first struck by the vibrant colors and the elegant flow of Hebrew text used in the piece.  Even in pieces as small as decorative plates, Rosenstein is able to capture Jerusalem’s vivacity and yellowed, elder history in a single depiction of furiously bold green, red, purple and blue rooftops and walls.
“I was always an artist… To make a living doing what you love to do is amazing,” Rosenstein says, elated.  “Thank God, for over 30 years, it’s been a blessing, like a miracle almost.  I’m going to keep on creating.  Some artists are stuck with second jobs as a waiter in New York City.  Struggling actors have to work as busboys on the side in Hollywood.
“There is a secret of the Hebrew alphabet, something that the rabbis say,” Rosenstein continues in a conspiratorial whisper.  “And that is that the letter yud is in every letter.  I try to show that in my work.”
Rosenstein has been creating art using the Hebrew alphabet for 32 years.  He attended college in Philadelphia after World War II, graduated in 1951 and found a job as a textile designer in New York City.  Rosenstein has “always enjoyed calligraphy, letters and playing with letters.”  After the textile designer’s son sold the business, Rosenstein opened a small frame shop.  One day, a man entered his shop.
“The shades were down, and I was pretty much out of work,” Rosenstein says.
After looking around, the man spied some of Rosenstein’s calligraphy and began to inquire about it.  Rosenstein explained that if he had the money, he’d redo the design and sell it.  It turns out Rosenstein’s new acquaintance was a salesman by the name of Saul Zalesme, and a couple days later he returned to Rosenstein, and helped him get his refurbished piece printed.  Zalesme then began visiting banks in the area on Rosenstein’s instruction to give them to new customers who sign up.  Zalesme finally made a sale – $100 for a painting.
“Me, an artist, I was ready to uncork the champagne right there,” Rosenstein says.  “But Saul wouldn’t have it.  He then went to another bank, and another and another, selling my work.  Since then we’ve had shows in Hong Kong, Anchorage, London, Missouri, Montana… wherever there’s a minyan, we’re gonna show up.”
Zalesme has been working with Rosenstein ever since that day he entered his frame shop with the shades drawn.  Rosentsein’s other business partner is his agent, Barry Magen.
“We’ve been working together for 10 years,” Rosenstein says of him fondly.
Today, Rosenstein’s medium of choice is gouache, which is similar to watercolor but heavier, more opaque and more reflective.  Every so often, he will dabble with oil pastels as well, he says.  He has designed everything from stained glass windows to mezuzahs to tapestries.  He has designed sculptures for Camp Ramah in a particular steel that rusts in the finish.  Most recently, Rosenstein hand-painted five silk Torah covers.
“The impressionists when I was in art school, they used a lot of color,” Rosenstein explains of his style.  “Back in my day calligraphy used to be in black and white.  I think that’s why we were so successful.  I use a lot of primaries, a lot of rich blues, purples and greens, so I never got into fluorescents.”
Rosenstein believes he is working to make the world a better place by giving children appreciation for art and calligraphy.
“We did good, working with the young and old people,” Rosenstein says.  “They all have the creativity.  That’s what we’re doing; we’re educating in a way.  We bring out their creativity.  The young ones, until they’re 10 or 12, they’re all artists… but all of sudden at 12, they think, ‘I can’t paint, I can’t draw.’  If you want to increase peace, people have to be able to value their own abilities.
“Now I’m getting hand waves from 4-year-old kids leaving [my program] with their parents,” Rosenstein adds, and says goodbye to an unseen toddler on his end of the phone in Washington D.C.  “They had a ball.”  The delight in his voice is tangible even through the phone.

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