What’s the deal with the background image?

I took a Jewelry and Metalsmithing course at RISD this winter (2019), entitled “Repair: Making Connections”. We learned basic cold metal forming techniques, primarily working with found objects, exploring concepts of disposability, repair, and re-use. It was a delight!

My background image is of my final project for this course. I was using the KonMari method to clean my room at the time, and I came across my etrog from last Sukkos. The etrog had materially deprecated, rendering it unsuitable for its original ritual purpose. I sought to restore functionality to this beautiful object, exploring (and challenging) disposability in Jewish object culture.

An etrog (or citron, in English) is an fruit used during the Jewish festival of Sukkos, which lasts a week in the fall. This fruit is used throughout the week for ritual purposes, along with palm fronds, myrtle and willow leaves. Together they are referred to as the arba minim, or four species.

Because of their ritual use, etrogim (plural of etrog) are subject to high cosmetic standards. Specifically, in order to be valid for ritual use according to halakha (Jewish religious law), etrogim need to be moist, virtually free of blemishes, and have an intact pitom (stigma). If the pitom is broken off, or the skin is blemished, the fruit may be invalid for ritual use.

Finding my etrog while cleaning was the first time I had seen it since October. Last Sukkos was my first time owning my own set of arba minim, and they aren’t cheap. In the United States, getting a kosher set for less than $50 would be a steal. What had once been a ripe, flawless yellow fruit was now shriveled and rust brown. Cosmetically, this once perfect specimen had totally degraded. However, miraculously the pitom had still not broken off!

Another important feature of the etrog is its absolutely lovely smell, which only became stronger as mine dried out. It’s similar to other citrus fruits like lemon or orange, but it has this lovely sweetness that’s almost floral. I couldn’t bear to just put it back in its box, and I instantly had visions of how utterly gorgeous that rust orange would look with silver.

A common use for old etrogim is for their fragrance, often serving as the besamim (spices) needed for the havdalah ritual, done each week to end Shabbos. During the havdalah ritual, a multiwick candle is lit and typically hand-held throughout the blessings. When it comes time to smell the spices, they are often kept in a dedicated spice holder which typically look something like this. You need to open them to smell the spices, and as I’m sure you can imagine it can be difficult to do that while holding a candle with a very large flame! It’s easy to drop something, and candle wax will drip over everything.

I saw an opportunity. My prompt for my final was to create a necklace or brooch with found objects, utilizing the metalworking techniques that we learned. I chose to wrap my etrog in silver (which conveniently, is commonly used for Judaica) turning it into a pendant. This takes out the awkward and dangerous step of trying to open a jar while holding a candle! And of course, I wrapped the etrog such that the pitom would be protected, highlighting the fortitude of this fruit that it survived this long!

I began with 4 pieces of 20 gauge sterling silver and my etrog. I used a blowtorch to solder these pieces of silver together into one 2 foot long strip. I decided to mimic a fresh citrus peel texture on the silver, which I did by hammering and poking the metal with a center-punch. I used an anvil to hammer the long strip into a spiral shape, then used my hands to work the etrog into place. I created the bail (hole for the cord to pass through) out of a piece of scrap silver, and soldered everything together.

This project represents the intersection of my two greatest intellectual and personal passions. Using my intimate knowledge of Jewish law, practice and tradition along with my object fabrication skills, I restored function to a object rendered halakhically invalid, re-purposing it to enhance a different ritual experience. And I think it’s rather beautiful, too!