Sacred Light
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Jewish Glass: On the Path of Sacred Light

By Harlan Simon

“Then God said, let there be light, and there was light.” Genesis 1:3

This article describes a series of formative life events, observations, discoveries, and metaphysical musings that have led to my involvement in the ancient flamework method of glass beadmaking. To make these beads, I wrap molten glass around a hand held, hand spun steel rod, layering in different glass colors and designs, and forming a bead. Over time I learned that glassmaking essentially originated with the Jews. And further, that it was the Jews, in their various forced dispersions, who spread knowledge of glassmaking throughout the world.

Life Event #1: Playing with my Mom’s jewelry when I was young. I only realized this after she died, when my sister and I went through her jewelry, and saw that she had a lot of really odd, interesting things. Wood beads, beads made out of nuts, shell beads, beads on chains, stone beads, etc. I think this jewelry imprinted into my brain.

Life Event #2: My maternal grandmother went to Italy when I was three, and brought me back a solid transparent glass “brick” that had green glass kelp, and a colored glass fish, embedded inside it, from the Venetian glass island of Murano. I loved that brick.

Life Event #3: As well, I loved all things small, from stamp and coin collecting, to making and painting small models of boats and cars.

Life Event #4: I took lots of industrial arts classes in junior high school, and especially enjoyed plastics shop. My love of small transparent objects manifested in the making of resin cast stick shift knobs, resin cast paperweights and penholders.

Life Event #5: Later, at law school in Manhattan in the eighties, wandering around late at night when I might otherwise have been studying, I came across the work of a then relatively obscure glass blower, Dale Chihuly, in a SOHO glass gallery window. I thought, wow, that’s neat, what gorgeous sea form fluted bowl-like pieces. How fun it would be to do that!

Life Event #6: Fast forward to the late nineties. I took a weekend glass-fusing workshop in Berkeley to balance the stress of being a litigator, and found almost complete relaxation and rejuvenation. I reconnected emotionally and avocationally to my inner child.

Jewish Craft Observation : In a glass blowing workshop at San Francisco’s Public Glass in 1999, I found myself playing the he’s Jewish, she’s not, game with others in the workshop. Well, three out of seven, I mentally noted, were Jewish. In talking to a guy named Prax, I found out he too was Jewish. So that made four out of seven - A much higher proportion than even the 10% of the population we numbered in San Francisco during the gold rush. Mere coincidence?

Putting it All Together - The “Ah Ha!” Moment: A dear friend of my mother’s came across an article about glass beads and the Jews featuring a woodcut image depicting two men, in the area of the Rhine, with pointed hats, examining a bead. “Jews of the Upper Rhine, early 16th Century,” the caption said. There were strings of beads hanging down from one of the men’s forearms, and the other man, in almost identical garb, had a circle affixed on the outside of his long cape. The discovery of this bead article was a real turning point in my life as a glass worker. I began to consciously understand how, in my own small way, I fit in with the Jewish glass making tradition. IT’S ALL THERE, IN THIS WEBSITE: http://www.hebrewhistory.info/index.htm. If you go to this site, you will be treated to a wealth of free, deeply researched and fascinating articles, entitled “Fact Papers” on various aspects of Jewish contribution to the arts and sciences.

Jewish glass

Jewish Bead Merchants of the Upper Rhine: Late 16th Century

The author of most of these diverse fact papers, the late Samuel Kurinsky, has also written the definitive work on glass and the Jews, entitled:: “The Glassmakers: A Three Thousand Year Odyssey of the Jews.” Oh, the serendipity of it all! In The Glassmakers, Mr. Kurinsky maintains that unlike many crafts whose discovery independently arose in diverse parts of the world, glassmaking was discovered only one time in history, approximately 4,000 years ago, and by only one people, later to become Jews. Further, it was the Jews who bore this discovery aloft into the Diaspora.

As Mr. Kurinsky writes: “The research into this puzzling history revealed a symbiotic association between the wandering Jews and the art of glassmaking … From their beginnings in Akkadia, westward across Arameia into Canaan, eastward back into Persia and across the desert to China, across North Africa into Iberia, across Anatolia into Greece and Italy, up the Seine-Rhine valleys and across the Hungarian plains, through Germany into the pale of the Polish and Russian plains, Jews sought opportunity or refuge, or were implanted as slaves or displaced persons carrying their arts, science, philosophy, religion and the art of glassmaking with them.”

The Circle is Complete: Through glasswork, I have regained my childhood passion and the quality of “empty mind” that lends an immediacy and richness to experience. I see glass, with its transparency, durability and inertness, as an almost eternal, transcendent material. Working it is magical, trancelike.

Let me close with this poem, possibly attributable to Jalaludin Rumi, the famous 13th Century Sufi poet, which I think beautifully expresses the monistic vision:

      Essences are each a separate glass,
      through which the light is passed.
      Each tinted fragment sparkles in the sun,
      A thousand different colors yet the light is one.

Harlan Simon has been beadmaking for ten years. He practiced law for eight years before that, holds a JD-MBA from NYU, studied history, philosophy and physics as an undergraduate, and gives beadmaking workshops at Oakland’s Public art studio, Studio One. His work has appeared in several glass bead publications, including Lark Publication’s 1,000 Glass Beads, 2004, and The Complete Book of Glass Beadmaking, 2005.

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