New Judaica by Acclaimed Architect & Designer Amy Reichert
It’s funny when your friends grow up to be, well, if not cowboys, really talented leaders in their field.
I first met Amy Reichert after she had just graduated from Yale and became engaged to a former classmate of my husband’s. She was studying architecture; her fiancé, Sam Fleischacker, was embarking on a career as a professor of philosophy. As well as being a sweet, clever academic couple, they were also among a wave of young Jews leaving behind their Reform and Conservative upbringings for Modern Orthodoxy. I’d not encountered Modern Orthodox Jews before Sam and Amy – especially in our then-age group of early twentysomethings. At that time, we all lived in New York and pre-hipster Brooklyn. To me, Orthodox Jews were the black-hatted fellows I saw through plate glass windows of the Diamond District and downtown electronic stores, and who retreated every evening to shtetl-like housing in Crown Heights. The women wore wigs, I was told.
Amy did not wear a wig; Sam did not wear a black hat; but they had revived certain rituals in their life that appeared both spiritually beautiful and domestically organized. My new husband and I were still trying to figure out whose job it was to take out the trash and which Chinese restaurant we preferred. Sam and Amy observed Shabbat. They lit candles and recited mystical-sounding centuries-old prayers. Instead of running errands on Saturday, they took walks together. Sam and Amy’s example would influence my husband’s and my own, eventual more serious embrace of our faith.
Now fast forward three decades.
Amy Reichert in her studio. Photo by Michele Litvin.
Amy is now an award-winning architect and exhibitions designer, based in Chicago with Sam and their two college-aged children. She’s also become one of the most original and accomplished designers of Judaica in the country.
In 1995, she submitted -- somewhat “as a lark” -- a stunning “bento box” Seder plate design to a competition held by the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. It won second prize.
“I didn’t have a Seder plate I liked,” she said in a recent conversation, by way of explaining her decision to enter the contest. She sensed a similar void in the Judaica market in general – and the world agreed. After winning the prize, Amy was soon being asked to contribute objects to museums and other competitions. Since then, her Judaica designs and pieces have been displayed in museums and galleries from Vienna to New York, San Francisco to New Haven.
When designing a new piece, Amy says she first examines how the object is traditionally used– and pushes forward from there. She will modernize, but always with deference to the Talmudic rules governing design of religious objects.
“In some ways I’m approaching the objects as an industrial designer ,” Amy observed. “What do these things need to do for us? If I were designing a toothbrush, for example, I would start by knowing the top has to be hard, the brush soft. The Talmudic text offers what might seem at first like constraining rules – what size, what materials these things need to be. Everything from a Kiddush cup to a sukkah has these strong dimensions and methods of construction. But these constraints speak to me as an architect. I enjoy the constraints. It’s a challenge. I couldn’t do anything with a blank canvas.”
Reichert's nautical “Sail” Shabbat candle holders are now available at Fig Tree & Vine
While Amy’s Judaica remains something of a sideline hobby to her principal work as an architect, more and more the two sides of her are merging together professionally. She’s received commissions to design lamps and other pieces of liturgical furniture for sanctuaries across the country. She recently finished a one-woman show at the Spertus Museum in Chicago. Currently she is working with Murphy, Burnham and Buttrick, the New York architectural firm commissioned to renovate the iconic Park Avenue Synagogue. For this project, Amy is designing all the liturgical furniture -- lamps, the ark, the reading tables for the Torah, and a suite of furniture for ritual use throughout the building.
Why does she think the aesthetics of these objects are so important? I asked her.
“I will tell you a quick anecdote,” Amy replied. “At Spertus I gave several artist talks. At the last one, a couple came up to me. The young woman was an art student. She said, ‘I’m in the process of converting to Judaism to marry my fiancé here. Seeing your work, and hearing the way you think about Jewish rituals and their meaning through these objects, has been the most meaningful kind of Jewish education I’ve had so far.’
“I feel these Jewish objects are a way in. Their design is very critical to, and should reflect, a contemporary identity as well as try to excavate and communicate the meanings behind the ritual.”
Now Fig Tree & Vine subscribers have a way in too. I’m truly honored to be able to offer you a line of Amy Reichert pieces: the beautiful summery, nautical “Sail” candle holders pictured above, as well as three mezzuzahs. These are all online at Fig Tree & Vine. In the coming months and holidays, I hope I will be able to offer you more of Amy’s work. Indeed, Amy urged me to goad her into making new designs. If my goading can have any effect, I’ll feel that I’ve repaid a teeny bit of the otherwise enormous influence she’s had on my own aesthetic approach to Judaism.