Artist mines family and beet juice to tell personal story in Rodef Shalom exhibit
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Artist mines family and beet juice to tell personal story in Rodef Shalom exhibit

Images from Rosabel Rosalind's graphic novel add texture to intergenerational space

Image of Rabbi Martin Sofer by Rosabel Rosalind
Image of Rabbi Martin Sofer by Rosabel Rosalind

An upcoming exhibit at Rodef Shalom Congregation is following its own beet.

Set to open on Jan. 16, “The Sofer: A Tribute to My Zayde” is a series of images painted in beet juice by Rosabel Rosalind.

The artist, originally from San Fernando Valley, California, is a Pittsburgh resident who graduated with an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 2023.

The paintings are excerpted from a graphic novel she completed in 2021.

The 185-page work, which she hopes to publish, is an ode to her grandfather Martin Sofer, an Orthodox rabbi who, according to the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center, served in the Israeli War of Independence before joining Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge as a spiritual guide 25 years later.

Rosalind lived with her grandfather for the first 12 years of her life. At points, the two were roommates. During other periods, her grandfather lived down the hall.

“We had a very, very close relationship,” she said.

Sofer died in 2011.

“The memories that I have with him are very much tied to his smell and the foods that he ate,” she said. “He loved Manischewitz-brand borscht, and so I thought what better material to use than beets themselves.”

The paintings, which were created from one boiled beet, also detail the artist’s evolving religious ties.

As a child, she attended a Jewish day school.

“I hated it. I hated going to temple. I hated the High Holidays,” she said.

It wasn’t until moving to Chicago as an undergrad that Rosalind’s sentiment changed.

Weeks into her first semester she recognized her sense of loneliness.

Thankfully, the holidays are “conveniently placed in September, October,” she said. Their arrival prompted an understanding that she “needed to feel home again.”

Rosalind then found a synagogue.

“Going to temple, for the first time on my terms, was transcendent,” she said.

The artist’s works reflect an awareness of that moment and the years that followed.

Mining those experiences and enabling others to do so inside a synagogue is essential, she said: Jewish spaces often highlight Judaica instead of “embracing the work of younger artists who speak to their own Jewish experience in a more expansive way.”

“I’m honored that Rodef [Shalom] is starting to lean into this part of contemporary art and local artists, local Pittsburghers, who are working with Judaism,” she added.

Mayda Roth, Rodef Shalom’s development director, said the exhibit is the first that the congregation is hosting in affiliation with the Council of Jewish Museums, an umbrella association of Jewish museums, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia and others nationwide.

With nearly 1,000 people passing through Rodef Shalom each week, Roth is thrilled that so many eyes will observe Rosalind’s “lovely tribute to her zayde.”

Charlie White, the head of Carnegie Mellon’s Art School, said the “intergenerational quality” of Rosalind’s work is a perfect pairing for Rodef Shalom’s walls; still, the subtext is greater than a mere visual elegy to deceased relatives.

“It is a feminist text in many ways,” he said. “She does talk about growing up, being an adolescent, going through changes and how she felt about her grandfather.”

Rosalind’s work was previously exhibited at Vienna’s MuseumQuartier, Improper Walls Gallery and the Jewish Museum Maryland. Its inclusion at Rodef Shalom dovetails nicely with the congregation’s long commitment to religious and communal evolution, White explained.

“For a shul where the Pittsburgh Platform was written in 1885, to have that history and to be able to continue in a certain direction and show very specific work that in that context might be a little edgy, means a lot,” he said.

Rosalind, 27, said she’s honored to be a “guinea pig,” and, whether including images of a graphic novel inside a sacred building foreshadows future meaningful engagement elsewhere, she’s eager to see what’s next.

“In 20 years synagogues are going to have to look different because people aren’t going anymore. People my age aren’t going. And we’re not going because things change and organized religion evolved and people evolve,” she said.

According to Pew Research Center, 22% of Jews ages 18-29 attend religious services at least once a week. Weekly turnout among adults ages 30-49 is 32% and 28% for adults ages 50-64.

Rosalind said her generation is “finding new ways to connect to Judaism outside of temple.”

There’s an irony that a hallowed space is showcasing a young artist’s Jewish story; but the greater takeaway, Rosalind said, is that “what’s so beautiful about being Jewish is you can find a sort of sacred myth anywhere and every day: God is everywhere. That’s sort of the whole thing.”

“The Sofer: A Tribute to My Zayde” runs from Jan. 16 to March 18. An evening with the artist is scheduled for March 11 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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