Oy, Danny, What a Mezuzah!

Friday, August 21, 2009
Daniel Liebeskind has designed a mezuzah for the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It could be mistaken for a massing model. (All images courtesy CJM)

Daniel Liebeskind has designed a mezuzah for the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It could be mistaken for a massing model. (All images courtesy CJM)

Some of the greatest architects happen to be Jewish, such as Frank Gehry, Louis Kahn, and Robert A.M. Stern. Some are unabashedly so, and none more than Daniel Libeskind. The Polish-born accordion prodigy of two Holocaust survivors, Libeskind made his name designing for the Chosen People, beginning with his first and arguably best work, the Jewish Museum Berlin. Others have followed, such as the Felix Nussbaum Haus, the Danish Jewish Museum, the Wohl Center at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and, most recently, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. As if that weren’t enough, Liebeskind has now designed a mezuzah for that same museum.

The museum.

The museum.

It was probably only a matter of time before this happened. (For the Goyim and non-New Yorkers out there, here’s a handy explanation of what, exactly, mezuzot are.) Michael Graves designs toasters for Target, Daniel Libeskind judaica for the synagogue gift shop. It’s important and good work, too, if you can get it, and probably pretty fulfilling. After all, Kahn’s most meaningful project, at least to the architect himself, was his unrealized Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem.

Is that a museum or a mezuzah?

Is that a museum or a mezuzah?

After the initial eye-roll induced by the thought of a Libeskind mezuzah, the true disappointment sets in. This was an opportunity for one of our (the world’s and Jews’) better architects to have made a really nice mezuzah. Instead, we get a glorified tchotchke no better than a Guggenheim-shaped coffee mug, another piece of pewter junk lying around the museum gift shop enticing foolhardy tourists.

The problem is that Libeskind gives in to his worst habits with the mezuzah. While his work strives for poetry, looking to embody words, phrases, and ideas in concrete and steel, he too often has a tendency to take such metaphors too far. In the case of the Contemporary, “l’chaim,” meaning “too life,” is said to be the inspiration, and the form of the museum comes from the Jewish word/symbol/expression chai, a move that constrained the building as much as it enabled it.

Instead of taking his inspiration for the mezuzah from mezuzot or some other Jewish source and creating a truly unique and worthy piece, Liebeskind clings too literally to the museum itself. It looks as though he just grabbed the nearest massing model and nailed it to the doorpost. Which is perhaps the one thing that makes this mezuzah quintessentially Libeskind’s: Just like his architecture, it’s impossible to tell which way is up.

14 Responses to “Oy, Danny, What a Mezuzah!”

  1. Lydia says:

    True….but it’s a heck of a lot better-looking than most of the mezuzot out there…when’s the last time you saw judaica that wasn’t outright shlocky?

  2. Bill says:

    or a door handle…

  3. ryan says:

    most mezuzah’s are indeed really shlocky as is most judaica. there are two nice ones on this site here: http://www.gothamjudaica.com. most of the stuff here is actually pretty sweet. not cheap. but very nice.

  4. Neil says:

    A version of this mezuzah has been at the entrance to the museum since it opened. I always liked it. It was self-referential in a good way. So to be accurate, Libeskind had already designed it for the museum itself. Now it’s just being mass produced.

  5. Chaim says:

    Let’s be frank here. It looks as dumb and as tacky as any other mezuzah. This one just has a particularly vain and tacky architect’s name attached to it. But it should be clear that there is no design merit whatsover to this ugly piece of scrap metal.

  6. Robert says:

    More dumb symbolism from Libeskind.

    He should stick to designing tchotchke like this. That way he won’t be able to ruin our cities with his brand of pretentious architecture.

  7. Toran says:

    I’d say Danny spent 10 minutes thinking about this design. I can’t help but think that’s more than he spends on most of his so-called designs for museums.

  8. Rachel says:

    Did the mezuzah go way over budget? Does it leak? (How else can we be sure it really is a Libeskind design?)

  9. David R says:

    Libeskind is “one of the world’s better architects”? – Really?

    It seems that you are mistaking undeserved publicity (mostly generated by Libeskind’s own office lackeys), for serious talent. Try naming one decent thing Libeskind did since the Holocaust Museum. Go on. Try. I dare you.

    You came up with nothing. Right?

  10. Mezuzah says:

    Mezuzah is one of the things that connects all Jewish people.


  11. Gretchen Landau says:

    Nothing says “IDIOT LIVES HERE” like having a Libeskind-designed mezuzah on your door.

  12. Ellen says:

    Check out the exhibition “Re-inventing Ritual’ at the Jewish Museum NY oopening mid Sept. No shlock there ( unless it is ABOUT shlock.
    Also- a few years back Allan Wexler created a series of 12 mezuzahs for 12 interior doorways of the Museum.

  13. mezuzah rabbi says:

    There are many beautiful mezuzah cases made from glass, sterling, metal, ceramics and more. At http://www.stam.net we do offer a few unique cases in addition to the much more important kosher mezuzah parchment!

  14. Joel says:

    Just put this mezuzah up in my home and it looks radical (i don’t usually use that word).

    You can only truly apreciate it once you put it up.

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