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  • Sarah Fenster RISD '24


Altar is an installation that explores Jewish material culture. At the core of Judaism is the concept of avodah zara. This forbids anything that undermines monotheism—including witchcraft, idolatry, and deification. At the same time, throughout Jewish history, there has been a long and rich tradition of Jewish folk practices that seem to blur the lines between the divine and the forbidden: amulets that promise protection, rituals to prevent demons from entering the home, grave sites to visit to fulfill desires for the new year. Today, in the very same communities that have the strictest adherence to Jewish law, there is often the strongest tradition of these magical-seeming practices.

Altar occupies the space within these contradictions. Informed by this history, I turn to the altar as an example of a succinct material practice which is present in many religious traditions, yet ostensibly absent from Jewish practice. Synthesizing understandings of Jewish folk practices and visual culture with research into both the traditional and contemporary altar practices of other cultures, I construct my own altar, imagining what this sacred practice could look like within a Jewish context. Ritual objects rest in specifically designed vessels. Stones bear manifestations: “joy,” “success,” “health,”. Photos of family members past and present are put on display. Sensory elements—incense, velvet, flame—create a space that feels removed from the outside world. In creating this sacred space, Altar invites the viewer to explore the boundaries of what ritual can look like.

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