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Art Lessons

Shira Yehudit Djlilmand

There are plenty of Jewish artists around, and plenty of Jewish educators. But how many succeed in educating Jews through the medium of their artwork? Master craftsman Noah Greenberg’s message is as simple as his multileveled Tree of Life Shtender is intricate: the Torah is the Tree of Life of the Jewish People, and he wants to pass that on to his curious young audiences and the art lovers who make up his clientele.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tucked away in the corner of a winding cobbled alleyway in Tzfas’s Artists’ Quarter is an ancient, solid wooden gate. Behind it lies an entire world — the world where Rabbi Noah Greenberg lives and works; his exquisitely carved Judaica, his “box of tricks,” which he uses to inspire and educate the Jewish world.

As we enter through the gate to the Greenbergs’ home, we have to duck beneath hanging branches of vines and pomegranates, before entering the spacious courtyard, once an inn during the Ottoman period. First impressions of Noah Greenberg as a gentle, jovial soul, quiet and modest, give way to something deeper — there seems to be an inner fire that drives him as he talks about his numerous projects. That fire has propelled Greenberg, over the last 25 years, to clock up countless air miles traveling across the globe to demonstrate his artwork — artwork that has managed to inspire and educate tens of thousands of people about Jewish life. For his stunning carved wooden items are not only pieces of exquisite beauty, but somehow, have evolved into the perfect tools to teach about Judaism. His now-famous Tree of Life Shtender, his Kesher Tefillin project, and other art-based works are perfect tools to teach about Judaism, enabling Greenberg to synthesize his considerable talents as both artist and educator.

Today Noah Greenberg is a master wood carver, but the transition from craftsman to artisan was a winding path typical of most of the transformations in his life.

Born in Oakland, California, in 1955, Noah Greenberg was brought up with a love of Yiddishkeit imbued in him by his parents. “My parents were basically the founders of Beth Israel, the first Orthodox shul in Berkeley. In 1963 they brought in the shul’s first rabbi, Rabbi Saul Berman, who was my childhood ‘rebbi,’ has been a mentor, and has come to be a dear personal and family friend.”

Greenberg studied for a degree in horticulture from the University of California, a surprising choice perhaps for a frum Jewish boy, but he was goal-oriented. “I wanted to live in Eretz Yisrael and I was intrigued by the opportunity to work as an agricultural adviser. I’d spent time on a farm in Israel and it appealed to me. I enjoyed studying plants and it seemed like an agreeable way to make a living.”

But Greenberg’s life was destined to go in a very different direction. His first job after graduation in 1975 was as a building contractor in California, thanks to high school experience in the construction industry, and it was here that he gained his first taste of working with wood.

Four years later, Greenberg and his wife moved to Israel, where another “chance happening” influenced the direction of his work. “We wanted to live on a moshav, and we moved to Tzfas to base our search for a home. In Tzfas, we became friends with the owner of our present home. The workshop was already here: the owner was something of an inventor with a multitude of serious tools. He couldn’t bear to just sell it and decided that I was the one who was going to inherit his ‘baby.’ He insisted we buy his house — and made it possible in a fantastic way. It was incredible siyata d’Shmaya.”


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