Chava finds folk are more influenced by art than they think

Doreen Wachmann meets a talented artist and designer who refused to be beaten by dyslexia

JERUSALEM-BORN Chava Rosenzweig dropped out of high school at 15. Although, like many charedi girls, she left school early to attend seminary, the reason for her hasty academic departure was because she just could not keep up with the curriculum.

Now a mother-of-three and an art graduate hoping to study for an MA and embarking on an extremely creative and community-enriching career, she has decided to share her story to give hope and encouragement to kids suffering from dyslexia which, when she was at school, was rarely diagnosed.

Chava's family was not your typical charedi family which downgrades secular education at the expense of religious tuition.

She comes from the unlikely combination of a charedi and an extremely cultured home. Her father, Mair Erlanger, who is a Feldheim publishing editor and translator, is very culturally minded.

Chava, who now lives in Manchester's Prestwich, recalled: "He always took us to museums. I grew up in a very artistic and cultured home, where I was encouraged to be artistic.

"I have brothers who paint, a brother a musician, an uncle a goldsmith. It runs in the family."

Nevertheless, with school not getting her anywhere, Chava went off young to seminary in the opposite direction from girls from the Diaspora who go to Israeli seminaries.

Chava's family chose a seminary in Lucerne because they had many relatives in the Swiss resort from where her paternal grandfather hailed.

At the age of 17, Chava married Dutch-born Yossi Rosenzweig, who had been her neighbour in Zichron Yaakov after his family had made aliyah.

As Yossi was a diamond cutter, they settled in Antwerp where Chava learned to be a goldsmith and to design jewellery.

But after 10 years in the chassidic community of Antwerp, the Rosenzweigs, who were "not at all chassidic", chose to live in Manchester as the Antwerp diamond exchange went into decline.

It was in the UK that Chava was inspired to pursue her art both academically and professionally.

She recalls: "I had just given birth to my third son Nechemya and was bored.

"It was during the Intifada. So I produced an artwork based on the theme of suicide bombs, looking at the dead bodies of all religions, emphasising that they all had the same colour blood.

She explained: "I did a lot of research, including on the Jewish concept that the blood is the soul.

"My work is influenced by me being Jewish and religious. That theme runs through."

She entered the piece for Manchester Art Gallery's competition Inspired By, which marked Adult Learners' Week, and came second.

It was at the opening of the Inspired By exhibition that Chava was talent-spotted by a lecturer from Manchester College who, on the spot, offered her a place on a foundation art and design degree course.

It was at the college that Chava was diagnosed with dyslexia.

She said: "I couldn't read and write. Yet I knew three languages - English, Hebrew and Dutch. I found out why I couldn't spell. The college made me realise that I could work with dyslexia and achieve."

Chava went on to graduate at Manchester Metropolitan University where she spent a year researching the effect of the Holocaust on the second and third generations.

She said: "I interviewed a lot of people and was researching how long the effects of the Holocaust last and how long it takes to forgive. I compared the Holocaust to the Spanish Inquisition.

"I don't feel angry when I go to Spain, but I cannot take it when I go to Germany."

She explained: "I grew up very much with the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother, who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, was an Auschwitz and Buchenwald survivor.

"My paternal grandmother, who is originally from Holland and now lives in Israel, was a hidden child. My paternal grandfather, who lived in Switzerland, worked in Poalei Agudat Yisrael camps helping refugees. That is where he met my grandmother."

And even to this day the Holocaust has its effect on Chava's art. From June 13 she is exhibiting at Manchester University an installation depicting the United Nations which she has entitled The Morning after Pill - Too Little Too Late.

She explained: "The UN was founded after the war. It should have been done before. Thus, the title."

While doing her university Holocaust project, Chava researched genetics and epigenetics which teach that everything that happens to individuals in their lives leaves a mark on their genes.

She said: "It fits in with Jewish ideas. It can also explain the experience of déjà vu.

"For example, my Dutch grandmother's family originally came from Spain. Once when we were on holiday in Spain, we went up a mountain and came to a convent.

"It made me feel physically felt sick. It is not nonsense, something goes into our genes. It must have triggered off a genetic memory of one of my ancestors during the Inquisition."

Chava also believes that we can change "the surface of things" and points to research that proves that the molecules of a fruit change when you make a beracha over it.

She said: "That is why rabbis want to be buried in the coffins made out of the tables on which they learned. Actions can change the characters of object. Places have vibes. They say there are no birds over Auschwitz, that nothing grows, that the ground is cursed."

Since graduation, Chava has continued to develop and exhibit her art which takes the form of installations in porcelain, bone china and precious metal clay, as well as ceramics.

She says: "People are more influenced by art than they think, although they don't want to be. In Nazi Germany artists were prime targets. Hitler was against furniture designer Marcel Breuer. Yet paradoxically he saved his chair."

Issue-based artist Chava says she is not trying "to be provocative" in her work but she would like people to talk about it.

She said: "Artists have power. Their opinions are valued."

Chava also works as an art therapist and displays her craftwork on TV, but most of all she loves working in the community, Jewish and non-Jewish.

She said: "I am idealistic. I have a strong interest, not just to make money, but to help people.

"I realise how many people are suffering. So many have told me that when they did art with me it was the first time they were able to speak about their problems, that they could open up and express their feelings."

She gave an example of a Holocaust survivor who refused to leave her room in a Manchester Jewish care home.

Chava said: "She told me that all the staff were like Nazis. Just like in the camps, they would tell her when to get up and when to eat.

"I managed to persuade her to come to the lounge and to draw what she felt. She closed her eyes and started describing the camps. She told me to draw a gate with a little squiggle in the middle which she said was her and the Nazis next to her.

"I asked her what we could do positive around it. She wrote, 'Nazis, look where you are now and we are here, thank God'."

Chava said: "She had never spoken about it before in her life. She had never been out of her room since she had come to the home.

"It is overwhelming how feelings are channelled through the hands, how energy is transformed into materials. We are made out of the earth. When we work with clay we are connecting to our very physical being.

"But at the same time we are very spiritual people. It really channels emotions. People feel much more relaxed. When their time is up I have to drag them away. If a person feels good for next few hours, for me it is a massive change."

Working in non-Jewish homes in Manchester, Halifax and Nelson, Chava found that the period before Xmas was "very heavy". She tried to get the lonely residents to concentrate on their positive memories.

She also got them involved in a Last Front Door project in which they depicted the homes they had left behind.

Chava's latest initiative is a Heritage Lottery-funded History Project at Manchester's Beenstock Home, many of whose residents are Holocaust survivors. Others worked in the UK on behalf of Nazi refugees. Still others were involved with the northern textile industry.

A display of the life histories of 10 residents, together with a recipe book, providing the background history of their favourite dishes, will be staged at local museums.

Also at Beenstock, Chava does exercises, as well as art therapy, with the residents and teaches them to paint pottery and make ceramics, encouraging the elderly to hold regular sales for charity. Last week, the residents produced roses made out of clay for Shavuot.

She said: "I found out that one of the residents' biggest frustrations is that they no longer feel able to give something back to the community. The money goes to Tomchei Shabbos which feeds families who cannot afford Shabbat food."

Chava also encourages cross-community interaction by weekly bringing pupils from the local Mesivta Manchester Jewish Grammar School to Beenstock to work together with residents on a mosaic which will be hung in the school.

Another cross-community project which she runs at Mesivta brings women with mental health issues to an art therapy group weekly at the school.

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph