Chai-Style Interiors: Judaica, Womanism and a Totem Pole

Chai-Style Interiors: Judaica, Womanism and a Totem Pole

Val Root Wolpe in her living room. – Photo by Duane Stork

By Marcia Jaffe |

One of the nation’s most respected bioethicists, Paul Root Wolpe, and his wife, Val, combine spiritual, sentimental, inherited treasures with their own collection of Jewish crafts and paintings.

Their house in North Decatur, designed by a Paideia art teacher, features open spaces and beautiful lighting. Val Root Wolpe, a personal and professional life coach, said: “It’s the only time we have lived in such a modern home. Our first house was built in 1910.”

The couple came to Atlanta in 2008 for Paul to serve as the director of Emory’s Center for Ethics and the chair of Jewish bioethics (he’s also chief of bioethics for NASA).

Touring their home is like a tour of the world’s Jewish museums.

Jaffe: Your family name is well known. How does it all fit together?

Root Wolpe: My father-in-law, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, served in Philadelphia for 30 years.

There are four Wolpe sons: two rabbis, one scientist, and Paul, who bridges both.

Brother-in-law David Wolpe, chosen by Newsweek as the most influential rabbi in America, authored best sellers like “Why Faith Matters.”

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Jaffe: Passover is a meaningful time to embrace family traditions. How will you observe it this year?

Root Wolpe: We’ll have 18 guests to re-enact the Exodus around different venues here. We’ll begin in an interior, tentlike space, then proceed though the backwoods, taking our tambourines (by artist Betsy Teutsch) to get through parted waters, singing, and ultimately eating on the deck. We have 23 special haggadot from which we assign guests parts. Our seder plate is Lenox (a wedding gift). Our Pesach plates by Castleton Tree of India depict the Tree of Life. The family was in the catering business, so we have service for 18 in cobalt Depression glass.

Jaffe: How does your feminist theme translate into Passover?

Old haggadot and a glass collection await Passover at the Root Wolpe seder table.

Root Wolpe: I would say womanist and feminist. Alongside Elijah’s cup, we have Kos (cup) Miriam. We place an orange on the seder plate in recognition of the fruitfulness that comes from embracing ALL Jews.

Jaffe: Womanist images all around.

Root Wolpe: One of my favorite pieces is this Van Briggle Art Nouveau white porcelain vase depicting the back of a naked female nymph spiraling upward. It was the inspiration for the carved tree outside created by the woodworking artisan Terry Legge. Like Michelangelo, he carved away the wood to allow the figures within to emerge. The coquettish legs of a young woman transmute into a cloaked maternal figure of wisdom facing east. The pottery by the fireplace is of a very strong, proud female Jewess. As you can see, her base is very substantial. Everyone loves the strength of her thighs and the power of her gaze. This strength is echoed in the nearby piece by Roz Epstein, “Spring Woman,” lying among intertwining roots with greenery portending spring. Her fertile promise is tremendous.

Jaffe: Music is a secondary motif here also.

Root Wolpe: Yes, I am a singer with the extraordinary Bet Haverim Choir. Both our daughters are musicians. We collect world music percussive instruments: drums, clackers and bells. This musical painting of traveling musicians by Jovan Obican is described as “childlike yet masterfully adult.” Not Jewish himself, Obican was popular among Jews in our parents’ generation. Today, his son, who shows his art, said, “His work displayed little mountain people and musicians on the Romanian border, which found its way to a Jewish influence. He went to see ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and was amazed at the little Obicans running around,” referring to the characters he painted.

Jaffe: This is an interesting Danish setting.

Root Wolpe: My father was an international economist at the Wharton School, and we lived in Copenhagen for a year. This is his chop (seal) from China. Behind is a clay glazed tile of a girl with a bird done by an Israeli artist surrounded by fertility symbols: grapes, pomegranates and fish.

Examples of Israeli art in the home include Shalom Moskovitz’s micro-calligraphy (left) and Ella Keron’s representations of the 12 tribes (right).

Jaffe: Describe your Judaica artists shown in museums.

Roz Epstein’s “Spring Woman” shows fertile promise and echoes the strength of the Jewess sculpture by the fireplace.

Root Wolpe: This Jacob Landau (showcased in the Philadelphia Museum), “Mark of Cain” (Holocaust Suite Image 7), is very disturbing. You see the face of one murderer whose intense gaze pulls you in. On the right, the Jews are fleeing, breaking past barriers represented by tallasim. It is full of motion and emotion and conveys the stark truth that humans since biblical times are capable of killing without feeling. I find this piece humbling — what humanity is capable of. At age 17, Landau’s illustrations won the competition for Kipling’s “Jungle Book.” He later taught at the Pratt Institute.

This micro-calligraphy by Shalom Moskovitz of Safed is special to us. He writes biblical texts in tiny lettering and illustrative painting. He was actually a watchmaker. When his workshop was destroyed, he took up painting at age 60. Here is Moses with beams of light streaming from his head after receiving the Ten Commandments. He is sandwiched between the fearful Hebrews and the angels. Each face is unique. Alongside is an Israeli piece by Ella Keron. Each metal vest depicts one of the 12 tribes.

Ilya Schor (Galicia), who was dedicated to preserving the life of the shtetls of Eastern Europe, did these engravings. He work is exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Great Synagogue in Jerusalem … the Sydney Jewish Museum in Australia.

The smaller one, my favorite, is the Tree of Life, each bloom holding a Hebrew letter. Angels are flying, fish and animals moving. Eve and Adam are in the background. Here is a unicorn. The larger one is Simchas Torah in the synagogue. Everyone looks very happy!

Gallery: Chai-Style Interiors – Root Wolpe

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