Artist Beautifies Everything She Touches
Nissan Graham-Mayk said one of the things she’s most proud of is the cookbook, “Kid’s Kosher Incredible Edibles,” she wrote with her mother, Bea Graham, under the auspices of the National Women’s Branch of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
“I calligraphed and illustrated the recipes, and added drawings to each page,” she said. “It’s a beautiful cookbook. And it really was a labor of love. But I was amazed when the book was chosen by the Jewish Braille Institute for publication in Braille, bringing access to the recipes to an entirely new population.
“Really,” she exclaimed. “What could be better than that?”
This renowned artist and educator, who grew up in Eatontown and Rumson and graduated from Douglas College, is all about using art to bring joy and meaning, and seeing even the most common items, like cookbooks, from fresh perspectives.
As an undergraduate, she trained under the tutelage of the Chinese pottery master Ka-Kwong Hui. She also spent nine months in Israel, participating in a program then run by Brandeis University. That’s when, she says, “My pottery started to include Hebrew words written on wine goblets, candlesticks, challah and seder plates, and mezuzah cases.“
Nissan says she tries to infuse each one with hiddur mitzvah, Hebrew for enhancement of the commandment. “Knowing that many people use my work to enhance their own rituals gives me a great feeling of accomplishment,” she said.
She also met her husband, Israel, at college. Since he is Israeli, they took their children to Israel each summer to visit family. Now that they are grown, Nissan returns to the country for at least a month each year, because, she says, “I find it a wonderful source of inspiration.”
After years of producing extraordinary interpretations of Judaic ritual items in pottery, she began to branch into other mediums, including sterling silver. She’s also spent time studying silk painting privately with renowned Israeli artist Batia Ouziel.
Now, she said, “I do a lot of work in silk, making challah and matzo covers, scarves, pillow covers, framed works, and silk tallitot.” But it is her love of words that truly distinguishes her work, regardless of medium. Words from Torah, from prayers, from songs, often in Hebrew and English, embellish her designs.
She also shares her love of all things Jewish with students seeking a non-traditional path to bar or bat mitzvah.
“The students that come to me are special,” she said. “Each is unique, and for each I design a method of instruction that works for them. It can include singing. Or an art project, like painting a tambourine. But whatever we do, it all culminates in them having a meaningful bar or bat mitzvah experience.
“Every student masters chanting their appropriate portion from the Torah in the traditional trope, and knows the prayer service well enough to feel comfortable in most synagogues.”
Nissan still laughs when she recounts the phone call that led to the creation of her “Miriam’s Cup,” a masterpiece that was for many years on loan to New York City’s Jewish Museum.
“The phone rang. I picked it up and answered as I usually do: ‘Nissan speaking.’ Two voices on the other end exclaimed, ‘You ARE a woman!’’’
Susan Weidman Schneider, then as now editor-in-chief of Lilith Magazine, and Senior Editor Rabbi Susan Shnur had been looking for a female potter to design and produce a then-new symbol for the seder table, a goblet that could hold water. The magazine, whose tagline is “independent, Jewish and frankly feminist,” was building on an idea then circulating among feminist Jews to make the Passover seder more inclusive and to highlight the important role Miriam plays in the Exodus story.
Susan Weidman Schneider said almost everyone she asked had recommended Nissan. But since that’s generally a man’s name in Hebrew, she had continued looking, until someone finally told her that Nissan, named for her grandfather, was—in fact—female.
“Miriam’s story is right there in the text,” she said. “But it was not in the seder. Lilith magazine has traditionally been devoted to restoring women’s rituals to their rightful place alongside those of men, to make sure women are similarly honored. The thought was that since Elijah’s cup is near the end of the seder, a cup of Miriam could begin it. And since so much of Miriam’s story concerns water, why not fill the cup with it? Now, we at Lillith are thrilled that Miriam’s Cup has become de rigueur on many Passover seder tables.”
Nissan says the cup has taken on a life of its own.
“That’s true of all art,” she said. “You create it and then it has a life of its own.”
She mentioned another phone call from a woman identifying herself only as Jill who had seen Nissan’s cup and wanted to order one, but was worried Nissan could not make it in time for Passover, especially since each cup and tray are signed and dated. Nissan assured her there was plenty of time, since the holiday was months away. So Jill placed the order and Nissan began working on the cup.
When Jill called again about a month later, Nissan was certain Jill wanted to cancel her order. No, Jill said. She didn’t want to cancel. However, she needed it in three weeks. Her husband, Martin Indyk, had just been confirmed as President Clinton’s Ambassador to Israel. She wanted to take the cup with her so they could use it at their seder in Israel. Nissan was thrilled to honor that request.
She also holds a copyright on the design. But what really capped it for her was when New York City’s Jewish Museum asked if they could have one of her cups on loan for between eight and 10 years to be a highlight in its “Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey” exhibit, focusing on Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora after the Shoah and the creation of Israel.
When she walked into the gallery and saw her cup, spotlighted in its own case, she cried.
JOANN ABRAHAM began chronicling Jewish life as editor of Monmouth County’s Jewish newspaper, now defunct, and has written for national and international publications. She is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.