By Larry Luxner
Alix Kramer, 25, wants to be a pediatric gastroenterologist. To reach her goal, she’s working toward a degree at the University of Chicago while living at the Lincoln Park Moishe House, a communal residence for Jews in their 20s and 30s.
But in her spare time, Kramer designs knitwear, building on a passion she has nurtured since age 7.
“When I started designing patterns last year, I realized there were no patterns for Jewish holidays,” Kramer said. “It really bothered me because making a nice Chanukah sweater is something I always wanted to do.”
So Kramer came up with her own creation: a hand-knit sweater featuring a menorah with snap-on flames, allowing its wearer to display the correct number of candles on any night of the holiday. Kramer began selling patterns online for the sweater, which takes 100 hours to make.
Kramer is now one of 10 artist competitors in an unusual Jewish reality TV-style contest called Expedition Maker that’s being organized by Camp Nai Nai Nai, a Moishe House initiative.In normal times, Camp Nai Nai Nai runs Jewish weekend summer camp experiences for Jews in their 20s and 30s that aim to help them connect with each other, do Jewish activities and have fun. With in-person programming impossible due to the pandemic, Camp Nai Nai Nai has been experimenting with creative ways to share those Jewish experiences together online.
In this latest project, for four consecutive Sundays that began Feb. 21, selected artists will lead an interactive do-it-yourself class in their area of expertise via Zoom. Viewers will learn a new craft and work on it with a small group of fellow DIYers on a collaborative design project. Then there will be a watch party as contestants reveal their art pieces, and audience members will vote on their favorite maker. Each week one finalist will win and two will be eliminated.
After four weeks, four finalists will remain. On the March 21 show, judges will select the “Grand Makher,” who will receive a $5,000 prize. Anyone may watch the contest online; registration is required to join in workshops or vote.
“Our goal is to shed light on Jewish artists around the world and their diversity, especially in a time of pandemic when many of them are not working,” Klig said.
One of the contestants is Hillel Smith of Washington. A graphic designer, marketing consultant, illustrator and artist, Smith has painted dynamic Jewish murals around the world and is the founder of the Jewish Street Art Festival.
Yoshi Silverstein, the Cleveland-based founder and executive director of Mitsui Collective, designed Expedition Maker’s artistic challenges based on the Jewish calendar and is one of the competition’s three judges. He also helped select the 10 artists from among over 100 applicants.
“We were looking at three criteria: the quality of their prior work, their screen presence, and their ability to talk about their Jewish identity and how that informed their art,” said Silverstein.
Eli Kaplan-Wildmann is another of one the 10. An artistic director living in Jerusalem who spent years working on Broadway and TV production sets after graduating from New York University, Kaplan-Wildmann, 37, is working on a project to reimagine books as one-on-one theatrical experiences.
“Today, everyone makes Instagram stories and curates their feeds. But somehow Judaism hasn’t caught up with that,” he said. “People are thirsty for beautiful and contemporary aesthetic design in their Jewish observance, and we need to find artists who are going to give it to them.”
He recently crafted several hundred hand-sewn Passover Haggadahs at $99 each.“This contest is really cool in that it’s bringing more art into Jewish practice,” Kaplan-Wildmann said. “That’s missing for a lot of people.”
Ceramics maker Mia Schon is another artist participating from Israel (the other eight are U.S.-based). A Bostonian who moved to Israel in 2014, Schon realized soon after immigrating that creating mosaics was a great way to turn drab, graffiti-covered walls in Tel Aviv into vibrant works of art. She obtains tiles, dishes and mirrors at the Jaffa flea market and uses them as elements in her variegated mosaics.
“One day, I saw an advertisement on Facebook for Expedition Maker and thought it would be fun to participate, especially right now with the pandemic,” Schon said. “There was an interview process on Zoom, with questions like ‘How does your art fit into Judaic thought?’ I’m really excited about this.”
Schon, 33, has completed 10 mosaics, most of them in Israel but also one in San Angelo, Texas.
Klig said she hopes this competition will not just be a showcase, but a way for Jews to connect across geographical distances.
This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with Camp Nai Nai Nai, the ultimate Jewish summer camp for adults in their 20s and 30s, powered by Moishe House. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.