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Today Avivi Shifris's groggers turn up for children all over — because he was once just like them

Photos: Ariel Ohana

He knew little about Yiddishkeit growing up and had even less understanding of the items that so fascinated him, but that didn’t stop Avivi Shifris from creating menorahs, Kiddush cups, and candlesticks. Today his groggers turn up for children all over — because he was once just like them


t’s Purim night in Bnei Brak, the Megillah reading is over, and the children file into the street — to be met by a collection of massive groggers. These groggers, up to three feet tall, come in all shapes — some round with handles, designed like conventional Purim noisemakers, others in more original shapes.

The groggers are passed from hand to hand as the children discover how each one is activated with a different mechanism: One is turned by using force, another is manipulated with a small rod, and still another needs teamwork: One child holds it, while another rotates it around the shaft. Some are so heavy they need to be laid on the ground and pushed.

But where did all these groggers come from? Mispallelim who came early will tell you they saw someone put them down, asking only that they be returned after use. That’s because not too many people recognize Avivi Shifris, the multidisciplinary artist and craftsman who produces this unusual Purim fare.

And it’s not only in Bnei Brak. The groggers turn up in all sorts of places, not all of them religious. In towns and neighborhoods where children aren’t familiar with the halachos of Purim, Shifris is there, letting the children try out the groggers and explaining about the Megillah reading. He understands these kids, because he came from the same place. When he was their age, he was also thirsty for information about Judaism, and he also had no idea how to get it.

Carved into Faith

“Since I was a little boy growing up in Ganei Yehuda outside Tel Aviv, I was always looking for the inner core and significance of things,” says Shifris. “For example, I would and stare at an object that to others seemed worthless, and I would figure out what to turn it into. I could see the trunk of a dead tree and imagine what I could make out of it. My friends thought I was a little off, spending my afternoons on woodcarving, but my parents were my biggest advocates.

The talent came legitimately — both his parents worked in the fields of design, and his mother, Ora Shifris, is a well-known artist and sculptor (who gained additional fame back in the 1990s as the spokesperson for Rabbi Uzi Meshulam in his fight for disclosure about the fate of the stolen Yemenite children; later, Avivi’s brother, historian Natan Shifris, wrote the controversial book Where Has My Child Gone?, theorizing that Yemenite babies were stolen by medical crews under orders of the state).

Shifris was just 12 when he exhibited at his first show, taken under the wing of Mrs. Ruth Dayan (wife of former defense minister Moshe Dayan) who coached and sponsored young artists. When she saw Avivi’s work, she advised his mother to develop his talents and even helped put up his first exhibition. On display were, remarkably, a number of Judaica-themed objects that caused viewers to raise an eyebrow and wonder how a child who attended a secular school and was so distant from religious practice could create such objects.

Where, in fact, did that spiritual inspiration come from?

“I’m not even sure,” Avivi admits today. “Maybe it is the act of elevating raw materials that brings you to emunah. I had this constant feeling that there was something I wanted to discover, to express, and to bring out. Today I believe that every artist — whether he’s connected to the idea or not — needs to express a spiritual dimension, but, of course, at the time, I didn’t know how to explain it.”

While he didn’t understand the religious significance of the objects he was creating, he was drawn to candlesticks, Kiddush cups, besamim boxes, menorahs, and other holy items. His mother’s connection to the art industry also helped broaden his scope.

The more Shifris created, the more curious he became about the uses for these items, but he didn’t have anyone to ask. “I really had no concept of Yiddishkeit back then,” he says.


To a New Level

After finishing army service, a series of events and providential meetings led him to find his way to Jewish tradition. “My parents also began to draw closer to Torah and mitzvos. It was sort of a natural progression — they had never been against Judaism, they just didn’t know. So together, my whole family went through the process, everyone at their pace.”

Having his family for support made the transition easier — especially, he says, having his father start attend shul with him. He was in his early twenties when he began to keep Shabbos and wear a yarmulke in public. (“That was when I felt secure enough to make the statement that I had become religious.”)

Around that time, Shifris took a step that would eventually bring his art to a new level. “I realized that it would be a good idea to acquire some concepts in planning and design, proportions and symmetry, and so I studied for a degree in architecture and interior design,” he says. The study of design paid off in other ways as well. As a sideline, Shifris designs and creates toys and games for the rehabilitation of children and adults in hospital settings.


The Grogger Factory

Shifris says he feels a special connection with Purim, with the idea that Hashem is always behind the scenes and orchestrates everything that’s happening. “Each year around this time, I feel that the story of the Megillah is actually my life story. For years, I lived in hester — concealment — without being aware of the real purpose of the world. Even in my artwork, it might look like I’m the one creating something, but the truth is that it’s the Ribbono shel Olam Who leads, guides, and instructs me on the creative process. While I’m the one actually doing the work, I know that the connection and inspiration come only from Hashem, that He’s pulling the strings and connecting the dots. This connection to Purim led me, over the years, to create many types of groggers, and it’s become a special hobby of mine.”

All the different types of groggers are made of high-quality wood, with a rod that rotates on gears with teeth. Some of them are so heavy they’re impossible to turn, so he puts a noisemaker inside.

“I also have a series of groggers built like an echo chamber. The noise they generate is softer, and this year, I introduced a ‘modern grogger’ — a wind instrument for making noise during the Megillah, built from a combination of instruments including a trumpet, flute, and whistles. The combination sound is unique and intense.”

Aside from the groggers, Shifris also designs Megillah holders from silver, brass, and casted materials. “I combine them with designs taken from archeological findings of decorative cornices and other artifacts from ancient shuls that have been uncovered,” he says.


Revealing the Light

While Shifris feels a special connection to Purim, he produces special Judaica items for all of the holidays and is perhaps most famous for being a menorah artisan. He also has a collection of massive sculpted dreidels.

His menorahs stand in prominent places around the country, including a centerpiece creation in the Hurvah Shul in Jerusalem’s Old City. But perhaps his most famous menorah is the one President Yitzchak Herzog lit two years ago together with a group of children from the Jewish Institute for the Blind, coinciding with the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The idea of that menorah was to incorporate as many tangible elements as possible, so that blind children would be able to sense all the different components.

“They asked me to make the tallest menorah possible, and I took the challenge: The menorah is 1.70 meters tall, and all the blind children were able to stand next to it and identify the components — the pomegranates, the Magen David, the flowers. I was grateful to have been able to create something so meaningful and I felt a further sense of gratitude — how much we all need to thank Hashem for the gifts he bestows on us, for all our functioning senses and the ability to see life around us.”

He actually made his first dreidel when he was just seven years old. “My mother took me to a museum where I saw a demonstration of glassblowing and how to create glass dreidels using a lathe,” he remembers. “I was fascinated by the possibility of taking a material, blowing it, and changing its shape to create something so special. When I got home, I begged my parents to help me make a contraption for blowing glass, and I started making dreidels. The dreidel in its essence is a symmetrical item that spins, and that fascinated me. I began creating dreidels out of other materials as well, and my friends already knew that while they were out playing ball, ‘Avivi is making dreidels.’


Infinite Ideas

While many artisans plan their concept in advance and only afterward begin to actualize it, Shifris says that for him, the stages are reversed, “The first thing I do is jump into the water and start producing, and as I feel the idea taking shape and maturing, I move forward.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t plan and design meticulously, especially when he’s commissioned to create a structure such as a shul bimah or the doors of an aron kodesh. Then, he often tries to connect esoteric ideas and forge deep connections that the viewer might not even realize exist. For example, one set of doors he created was modeled after the design of the large stones in the Kosel Tunnels that stand opposite the place of the Kodesh Hakodoshim (yet others might have no idea what the intent behind the design is).

The same year that Shifris created the magnificent menorah for the president, he also designed a menorah made of metal pipes, inspired by the piping system at Tel Hashomer medical center where he was working on some new designs for rehab patients. That’s another angle he loves to explore: taking simple, everyday materials like bottle caps, pipes, and sticks and elevating them to create meaningful Judaica.

He’s created so many items out of such a variety of materials — maybe he’s afraid he’ll run out of ideas one day?

“I don’t worry about that,” he says, “because the ideas aren’t really mine to begin with. I start, and Hashem guides me to the finished product. My only worry is that I should continue meriting to receive that inspiration.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1004)

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