The Star of David tells its story to the world through Aspen artist Marc Bennett’s collages
Artist Marc Bennett crafted his “History of the Star of David” as a gift to the Chabad Jewish Community Center on Main Street in Aspen, when the congregation’s new building was opening in 2014.
The work, which collages together 18 iterations of Judaism’s iconic symbol through nearly 2,000 years of history, has taken Bennett on an unexpected and gratifying journey since then.
“I never thought it would be more than this beautiful thing to celebrate this building,” Bennett said recently, seated beneath the 8-by-10-foot collage on aluminum in the JCC atrium. “But shortly after it went up, people started asking about buying them for their homes, for other synagogues, for museums. It kept growing and growing.”
In the past five years, Bennett has made variations of the piece for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, for Sinai Temple in Los Angles and crafted an interactive version for Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation. His biggest commission yet is a massive outdoor 16-by-24 version, to be installed in the courtyard of a new cancer center at the Soroka Medical Center in Negev, Israel. (The artist is giving 10% of sales from StarofDavidArt.com to the hospital.)
It’s also become the centerpiece for children’s curriculum on Jewish history and has brought the artist around the U.S. to speak to students about it.
The colorful collage juxtaposes historical versions of the Star of David. Images range from an ancient carved stone found in a synagogue near the Sea of Galilee to today’s Israeli flag. It includes the image of a page from the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew bible, dating to 1009 Egypt, engravings and seals from Europe in the 17th through 19th centuries, a cemetery stone and the yellow badge used by the Nazis to identify Jews during the Holocaust.
“The fact that it was used as a marker of exclusion and hatred, and that it ended up being on the flag of Israel — if anything symbolized hope and persistence, that was it,” he said.
A career artist, theatrical set designer and filmmaker, Bennett moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2007. (“I came to visit one summer and I was like, ‘Wow, people actually live here? This is possible?’” the Brooklyn-born Bennett recalled.)
He bought his home outside Carbondale from the JCC’s Rabbi Mendel Mintz. A donor had given it to the congregation to sell in order to raise funds for the Main Street facility. Once Bennett settled here, he offered to make a piece of artwork for the new building, imagining it would be something small, perhaps for Rabbi Mintz’s office.
Seven years later, as the opening of the grand new Arthur Chabon-designed JCC was looming, Bennett wanted to make something ambitious enough to match it.
“I saw this incredible mountain modern building, so I was inspired to do something more,” he said.
When Mintz and JCC leadership offered Bennett a prominent first-floor wall, facing the entrance, the idea of exploring the history of the Star of David came to him.
“I came up with this idea about the Star of David because it’s one of the most recognizable symbols on the planet but so few people know its journey,” Bennett explained.
Soon after the opening of the Aspen JCC, Bennett started getting inquiries about reproducing “The History of the Star of David” and telling the Star’s story. He’s been called upon to talk to students at universities and yeshivas and JCC kids’ programs around the country.
“I knew when I was making it that it told a story, but I didn’t realize it would be a teaching tool,” he said.
Those experiences led Bennett to another creative opportunity he hadn’t anticipated: directing an animated film adaptation of the children’s book “The Tattooed Torah,” which introduces the history of the Holocaust to children. Bennett is working with film and television legend Ed Asner, who voices the main character in the film. (Mexican telenovela star and part-time Aspenite Fernando Allende is doing it for a Spanish-language version.)
The creative team for “The Tattooed Torah” includes Aspen’s Melinda Goldrich, who is an executive producer on the project.
Amid this recent and prominent work on Jewish history, Goldrich pointed Bennett toward the Ride for the Living, an annual community bike ride from the Auschwitz concentration camp to Krakow, Poland. The event aims to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive by retracing the steps of survivor Marcel Zielinks, who walked from Auschwitz to Krakow when the camp was liberated in 1945.
Bennett traveled there this year to film the ride with a 21-person film crew.
“I thought it was such a unique and bizarre idea, to do a ride from a concentration camp to this town 60 miles away,” Bennett said.
But once on the ground, he found a story that will continue and broaden the mission he began with his Star of David artwork. The film, with the working title “I Ride for the Living,” tells the story of the resurgence of the Jewish community in Krakow since it was decimated during World War II and profiles the friendship — forged through the bike ride — between a young cyclist from the U.K. and an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor. Bennett is crafting it to raise awareness about more contemporary acts of genocide around the world. For the film he recently interviewed Benjamin Ferencz who, at 99, is the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials.
Bennett is crafting a film that he believes might tell a larger story about Holocaust remembrance and the power of empathy to prevent atrocities.
“Can we harness the power of empathy, the way that perpetrators of genocide have marshaled fear and ignorance, bigotry and anti-Semitism?” he asked rhetorically. “Is it possible to convert mere remembrance into empathetic action? It’s bigger than a little thing about a bike ride.”
The Wheeler Opera House and Belly Up Aspen are teaming up to present two shows in December: Big Head Todd and The Monsters on Wednesday, December 27, and Ozomatli on Saturday, December 30.