ALGONQUIN PARK, Ontario — If Ric von Neumann’s special-order, handcrafted mezuzahs could speak, what stories they would tell — from their unlikely provenance to their ultimate destinations.
Now adorning doorframes in North America, England and Israel, most of these one-of-a-kind creations took form inside an 85-year-old lakeside log cabin in the wilderness 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Toronto.
But what might be most curious about these beautiful Judaica objects is not where they were crafted, but by whom — von Neumann isn’t Jewish, and didn’t even know what a mezuzah was until well into his adulthood.
Since moving to Canada from the United States in 1998, he has made scores of the religious accessories, working out of his rustic home in Ontario’s fabled Algonquin Park. Far removed from the closest Jewish community, the area is best known for its pristine nature, 2,000 lakes, and as a canoeing paradise.
Von Neumann is a master craftsman, carpenter, and jeweler, meticulous in his work. His mezuzahs are rich in detail and tailor-made to the recipient’s personality and interests. As such, they’re rife with sentimental value for their owners, while serving, according to Jewish tradition, as a symbol of protection.
The pieces are made from an array of materials such as brass, copper, silver, nylon, and reclaimed ivory, as well as different woods including oak, ebony, maple, cherry, pine, and cedar. They measure 1½” to 10” (circa 4 cm to 25 cm) in length and 2 – 2½” (circa 5 cm to 6.5 cm) in diameter, and are a delight to the eye. But a casual glance doesn’t do justice to the artistry behind them.
Each is a miniature work of art even if von Neumann is quick to dismiss the term “artist” for himself, insisting he’s simply an artisan. Others might beg to differ when they view his creativity up close.
Over the years, von Neumann has made more than 80 diverse mezuzahs. For a Beatles fan in Israel, he made a tiny stage with instruments used by the famed quartet, detailed right down to the iconic left-handed Hofner bass guitar played by Paul McCartney. He’s done a baseball model for a Major League Baseball team owner, created a brass-embedded profile of a dancer next to her name in Hebrew, and carved a three-dimensional sailboard for a sailing aficionado.
Other motifs include a bicycle, bobble-head beaver, monkey, loon, owl, totem pole, single-prop airplane, baby grand piano, windsurfer, downhill skier, baseball mitt and sports team logos. By far, the most requested are guitars, acoustic and electric.
Today, thanks to the internet, von Neumann receives orders from far and wide. Most are for gifts for weddings, bar or bat mitzvahs, and graduations.
Not surprisingly, since creating his website seven years ago, his business has increased considerably, even if he’s anything but profit-driven. He often earns little or nothing financially from these labor-intensive creations that typically take him between three and 30 hours to make, depending on the complexity of the design.
‘The relationship that develops can be so moving I often end up not feeling right charging them for the mezuzah’
Before people order a mezuzah, they first communicate by email and/or phone with von Neumann to discuss what they’re looking for and why.
“In the process, they often share with me very poignant stories,” the 62-year-old von Neumann says. “It’s amazing what sometimes comes out when the person explains the reasons for the mezuzah, the subject matter or design content or the event being celebrated.
“The relationship that develops by phone or email with the person placing the order can be so moving I often end up not feeling right charging them for the mezuzah. In such cases, I simply ask for a minimal amount to cover supplies, materials and shipping, without charging for my labor or time,” he says.
Not exactly a lucrative strategy, but for von Neumann the greatest reward is the response he receives to his work.
“I know it may sound corny or cheesy or whatever, but the appreciation these people express after they receive the mezuzah and give it to the intended recipient is far more satisfying for me than getting a check for my work,” says von Neumann. “It’s a great feeling to get such feedback.”
Such is his trusting, easygoing approach, he doesn’t ask for a down payment when someone places an order, which usually totals between $60 and $360, based on the materials used and the design required.
“I work on total faith and confidence,” says von Neumann, who’s also a gifted guitarist. “I’ve never asked for a deposit or even accepted one when a person offers it. I always say: ‘I’ll wait until you receive the mezuzah in good condition and it passes your scrutiny. Then, if you’re satisfied with it, you can send me a check.’”
Reassuringly, never once has someone received a mezuzah they ordered from Neumann and not followed up with payment.
It’s ironic von Neumann has developed a reputation for mezuzahs given he didn’t know what they were until he made his first one. In 1990, while living with his wife Libby in Encinitas, California, they were thinking about what to get friends for a wedding gift. Libby, who’s Jewish, suggested he make a mezuzah, which left him puzzled.
After she explained a mezuzah is a case, affixed to a doorframe, containing a parchment on which verses of the Torah are inscribed, he then did some research to better understand their physical appearance. He wanted to avoid doing anything that would be offensive in terms of design or iconography. At the time, well before having the internet, he went to a local synagogue and saw mezuzahs in the gift shop.
‘To my surprise, the first one I saw was in the form of a Formula 1 racing car’
“To my surprise, the first one I saw was in the form of a Formula 1 racing car,” says von Neumann. “It wasn’t what I’d expected. That design made me think there wasn’t a whole lot I could do to make the mezuzah for our friends offensive. It opened the doors for interpretation that I’ve sort of run with ever since.”
The first one he made had a brass backing plate with a little piece of ebony wood on which was mounted a combined symbol associated with medicine and the scales of justice in honor of the couple’s respective professions, a lawyer and doctor.
With that mezuzah so well received, he eventually made more as gifts to other friends for significant occasions. The first he ever sold was 20 years ago. Since then, they’ve evolved, adopting different shapes, sizes and materials.
Born in Iowa, von Neumann grew up in Illinois. He received a BA in Fine/Applied Arts at the University of Illinois where his late father, who was a goldsmith and illustrator, was the head of the metal work department. His paternal grandparents moved to the US from Germany in 1934 a year after the Nazis came to power.
“They couldn’t abide by what was happening in Germany because of Hitler,” says von Neumann. “They felt the need to flee and immigrated to the US.”
In 1998, von Neumann began running the woodshop program at Camp Tamakwa, a predominantly Jewish summer camp situated on a neighboring lake from his cabin. Libby is a longtime key member of the camp’s summer staff. The rest of the year, von Neumann works full time on its building and maintenance team.
‘If I were to make it any cleaner than this, I wouldn’t be able to find a thing’
When in his personal workshop, von Neumann is clearly in his element. Adjacent to the cabin’s sole bedroom, his workspace is his private domain, untouched when he’s not there. Materials and tools galore are festooned on the walls, shelves and countertops, all deployed in the making of his mezuzahs, jewelry and other crafts.
Screwdrivers — 30 in all, along with 35 types of pliers, needle files, clamps, air brushes, cutters, magnifying devices, burrs, grinders, torches, fasteners, screws, brass nails, bolts, different kinds of wire, paints, lacquer, clear coatings, a lathe, upright sander, soldering station, drill press and a vacuum casting machine have pride of place amid a panoply of other utensils and paraphernalia.
Suspended from the ceiling is a bar holding 25 rolls of masking tape of varying sizes, colors, texture and strength. To a first-time visitor, it can be dizzying.
“It’s obviously a mess to the untrained eye,” says von Neumann, standing next to the workshop’s single window, overlooking Oxtongue Channel. “Truth is, if I were to make it any cleaner than this, I wouldn’t be able to find a thing.”
While earlier in his career he never expected mezuzahs would figure so prominently in his life, he says today it’s not without logic.
“Making mezuzahs is sort of a combination of several different skills and talents I’ve developed over the years,” says von Neumann. “So I feel good I can combine them all into these little pieces. Having built custom homes and very small jewelry, the mezuzahs call into use all the things I’ve learned in my career in one form or another.”
And all the while nearby, resident beavers, bears, moose, wolves, loons and other wildlife carry on merrily with their lives, seemingly oblivious to the master mezuzah maker in their midst.