(JTA) – Some Jews might not want to fulfill the role of representative Jew in communities across the country without many tribal members. But not Elana Hagler.
When it was time for the annual Christmas at her children’s school, the art professor at Alabama State University gave her children plenty of gelt, the chocolate-wrapped pieces. in aluminum foil used to play the dreidel on Hanukkah, to distribute to other children.
Was she worried about the way Jews distributed gold coins, given long-held anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews and money? Not really. She thought it was funny.
“Somehow it gets even more fun and ironic than what their mom is doing?” She sits down and designs the parts, the gelt, ”Hagler said.
Hagler is possibly the first Israeli-born artist to design coins for the US Mint through her Artist Infusion program, which she joined in 2019. In 2020, Hagler designed the $ 1 Presidential George HW Bush coin. In 2022, the Mint will produce a coin honoring Sally Ride, an astronaut and the first American woman to go to space, with a design by Hagler as part of the American Women Quarters series. Ride will be the first known LGBT person to be honored on an American play.
While Hagler typically works at a scale much larger than the surface of a coin, she enjoys the challenge of coin design.
“It’s kind of a painstaking problem-solving process and art for me is also about problem-solving… and this time it’s problem-solving in a very difficult different material and on a very small canvas and trying to say extremely big things in a very small space, ”Hagler said.
We spoke to Hagler, who pointed out that she is not speaking on behalf of the US Mint, about the way she creates coins, about the American Jew she would like to see honored on one of them. and how her surprising side concert ties into her family history.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
JTA: How did you come to create this part design for Sally Ride?
Hagler: Well, missions come to us either from within the Mint that are either created internally, or very often they are the product of an act of Congress, as is the case with the American Women Quarters program. , that’s what it’s all about. . So with the Sally Ride design, like with every other design I’ve worked on, the Mint gives us a fair amount of background information as a starting point, and then I dig deeper into my own research and really try. get to know the person or concept as deeply as possible. Once we submit designs, they go through a number of review stages – we get feedback and we make adjustments. Then, specific designs are reviewed and recommended by two committees. So there is the Commission des beaux-arts or the CFA and the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee or the CCAC. And then finally, a selection is made by the Secretary of the Treasury, which in this case was Janet Yellen.
What kind of research do you do when working on a coin?
I’ve looked at hundreds of photos of her and watched videos of her from images taken around the time of the launches, as well as later in life when she was lecturing on his experiences. I read his biography and read his own words about his experiences. And all of this in order to get a feel for the type of image that would both honor what she valued and tell an essential story about her on that tiny little canvas.
From my research, it appears that the US Mint never created a coin with the image of an American Jew on it. Is this something you would like to change?
So I looked at it. And in 2015, the March of Dimes Silver Dollar was issued, which is a commemorative coin, so not a circulation coin. It features a profile of Dr. Jonas Salk, an American Jew, who developed one of the first polio vaccines, but it’s not on a circulating coin. More recently, Dr. Salk and another American Jew were honored on American coins in the American Innovation $ 1 coin series – Dr. Salk for the polio vaccine and Ralph Baer, who invented the prototype of home video game consoles, but none of their similarities emerge. on these parts.
Would i be interested in [creating more coins featuring Jewish Americans]? 100%. Of course I would. You know, I’m very proud to be a member of the tribe. I am proud of the accomplishments of the Jewish people.
If you had to choose an American Jew to appear on an American coin, who would it be?
After careful consideration, if I could conceive of a play depicting an American Jew, it would be the poet Emma Lazarus. Once again, there are so many good and meaningful choices from American Jews who have made profound and amazing contributions to our country and to the world.
How do you feel about the strangeness of being a Jew who works on coin design with all the anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews and money?
So my maiden name is Pelman. And that name was actually a name that one of my ancestors took because he was fleeing the authorities in Eastern Europe. Because he was a counterfeiter – he made counterfeit money. Apparently it worked because it survived and happened again and here I am. But I feel like, in a way, maybe I come full circle with the story of this ancestor and maybe he redeems it by designing a truly legitimate currency.
And I wanted to tell you another story about my family which is very different from the one I just told, is that I come, from my mother’s side, from a very long line of Torah scribes dating back to the Baal Chem Tov [the 18th century founder of Hasidic Judaism]. So if you think about the kind of work they do, and how incredibly demanding it is – if you mess up a letter it’s not kosher scroll – I think that kind of skill over generations definitely affects what I do. And sometimes when I look at my creations and try to make them worthy of the people and concepts I am trying to describe, I think of all those ancestors leaning over their tables in their sacred quests and I feel the connection. .