Pickling cucumbers, cultivating yeast for Challah, sewing tallit … these hebraic homesteading projects are certainly not for everyone. But most Jews would agree that plenty of our traditions instill a cool-before-it-was-cool “Do It Yourself” aesthetic. This is a culture that often made do with very little and did it all behind closed doors, or within a tight-knit community. Historically, the center of Jewish life was the home, not the synagogue. And so we present to you a list of eight reasonably simple Jewish DIY projects. You can totally do this stuff. I promise.
1. Make a Family Tree
What Jewish family hasn’t played at least one round of Jewish Genealogy? You can go two routes: decorative or academic. If you’re only going to go a couple of generations back, you can fit you findings on a beautiful piece of art to hang in the home.
But if you’re willing to do some digging — uncovering Ellis Island papers, Shtetl Yizkor books and other primary sources of your family’s story — I guarantee that other members of your family would like to be involved in your findings. The venerable JewishGen is a good place to start. Once you’ve got some basic data, consider entering it to an online or printable template (reputable template sites include MyHeritage.com, Wikitree.com and Geni.com), so that it can be safely stored and shared. Be careful of sharing sensitive personal information on these sites, however, and take advantage of relevant privacy controls.
2. Create your own Chuppah
It can cost up to $1,000 to rent a decorated freestanding Chuppah from a wedding planner or florist. If you decide to make your own, it won’t be free, but it won’t cost nearly that much. For inspiration, head to the photo-sharing social network of choice for dreamy brides: Pinterest. Then check out this set of instructions for a simple, freestanding Chuppah. And here are instructions for an equally attractive version that’s designed to be held aloft by four friends.
If you’re into chopping down your own branches, this one is for you.
3. Edit Your Own Haggadah
A few years ago, before I knew the following two sites existed, I spent weeks preparing a “Web 2.0” seder. I positioned a projector towards a wall in my living room and readied a PowerPoint presentation for my guests filled with funny Pesach-themed cartoons and videos to intersperse throughout the traditional songs and prayers (which were also projected on the wall). But now that I know DIYSeder.com exists, I needn’t have worked so hard. The site lets you customize a Haggadah for free, then print, download or share it digitally. Select one or more themes (we were intrigued by “slightly irreverent,” “foodie,” and “JewBu” options), and choose specific religious language. (A word for God? They let me choose “Universal scapegoat.”) Haggadot.com offers a similar, if slightly more traditional, digital service complete with beautiful artworks and videos. Of course, there’s always the old standby, Maxwell House.
4. Make a Menorah
Everybody likes the warm sheen of a traditional brass menorah, but making a simple candelabra of your own could be satisfying, too, especially in families where each member is encouraged to light his or her own. Here are seventeen menorah-making ideas we found online. Some are kid-friendly projects, some aren’t. Among the more creative materials used: twigs, cookies, alphabet blocks, baby food jars, and tea lights.
5. Bake Something Traditional
Proffering recipes and entreaties to cook Jewish food is a bit obvious for a list of Jewish creative projects, but I maintain that baking Jewish pastry is among the easiest and most satisfying ways for me to feel connected to my family and ancestors. Jewish baking isn’t the easiest, and I realize that not everyone has a stockpile of recipes vetted by family matriarchs, but there are enough user-generated cooking sites out there to invalidate any excuse. Whether you try your hand at the distaff Friday morning ritual and bake a challah (difficulty level: advanced!), or give your family’s personal favorite dessert a go (hamentashen, rugelach, babka, mandelbroyt, etc.), your kitchen will smell so good that you’ll be momentarily transported to 1956. The mess is worth it.
6. Get Genetic Testing
Ashkenazi Jewish parents can carry recessive genetic markers that sometimes cause disorders and diseases in children, including Tay-Sachs, Gaucher, Crohn’s, Fanconi Anemia and Canavan (the list is rather long and depressing). There are also several genetic markers for breast cancer, known as BRCA 1 and 2, that appear in higher frequency among Ashkenazi Jewish women. These genetic flaws can be revealed with screenings tests, and if you do want to know, you can do the test yourself. A company called 23 & Me tests for hundreds of genetic markers (most of them are fun personal quirks, not deadly diseases) via a mail order spit kit. Simply salivate into a tube, mail it to the lab, and study your results on the company’s well-designed site a few weeks later.
7. Design New Year’s Cards
Looking ahead to next year, your local drugstore will always carry pre-packaged sets of Hallmark Rosh Hashanah cards, and for that we can be grateful. But why not make your own? You can design photo cards online with services like Tinycards, which includes a Jewish New Year template, or you can create a design from scratch and upload it to a bulk printer like Vistaprint.com. A common Jewish preschool activity involves stamping freshly sliced apples coated in paint onto construction paper, but if you’re feeling creative and don’t have kids around, do what I did and buy Jewish stamps, ink, blank cards, a bit of glitter, and go to town. Here’s my favorite purveyor of Jewish-themed stamps.
8. Build a Sukkah
When I was a kid, my dad drove all around Los Angeles looking for fallen palm fronds to serve as schach (branches) for the top of our backyard Sukkah, which he painstakingly constructed out of metal rods. My mom sat my brother and I down to color pictures of harvested fruit and make construction paper chains with which to decorate our hut. Definitely fun, but in the age of the Internet, so unnecessary. It’s too late for this year, but maybe you want to buy a Pop Up Sukkah next year (convenient schach mat included). If you’ve got a little more time, maybe one of these fine purveyors will do (“snaps together in minutes”).
If you want to get kids in on the decorating action next year, check out these craft ideas from the Creative Jewish Mom blog. Or, you know, there’s always construction paper.