Known for his Jewish art, Michael Aram reflects on his Armenian roots

Jewish Insider
May 4 2021

The Palm Beach-based artist says a shared sense of trauma and tradition connects Jews and Armenians

Michael Aram, the artist whose metal jewelry and houseware designs are a staple at high-end department stores around the country, knows that his ethnic-sounding name presents a Rohrschach test to his diverse customer base.

“I have my Persian ladies who say, ‘Of course, you’re Persian,’” Aram told Jewish Insider last week. “My Armenian ladies just know, ‘He’s Armenian.’ And then a lot of my Jewish customers are like, ‘Oh, where in Israel are you from?’” 

The “Armenian ladies” are right: Aram is an Armenian Christian, which might come as a surprise to anyone who knows him for his considerable Judaica collection. His passion for ritual objects is rooted in his Armenian faith, which he believes has a similar set of values — family, tradition, faith — as Judaism.

“I have my Persian ladies who say, ‘Of course, you’re Persian.’ My Armenian ladies just know, ‘He’s Armenian.’ And then a lot of my Jewish customers are like, ‘Oh, where in Israel are you from?’”

“There are tremendous similarities in our cultures, which are sort of uncanny not only in terms of family life and importance of religion, but just very strong cultural ties,” said Aram, 58. 

The connection he feels to Judaism is also rooted in a shared sense of trauma. “Certainly genocide, and the Holocaust, is something that has affected both our community as well as, of course, the Jewish community. The tie-ins are just uncanny,” noted Aram, who is a descendant of Armenian Christians who fled the region after a massacre at the hands of the ruling Ottomans. “My great-grandfather, who lived in Constantinople, was rounded up on April 24th 1915, which was the equivalent of our Kristallnacht,” said Aram, referring to the Nov. 9, 1938, “Night of Broken Glass,” in which Nazis destroyed Jewish businesses and sent thousands of Jewish men to concentration camps. President Joe Biden officially referred to the 1915-1916 Armenian atrocity as a “genocide” last weekend — becoming the first U.S. president to do so — a statement Aram called “long, long overdue.”.

Growing up in the heavily Jewish New York City suburb of Scarsdale, Aram also felt a personal kinship to Judaism from a young age: “I have been to more bar mitzvahs than I have been christenings,” Aram said, laughing. He and his family moved to Palm Beach, Fla., during the pandemic; they are now regulars at an Armenian church in another Jewish mainstay, the nearby Boca Raton. 

As a child, he knew few other Armenians in Westchester County. A growing Armenian community has popped up in White Plains, where his parents still live. Aram created the art for their church, St. Gregory the Enlightener. “I had the pleasure to design all the interiors for [that] Armenian church, everything from the cross on the top of the building to the baptismal font to the railings of the church, to all the candlesticks, and all the objects that are related to the Armenian church service,” Aram explained. He has also created artworks for the pope.

So why is it that Jewish objects and themes — his extensive collection includes Seder plates, mezuzahs, menorahs, kiddush cups and tzedakah boxes — feature so prominently in the work Aram sells to the public? 

“Initially, I paused, because I thought, ‘Everything I design has to be authentic to me, and how can I design a piece of Judaica? I’m not Jewish.’ And then I dug deeper.” 

To some extent, it’s simple: That’s what people wanted to buy. “Bloomingdale’s had been asking me for years and years to design Judaica for them,” Aram recalled. 

But Aram said he did not want to design Judaica only for commercial reasons. “Initially, I paused, because I thought, ‘Everything I design has to be authentic to me, and how can I design a piece of Judaica? I’m not Jewish.’ And then I dug deeper.” 

“I’m just so fascinated with religious imagery as a whole,” Aram explained, noting that religious objects often have deep personal meanings. He finds inspiration in “the idea of objects as iconic for families, things that are passed down from generations, things that are used in celebration, things that are used in worship, heirlooms that are treasured and that become part of family history — whether it’s a religious object, or whether it’s something that your grandmother always used, or that you remember on your mother’s table,” Aram said. “For me to design into that world is just something very thrilling.”

The first Jewish artwork he designed, in 2005, was a menorah, using the olive branch, which represents peace, as a motif. “It was an olive branch, which was a sculpture first and foremost, and then when you turned it upside down, it became a menorah.” 

Bloomingdale’s liked the menorah, and Aram’s speciality of creating Judaica took off from there. “Soon after,” Aram said, the piece was featured in The New York Times, “which was shocking. That was the beginning of it with my partner Bloomingdale’s, who then just kept saying, ‘This is really something that’s so special, so different, really working, resonating with the Judaica market,’ and I found my groove.”

Aram’s Jewish work is some of his best known, and his Judaica has appeared on recent gift guides curated by New York Magazine, The New York Times’s Wirecutter, the Jewish Journal and Martha Stewart Living. A section on his website is devoted to Judaica; no other religion has a presence on the site. 

Some of the objects appear under distinctly Jewish names, like the Matzah Plate or the Tree of Life Tzedakah Box. But many objects have generic names, perhaps allowing them to appeal to non-Jewish shoppers. The Wisteria Gold Square Plate is almost certainly intended to hold matzah during Passover; the Pomegranate Celebration Cup is clearly a kiddush cup; the Twist Bread Board and Twist Bread Knife are surely meant to be used for challah on Shabbat. 

This is not an accident or an oversight: many of the Jewish images and themes Aram uses also appear in other religions and cultures, including his own. “I grew up crawling on Armenian carpets with tree of life imagery made with pomegranate dyes,” he said. “I never design things which don’t have personal meaning for me, so for me to create objects of ritual is so potent, because growing up in the Armenian church, objects had power.” Still, he believes artists should not be confined only to their own experiences. “I wonder if people ask Jonathan Adler why he does Christmas,” Aram asked sarcastically, referring to the Jewish potter and interior decorator whose ubiquitous designs are sold in large retail stores like Target. 

Aram has also seen that his Jewish objects transcend religious boundaries, with a diverse group of customers buying the Judaica. 

“I was with an Indian friend this past weekend — she’s a Hindu — she was asking to buy one of my menorahs, which I didn’t think was strange at all from her, because I’ve been to her home and I’ve seen her home altar, where she has Christian idols, menorahs, Hindu gods,” Aram explained. “She says, ‘My God is every color and every creed,’ which I thought was so beautiful.”

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Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS