It’s spring. It’s Passover. The days are longer. The trees are blooming. And in these past few months new trees – giving trees inspired by Shel Silverstein’s iconic book “The Giving Tree” – have grown out of Isy Mekler’s bar mitzvah project.
Isy, a seventh grader at Solomon Schechter Day School of Boston, was determined to emphasize the mitzvah in his bar mitzvah. Along the way he assembled a museum quality exhibit, excelled as a fundraiser for a national literacy program called Reach Out and Read and received a Make a Difference Award from the John F. Kennedy Library, where he was the only student who spoke at the ceremony.
Isy’s Giving Tree Project started as an English class assignment to write a fan letter to an author whose book was life-changing for the student. Although Shel Silverstein died in 1999, Isy memorialized him, praising the late author and illustrator for helping him understand life a little better through the tree’s unselfish giving.
“When I read your book ‘The Giving Tree,’ I thought it was absurd that a tree could be happy after stripping itself of everything it had. The tree gave away all its apples. The tree gave away all of the branches it had, and its trunk. But the tree was still glad that it could keep giving. …Now I understand how divine it feels to give.”
Isy wanted to “give” his love of reading to other kids. But he realized that such joy is not easy to come by for children who can’t afford to buy books or don’t have access to well-stocked libraries in their schools. He was also well aware that a meaningful commitment to literacy meant giving everything he had in the form of time and heart and love.
And then, there were the trees. Isy designed trees for artists to paint or illustrate that were composed of two quarter-inch thick hardboard panels that slid into each other to create a three-dimensional tree. Each tree measured 19.5 inches in height and 15 inches in width.
By the time the prototype for the trees arrived from Colombia – Isy’s family is originally from Colombia and his grandmother there oversaw the manufacturing and delivery – Isy had written to more than 300 artists, 28 of whom committed to painting or illustrating a tree to support kids and literacy. In addition, fine art glass artist Dale Chihuly donated seven signed copies of his books to Isy’s project, and illustrator Karla Gudeon donated a giclée print called “Big Tree.”
When Isy became a bar mitzvah last November, the participating artists had completed the trees in time to be used as table centerpieces for his celebration. Some of the trees incorporate explicitly Jewish themes. Tikva Adler, a North Carolina-based artist, painted her interpretation of an Eytz Chayim, the Tree of Life. Adler elaborated that creating art was akin to experiencing “prayer or meditation because it brings my awareness fully into the present moment.”
Joy Chertow, Isy’s art teacher at Solomon Schechter, created a weeping willow tree using wire. Isy noted that Chertow was the only artist who changed the shape of the tree. He pointed out, “When seen from above, Joy’s tree is more oblong and the wire seems to be swinging with a non-present wind.”
Raquel Rub, a Peruvian-Jewish artist who makes her home in Miami, painted her artistic interpretation of “Creation.” In a recent e-mail, Rub explained that when she visited Israel, she was moved by: “Four sites in Israel where I was inspired by Creation. In Hebron, I visited the burial sites of the patriarchs. In Tiberias, I took a boat ride on Lake Tiberias. In Jerusalem, we remember where the Temple stood. Tzfat is the mystical city. Together, these four places reminded me of the elements earth, water, fire and air to make the piece you now have called ‘Creation.’”
Illustrator and children’s book author, Aaron Becker, was so impressed with Isy’s commitment to service that he designed a tree based on his upcoming children’s book called “Journey,” which is set, in part, in a forest. The material was a natural fit for Becker, whose tree Isy admired for its air of mystery and “the beautiful shadowing and the soft glow of the lanterns.”
In his acceptance speech at the JFK Library, Isy said that his father “was the driving force that inspired me to enjoy reading.” He also noted, “I want to provide other kids with this wonderful gift, and I want to make a difference.”
And Isy continues to make a difference in the waiting room of a Roslindale clinic where he volunteers to read to the young patients twice a month.
Isy Mekler’s Giving Tree Project will be on display at the Danforth Museum in Framingham from April 15 to August 15 as part of the museum’s literacy initiative. After the exhibit, the trees will be auctioned, with all proceeds going to Reach Out and Read.