If you lived in the Bronze Age, you’d know about Via Maris. The coastal trading route ran from Damascus to Heliopolis (ancient Egypt) and was responsible for connecting civilizations. It also began a “legacy of Jewish commerce that would last for centuries to come.” The route introduced our ancestors to the foods and materials that shaped Jewish culture as we know it. Via Maris had a universal reach “by way of the sea,” it’s literally what the name means. And though the trade route no longer exists, the vast points of connection it provided symbolize what Via Maris, the Modernist Judaica brand, endeavours to do each day. By way of Judaica (but also via the internet, planes, Nordstrom Canada, and the Atlantic Ocean, as the brand is based in New York City) founder Dana Hollar Schwartz forges connections.
The conversation between Schwartz and I is really between all of us. Judaica at Via Maris isn’t only about product, it is about reimagining and (re)invigorating the conversation and connection between Jewish people, between Jewish people and their history, and between Jewish people and their faith.
Born and raised in Toronto, Schwartz, who now lives in Williamsburg, had the idea for a contemporary Judaica line long before she started one. However, she did not know if she was the right person to take it on, especially because she runs another business. In 2018, she ultimately decided to create the contemporary Judaica she was always looking for and took her time to develop it. She researched, visited libraries, travelled to Israel, pivoted and adjusted, and spent two years working with designers to ensure Via Maris’ offerings would be perfect.
But it hasn’t been easy. Judaica is a niche industry; it is difficult to forecast what will and won’t succeed because there is not a lot of information out there on Judaica shops, as Schwartz shared. Yet, that is what makes it exciting, as she is able to react to what is happening in the moment. One thing Schwartz was sure of when Via Maris launched last year was that she wanted to give back to the community. “I don’t think you can separate a product that is intended to be used for traditions and rituals without also being aware that there are organizations needed in the world that will protect our freedom and our safety to practice those rituals and traditions.” So far, Via Maris has committed over $10, 000 dollars to the Anti Defamation League by donating one per cent of their annual income while continuing to work with different charities and organizations in other capacities.
By way of this Q & A you’ll connect with Schwartz’s journey and the process, production, operations and mission of the 21st century Via Maris.
Rest Candleholder and Trace Chanukiah in cloud. Photo courtesy of Via Maris.
What finally convinced you to start Via Maris?
In late 2018, after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, and then what ended up being a very scary holiday season in December of 2018 in New York City; I live in Williamsburg, where some of those [antisemetic] situations took place. I think every Jew has been there, when you see the tide turning and you see something happening and you’re reading the news; I felt paralyzed, like what are you supposed to do? I’m speaking very openly right now, young Jewish person to young Jewish person, we’re all seeing the news still. And it’s kind of like what do you do? How can you help? It’s not clear, necessarily, and I started to revisit the idea of Judaica and its purpose in Judaism, our traditions and our culture. I think one of the best ways to fight antisemitism is to be a proud Jew more than anything, and that can mean a million different things to a million different people. There is no right or wrong. Judaica took on this new dimension of meaning to me and I fell in love with it all over again, and I wanted to put out a line of what I viewed as design-minded modernist Judaica.
As you illustrate on your website, it’s about engaging and re-engaging with the use of contemporary tools.
Everything has to move forward to stay relevant, and to engage the next generation. I don’t describe myself as particularly religious, but I am super Jewish. And when I heard that my friends didn’t have anything [Judaica wise] I thought, that is depressing, it’s sad, and it worries me. I don’t know if it’s the Toronto Jewish education [system], because I was certainly told a million times when I was a kid: it’s on you, we never forget, educate. It’s cranked into you when you go to Hebrew school and it feels like a responsibility to carry these traditions on. It is an honour. We worked really hard on trying to strip them down to be bare in a sense, there’s not a lot of symbolism. They don’t necessarily reference something, and I think that allows people to choose how they want to interpret them themselves, which is powerful, it [the brand] doesn’t come with a preconceived notion of what Judaica is.
And maybe because the design is more sleek, simple, and subtle, people feel like they can integrate it and have it in their homes throughout the year.
I have no idea how many other people do, but I display these objects, they’re what makes a Jewish home a Jewish home, it’s not just the Ottolenghi cookbook. There’s stuff in a Jewish home that makes it very different from other homes anywhere else in the world, and it is because of these objects and our use of them. You can’t observe Shabbat without lighting candles, you can’t celebrate Hanukkah without lighting a menorah. So sometimes it’s the most basic stripped down version of things and trying to find a new way of talking about it.
Rest Candleholder in clay. Photo courtesy of Via Maris
Block Chanukiah in brushed aluminum. Photo courtesy of Via Maris.
Your designs are done purposely and bring a fresh interpretation of what Judaica can mean and look like.
Have you ever heard of the concept of hiddur mitzvah?
No, I haven’t.
It is the concept, or the idea of the beautification of a mitzvah beyond its minimum requirements. Which is the idea that you can light Shabbat candles but if you make it even more beautiful than just lighting Shabbat candles, your mitzvah is better. I have leaned on that heavily in terms of when there isn’t necessarily the necessity for these products to be beautiful, but I think certainly the argument for them to be.
They’re minimal in design, but also have a specific colour scheme.
A lot of the products are made out of industrial materials, steel and aluminum are used a lot. What I love about these materials is that they can exist in a lot of places. When you do something that’s cast iron or marble or brass, it doesn’t have the legs some other producets have.
For the colours, I was inspired by the classic Hanukkah candles that come in the blue box we all had growing up. That’s very nostalgic to me and so a lot of the colours are based on that concept. I thought those candles which dripped everywhere were so cool; we had aluminum foil underneath everything. The idea of the colours was that if you’re super into design, the yellow might be your thing, but if you’re more minimalist, there’s an off-white for you. So we’re trying to make the most out of a simple shape and a material, and really elevate it with colour forward choices, so that it can blend with as many different types of homes and interiors and people as possible.
Block Chanukiah in midnight. Photo courtesy of Via Maris.
Chanukah candles in midnight, cloud, sand, and terracota. Photo courtesy of Via Maris.
Trace Chanukiah in sand. Photo courtesy of Via Maris.
From your website to your Instagram, Jewish history is a prominent part of your messaging. You summarize the history of the Hanukkiah, you show works by different Jewish artists, and different synagogues. It harkens back to the history of the name of the brand itself. Can you share what led you to choosing “Via Maris”?
Visuals are the most incredible way to say something. Language can be hard right now in this world, and I think beautiful visuals can surpass so much. So we really do work on visually interesting and purposeful storytelling. You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been from. I also think Judaica is one of the oldest products. I don’t ever really know what to call it—it’s not really a product, but for simplicity’s sake, it’s the oldest product. I always say, it’s not our tagline, but, you know, “inspired by the path here for the future, Judaica like you’ve never seen it before.” All of this is inspired by our shared culture, and I like adding that because it gives people context to what we’re doing.
The mezuzah must have been a little more complicated because you have the kosher scrolls handmade from Israel. How did you find your way to working with female soferets.
I was aware very early on that you can’t just get it [the scrolls]; you need to know who you’re working with. And from there I learned about women who are doing this, and I was able to be connected with a scribe in Jerusalem. She did our first [batch] under lockdown with her teenage boys in the room.
For the Shelter Mezuzah, there’s a clear glass vial in the middle, and that’s because as I learned more about this type of calligraphy I fell in love with how exquisite it is. I wanted a piece where you could actually see what it is that you’re supposed to see or think about versus something like what I grew up with and hadn’t seen on the market: just a box that no one knows what’s inside.
The kosher scroll written with the prayer is accompanied by the clear vial of the Shelter Mezuzah. Photo courtesy of Via Maris.
The Shelter Mezuzah. Photo courtesy of Via Maris.
That’s true. You rarely see the scroll. And what is the process in finding the perfect relationship between design and functionality?
A lot of the design was sort of secondary after dealing with some of the user issues. For example, candle wax melting everywhere is everybody’s nightmare. And again, I grew up in a family with aluminum foil underneath everything and that feels wrong, so working on candle holders that either catch the wax in some capacity so you don’t have to worry about it, or are easy to clean. Our candles are low drip, so that does help; there’s no such thing as dripless, but they’re going to drip less. What’s nice about it is that you’re dealing with product design from almost day one—from the first step, no one’s really done it—so it’s exciting to be able to think about not only what these look like but how they feel to use. They are tools for a purpose. They are not ornaments. And we need to think about how they’re going to feel, how they’re going to be used, and then when we can talk about how else we can use them. Nobody wants more stuff than they need. We know what’s around us in our own homes [especially] in the last year and a half, so we have to talk about living with Judaica . . . it sort of adds another level to it. Our kiddush cups are a favourite and are being used just like a wineglass or an everyday glass. People are engaged with the product and can find a way to have it fit into their life.
Is there a specific story from a customer you’ve heard from that has moved you tremendously?
It feels a little bit like a joint mission. It’s not just me, it’s everybody that’s a customer, that’s a fan, we’re all kind of in this together. The brand will only be as big as the customer base, so it feels very holistic in that sense. I can’t think of anything so specific customer wise, but it is something really frequent, and I will say, I’m constantly humbled by it, and grateful that we can be apart of someone’s life in that way.
Kiddush Cup Set. Photo courtesy of Via Maris.
It’s really beautiful to be part of these holy moments. And then they’ll pass their Via Maris tools down to their kids and so on and so on.
We continue this tradition of Jewish family heirlooms, because lots of people have stories of, you know, my grandmother brought this from . . . there’s so many of those stories; I love those stories. So I do hope. And that’s another reason for some of the choices and why the materials are durable, sturdy, and things that are poised to last a lifetime.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Header image design by Orly Zebak. Photos courtesy of Via Maris.
Orly Zebak writes, designs sets and costumes, and makes art in various mediums. Her work seeks to challenge conceptions of female performativity in relation to womanhood, girlhood, and coming of age stories. In her spare time, you can catch Orly gardening—usually in her very comfortable off-brand crocs.
Orly earned her M.A. at the University of Toronto in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies.