Israeli-born artist behind the first American coin featuring an LGBT person

Some Jews might resent having to play the role of representative Jews in communities across the country without many tribesmen. But not Elana Hagler.

When it came time for the annual Christmas assembly at her children’s school, the Alabama State University art teacher gave her children a pile of gelt, the foil-wrapped chocolate coins used to make play dreidel on Hanukkah, to distribute to other children.

Was she concerned about what Jews handing out gold coins would look like, given long-standing anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews and money? Not really. She found it funny.

“Somehow it gets a lot more fun and ironic than what does your mom do? She sits down and designs the coins, the gelt, ”Hagler said.

A symbol of a ‘chanuckia’, used during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, is displayed on the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem on December 12, 2015. Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is a Jewish holiday eight days commemorating the new dedication of the Sacred Temple. The festival is watched by (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN / FLASH90)

Hagler is probably the first Israeli-born artist to design coins for the United States Mint through its Artist Infusion Program, which she joined in 2019. In 2020, Hagler designed the $ 1 presidential coin. by George HW Bush. In 2022, the Mint will produce a coin honoring Sally Ride, an astronaut and the first American woman to go into space, featuring a Hagler design as part of the American Women Quarters series. Ride will be the first known LGBT person to be honored with a US coin.

While Hagler often works on a scale much larger than the surface of a coin, he enjoys the challenge of designing coins.

“It’s kind of a meticulous problem-solving process and art for me is also about problem-solving … and this time, it’s about solving problems on a different and very challenging material and on a small canvas and trying to say extremely large things in very little space, ”Hagler said.

We spoke to Hagler, who emphasized that he was not speaking on behalf of the United States Mint, about how he creates coins, which American Jew he would like to see honored in one, and how his surprising side performance connects to his family history.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

JTA: How did you come to create this coin design for Sally Ride?

Hagler: Well, appropriations come to us from within the Mint that are created internally there, or very often they are the product of an act of Congress, as is the case with the American Women Quarters program, which is what it is. . So with the Sally Ride design, as with all the other designs I’ve been working on, Mint provides us with a fair amount of background information as a starting point and then I dig a lot deeper into my own research and really try to get at it. Get to know the person or concept as deeply as possible. Once designs are submitted, they go through a series of review stages – we receive feedback and make adjustments. Then two committees review and recommend specific designs. Then there is the Fine Arts Commission or the CFA and the Citizen Currencies Advisory Committee or the CCAC. And finally, the Secretary of the Treasury makes a selection, which in this case was Janet Yellen.

What kind of research do you do when working on a coin?

I looked at hundreds of photos of her and saw videos of her both from images taken around the time of the releases, as well as later in life when she was giving talks about her experiences. I read about his biography and read his own words about his experiences. And all of this was with the goal of getting an idea of ​​what kind of image would honor what she valued and tell an essential story about her on this little canvas.

Based on my research, it appears that the US Mint has never created a coin with the image of an American Jew. Is that something you would like to change?

So I looked at that. And in 2015, the March of Dimes Silver Dollar was issued, which is a commemorative coin, so it is 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 is not on a circulating coin. More recently, Dr. Salk and another American Jew were awarded American coins in the American Innovation $ 1 coin series: Dr. Salk for the polio vaccine and Ralph Baer, ​​who invented the prototype for consoles. of home video games, but none of their similarities appear. in those coins.

Would be interested in [creating more coins featuring Jewish Americans]? 100%. Yes of course. You know, I’m very proud to be a member of the tribe. I am proud of the achievements of the Jewish people.

If you had to pick an American Jew to appear on an American coin, who would it be?

After much consideration, if you could design a coin with any American Jew, it would be a 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 the world.

What do you think of the strangeness of being a Jew who is working on the design of coins 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 adopted because he was fleeing from the authorities in Eastern Europe. Because he was a forger, he made fake money. Apparently it worked because it survived and reproduced and here I am. But I feel like, somehow, maybe I’m closing the loop with that ancestor’s story and maybe I’ll redeem it by designing a really legit coin.

And I wanted to tell you one more story about my family that is a very different story from the one I just told, and that is that I come, on my mother’s side, from a very long line of Torah scribes that goes back to the Baal Shem 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 handwriting, it’s not kosher parchment), I think those kinds of skills across the generations definitely affect what I do. And sometimes when I’m carefully studying my designs and trying to make them worthy of the people and concepts that I’m trying to represent, I think of all those ancestors bent over their tables in their holy pursuits and I feel the connection. .

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