Cherna and Eugene Kowalsky.
Cherna and Eugene Kowalsky. (Jerry Zolynsky)

Eugene Kowalsky shares what he considers some important artistic lasts in his life that also reach beyond family milestones and into religious observation.

Eugene Kowalsky has celebrated important firsts in his life that reach beyond family milestones.  

Kowalsky was in the first graduating class at Detroit’s Mumford High School, and his marriage to Cherna Bodzin is noted among the first wedding ceremonies performed at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, the city where he and his wife have resided for most of their 58 years together.

Now, Kowalsky shares what he considers some important artistic lasts in his life that also reach beyond family milestones and into religious observation. 

Eugene’s carvings, including  yads he made for his grandson and great-grandsons (right). They took him four years to make.
Eugene’s carvings, including yads he made for his grandson and great-grandsons (right). They took him four years to make. Jerry Zolynsky

The retired Detroit science teacher and school administrator, who is 85 and battling cancer and macular degeneration, has been carving yads (pointers for Torah reading) for one grandson and three great-grandsons to use and show during congregational celebrations of each one’s bar mitzvah. 

Anticipating possible times when he might not be present as each is called to read Torah, the couple soon will be traveling to visit family in Israel so yads can be presented in person to the boys descending from his daughter, one of three Kowalsky children raised in Michigan.

The youngest great-grandson about to receive a yad is 5 years old so the ritual object has been made smaller for practice as the boy readies to recite the parshah (Torah section) that will be his bar mitzvah reading according to the youngster’s birth date.

“My wife and I are both interested in Judaic art,” said Kowalsky, whose home-displayed collection includes a papercut of Jerusalem, lithograph of a shofar and several versions of the Birkat HaBayit (Blessing for the Home). “My wife has done beautiful needlepoint, and she is the backbone for making tallis and tefillin bags as well as challah covers for our children.” 

Needlepoint that Cherna did. Each one took 100 hours to do.
Needlepoint that Cherna did. Each one took 100 hours to do. Jerry Zolynsky

Kowalsky’s interest in art began when he was a student at Guest Elementary School in Detroit. After modeling objects out of clay, he turned to soap carvings and kept up with that into attendance at Wayne State University, where he met his wife at a gathering hosted by the Hillel chapter. 

While working part time at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Kowalsky was asked to display his carvings as a component in a series showcasing imaginative projects created by employees. In addition to his miniature replicas of animals, he sculpted hearts planned for his then wife-to-be.

“Ten years ago, we started spending winters in Boca Raton, and I joined a woodcarving club believing that if I could make things out of clay, I could make them out of wood,” Kowalsky said. “I didn’t have any tools, but I found out what I needed from the members.

Carving a Legacy

“I started carving very simple things until I was thinking about my grandsons’ and great-grandsons’ upcoming bar mitzvahs. They are very learned in Hebrew studies and will be capable of reading the Torah, and I thought about trying to carve yads. 

“I tried one with assistance from members of the club — carving, chipping away and sanding. From a rectangular block of wood, I carved the shaft of the yad and moved on to the hand. I worked at it and came out with a pointer finger and added fingernails. The hand has an extended index finger.”

That first yad, finished five years ago, was given to a grandson in New York, and its appreciation further motivated Kowalsky to do four more for the boys living in Israel, where their celebrations will be upcoming over time. 

After the yads were built, Kowalsky went to a sofer (scribe) in Israel and told him to have the appropriate parshah listed on each one along with the appropriate birthdate of the designated recipient. All that was painted on along with Kowalsky’s initials in English and Hebrew inscribed on the stem.

The Kowalskys, proud of all seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, feel they haven’t left out attention to granddaughters and great-granddaughters, who, according to the Orthodox tradition they observe, will not be called to the Torah.

LEFT: Cherna Kowalsky with one of her needlepoints. RIGHT: Eugene Kowalsky holds one of the yads he carved.
LEFT: Cherna Kowalsky with one of her needlepoints. RIGHT: Eugene Kowalsky holds one of the yads he carved. Jerry Zolynsky

Cherna Kowalsky — a retired English, French and social studies teacher who worked at Hillel Day School for 38 years — enjoys cooking traditional Jewish foods and has taught her granddaughters and great-granddaughters the hows and whys of the delicacies linked to observances.

“We have given the girls knowledge, and I think that’s pretty important,” said Cherna Kowalsky, who also expressed pride in their daughters’, granddaughters’ and great-granddaughters’ various interests in academics and careers of their own choosing, including teaching and social work.

The couple — who belong to both Young Israel of Southfield and Young Israel of Oak Park as well as Congregation Torah Ohr in Boca Raton — have traveled to Israel just about every year since 1973. Before their daughters moved to Israel, Cherna’s parents had made aliyah, and the family visited them.

Traveling this time will be different. The couple will be in the business section, where seating offers distances from other passengers during his adjustment to a compromised immune system especially sensitive to the pandemic. Energized with a blood transfusion, he anticipates care contacts at Hadassah Medical Center as arranged by his Israeli-born cancer specialist at the University of Michigan Medical Center.

“The yads will be the last artistic work I will ever do,” said Kowalsky, who has required extra lighting and magnifying glasses as he finished the final yad. “I can no longer do this work, which has included making mezuzahs, but I am living a blessed life and looking forward to going to Israel once more.

“I married the woman I fell in love with on the day we met and found fulfillment by moving from Conservatism to the Orthodoxy of my wife’s family. I met many friends through B’nai B’rith activities, and I am about to meet twin great-granddaughters we have only experienced through Skype.

“I will bring to my Israeli grandson and great-grandsons what I hope will last throughout their lifetimes. My last step to making the gifts lasting was adding a layer of polyurethane [for durability]. I’m happy and joyful to reach this new year with these yads so the boys will have Judaica to remember me forever.” 

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Suzanne Chessler’s writing-editing career has spanned many years, and her articles have been featured in secular and religious publications across the state and around the country. There was a period of time when she maintained three regular columns in three different publications – one appearing weekly to spotlight metro volunteers, another appearing weekly to profile stage enthusiasts in community theater and a third appearing bimonthly to showcase upcoming arts programs. Besides doing general reporting, she has had continuing assignments involving health, monetary subjects and crime. Her award-winning work builds on majors in English-speech and journalism earned at Wayne State University, where instructors also were writers-editors on Detroit’s daily newspapers.