Mordecai Roth, 92, has always been interested in art. He spent his working life creating artistry in the mouths of his dental patients in the form of crowns and bridges.
When he retired in 1986 he turned to bigger projects. He took a sculpture class at a state college, then made a tabletop sculpture in bronze of one of his daughters washing her dog. Then he did one of another daughter, a Colorado River guide, piloting a boat through the Grand Canyon.
Not long after that a congregant at his church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Surprise, Ariz., asked him to make a chalice in bronze for the church in memory of her daughter, who had recently died.
He thought about it. “The only chalices I’d seen were round cups on pedestals,” he said. “I wanted something more elongated, more sculpturish.” It took him a while to decide how to proceed. “The first one I made looked more like a boat than a chalice,” he said.
But before long he had a design he liked. Elongated, but not boat-like. In a moment of inspiration he added two vertical interlocking rings. His then-minister at Surprise, the Rev. Nathaniel Lauriat, was so taken with it that he brought it to General Assembly one year to show it off.
That’s when the orders started coming in. To date, 132 of Roth’s chalices, from nine to 23 inches tall, have been made and are in use, mostly by congregations, but also by individuals. One of the earliest commissions was from Unity Temple, the UU congregation in Oak Park, Ill., which wanted a chalice to honor a deceased member who had been an outdoorsman. Roth created one with a rough tree trunk shape and with branches and leaves, calling it the “Tree of Life”.
Roth’s chalices are regularly used at General Assembly, including the most recent one in June 2012 in Phoenix, Ariz. At that GA, Roth was invited on stage to light the chalice—his chalice—to begin the business session on the third day of the convention. Roth was introduced by the Rev. Dr. Walt Wieder, chair of the General Assembly Planning Committee and the senior minister at the Surprise congregation until retiring recently.
Roth created his two chalice designs, the “Classic” and the “Tree of Life,” in wax. He then had a foundry cast them using the “lost wax” process, in which wax in a mold is ultimately replaced by hot metal. “It’s not all that different a process from making a dental crown,” he noted. Now, when orders come in, it’s simply a matter of having the foundry cast as many chalices as are needed.
The congregation at Surprise continues to use one of Roth’s Tree of Life chalices, and that highlights his Sunday morning experience, he said. “I generally sit up front where I can see it. The trunk of the tree is uneven and there are branches that go different directions, each branch ending in a leaf. This chalice is a religious experience for me. Sometimes I think about other family members as I look at it. It keeps giving back.”
Roth was raised Jewish in Jeffersonville, N.Y. He remembers a fair amount of anti-Semitism. “I was chased home from school more than a few times,” he said.
Roth counts his General Assembly experience last month as one of the singular moments of his life. In 92 years there have been others. He served in World War II, earning the Silver Star, and he participated in the Great Peace March in 1986, a walk from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., over nine months. He and his wife, Lenore Gaudin, once took an eight-day trip down the Colorado River with his daughter guiding the boat. That daughter later died in an auto accident. “That trip was life-changing for me,” he said.
One of the proudest moments of his life was the 90th birthday gathering that Lenore organized for him. “She arranged for all the family to attend. They told stories about how I affected their lives. I still tear up when I think about it. How many people get to hear the kind of things I got to hear that night?”
Roth says he enjoys life to the fullest. His marriage to Lenore is his second. He notes that his first marriage lasted 32 years and was not as happy as it could have been. This year he has been married to Lenore an equal amount of time. “Thirty-two seems to be a very important number in my life,” he said. “At this point I don’t want anything that I don’t have. It’s wonderful to get to this point and not have regrets.”
Roth’s chalices are available through UniUniques and directly through him, at 9823 Branding Iron Drive, Sun City, AZ 85351. He also accepts orders via email and telephone (email@example.com ; (623) 933-0186), offering a discount to people who order directly from him.
Editor's note: Mordecai Roth died May 11, 2013, age 93.
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of UU World ("Sculptor lights his iconic chalice," page 46).