The Stories Behind the Pictures – 5775


Calendar season is here!  THE JEWISH EYE calendar of art covers all of 2015 and the Hebrew year 5775 (beginning in September).  A great holiday gift – you can purchase the calendar through my webstore, on Amazon, at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation or at various stores in my area, if you’re local.  Send me an email if you need more information.

The Jewish Eye calendar coverIf you have not yet seen THE JEWISH EYE, here is a sneak preview – and a look behind the scenes at how, and why, I created the art.   When the calendar was first published in September, I wrote about each image, one by one, sent it to my mailing list, and posted it on Facebook.  Here is the whole collection of writings for each of the 14 images in the calendar.  The calendar itself contains separate captions for each painting.

An alleyway in Jerusalem:
Hollyhocks, Bezalel StI love painting a distant view through trees in the foreground; why not the upward-curving stalks of hollyhocks? They almost look human. The stone walls of Jerusalem behind the tall flowers stand as tribute to their own history, aging into subtle pastel hues.
“B’tzal-el” means “in the image, or shadow, of God”. It is an ancient Hebrew name given to a skilled artisan in the Torah. Bezalel is entrusted with divine instructions to build the Ark of the Covenant as well as the Tabernacle, or portable sanctuary, for the ancient Israelites as they make their way across the Sinai desert.
Today, Bezalel Street is the location of the Bezalel Academy of Art & Design in Jerusalem.

Grazing near the bomb shelter:
KADITAH VALLEY (October 2014)
KaditahThis painting was done during a visit to Kaditah, a rural valley in northern Israel where fig and olive trees grow wild.  There I saw a shepherd with a herd of goats; a bomb shelter; shacks for people and farm animals; and in the distance, the white city of Safed (pronounced “Tzfat”) where Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, was born.  While I was painting, a group of cows wandered by, grazing freely.  The dirt road in the distance winds its way past the grave of the famous Rabbi Tarfon, who fled the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70CE, and whose teachings are preserved today in “The Sayings of the Fathers”, Pirkei Avot.  A giant oak called the “Tree of Mercy” casts its shade on outdoor bookcases full of prayer books that are used at this shrine, which attracts people from far and wide.  Kaditah is a magical place that I will never forget.

The Land of Paradox:
PILLAR OF CLOUD (November 2014)
Pillar of CloudThis is the most complex and personal painting in my calendar, arising from a trip in 2012 when my daughter and I traveled to a kibbutz in Israel to participate in the olive harvest. There we experienced firsthand why olive trees are associated with peace. How ironic to be immersed in this fragrant environment, surrounded by laughter and conversation – and then hear the outbreak of war. Rockets and missiles from Gaza were suddenly raining down on southern Israel and Tel Aviv. We were 10-15 miles from the targeted [civilian] population centers, and could hear and feel the explosions in the distance. At night, my dreams were infused with both the gentle impressions of the olive grove, and the searing sound of military jets cutting through the night. I imagined a blanket of security covering my daughter and me as we slept – the gentle slope of the olive grove. The land of Israel rested beneath us, ancient and modern, a bed of fruitful paradox.

The solitary Sabbath:
WINTER SABBATH (December 2014)
Winter SabbathWinter comes quickly in the mountains, and as I light my woodstove for the first time each autumn, I think of bygone blizzards.  Where I live in the rural northeast United States, to be part of a “faith community” is to travel.  We don’t live in shtetls like our ancestors did, but must drive to reach our synagogues, schools, and markets.  We also bow to weather.  In winter, this sometimes means lighting the Sabbath candles and reciting the blessings alone.  Restrained by the forces of nature, the solitary Sabbath candles are lit in a community of fields and forests rather than people.  How does the silence of snowy branches bear witness to human intentions?  What better way to kindle the inner light and sanctify the day of rest?
Yet our community of people is part of creation, too – and it is human nature to seek that out . . . and to ponder these questions as the seasons change.

Red clouds, blue courage:
JEREMIAH (January 2015)
JeremiahJeremiah fascinates me because he was hand-picked as a prophet even before his birth.  As a young man, he is thrust across the threshold of his powers before he feels ready, commanded by a voice that is both supportive and threatening.  I tried to convey the context of the story – a time of dark upheaval and imminent war, symbolized by stormy shapes and discordant colors.  The gently-curving almond branch forms Jeremiah’s spine, that which upholds his faith and blossoms when danger is past.   Who among us doesn’t need that?





Flowers on the balcony:
NARKISS STREET (February 2015)
Narkiss StreetThis apartment on Narkiss Street is like a second home to me.  The balcony overlooks a residential street on the edge of Rechavia, a neighborhood in West Jerusalem.   I have fond memories of sitting there, up above the street, listening to the passing sounds of footsteps, cars, and three languages:  Hebrew, English, and Arabic.  The street takes its name from Mordecai Narkiss, a Polish art historian who assisted in founding the Bezalel School of Art.  The flowers come from a special Shabbat dinner which I shared with two dear friends.

Less is more:
Study of Olive Grove, KaditahThis painting is one of my  smallest and quickest paintings.  I took the photograph when I was traveling in northern Israel, but did the painting months later in just one sitting – actually, during a lunchbreak. The colors and shapes of this young olive grove were so graphic, it almost looked like it was already a painting. It was a perfect opportunity to work on grey paper. Starting with a medium-tone ground enabled me to work both darker and lighter. Some of the grey you see is the paper showing through. After working on intricately detailed illustrations, this quick study was a welcome change. The more I could suggest, the better.

The overlapping star:
YOM HASHOAH (April 2014)
Yom HaShoahHow can one symbol bring so much joy and so much pain?  Throughout my childhood, I knew the star of David that I wore around my neck was something special – but until I began to learn about my Jewish heritage as an adult, I didn’t know why.  Embedded in my grandmother’s silence was the intense grief and loss that the same yellow star caused in her own family during the Holocaust.  Today, my grandmother’s past overlaps my present.  Though I walk in a different place and time, we both travel the same arc of history, and share the same star that has symbolized the Jewish people for millennia.  It is our destiny to grapple with complexity and make sense of it – which Jews all over the world do on Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, which occurs in April.  I’m grateful to be free as an artist, to grope in the dark with color and tone . . . and to strive to bring to it a new sense of light.

The Tree of Life:
SHAVUOT  (May 2015)
ShavuotAs a picture book illustrator, I find endless inspiration in the archetypal stories and images of the Torah. As a teacher of Judaic studies, I find children readily relate to these ancient tales of brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, blessing and curse, life and death. Mingled with divine prophecy, the wisdom and folly of our ancestors unfold on a landscape of vast desert and sacred mountains. Here is a body of literature that has shaped history itself – our shared history not only as Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but as Americans, Europeans, and Middle Easterners. All these riches make up a scroll that has as its axis Etz Chaim – the Tree of Life – for taken as a whole, the stories of the Torah affirm life itself. With its roots in the past and its branches in the future, this is a tradition that continues, growing with each generation, each century, and each millennia.

The Six-Winged Creature:
Isaiah & the SeraphIt was as an artist that I was first drawn into religious traditions around the world, including Judaism.  I was just starting out as an illustrator when my first regular client came along:  a progressive Christian publisher who needed many passages of the Bible illustrated each year.  This client wanted images that were universally human, multicultural, and inclusive.  I liked that, and they liked my style.
One of my first assignments was the story of Isaiah and the seraph.  I was immediately captivated by this mythic six-winged creature that is half human and half divine.  Since then, I’ve felt called to the subject three more times – and this painting, too, will serve as a study for a future, larger one.
What does it mean to feel “called”?  What does it mean to have fate strike you, marking your lips with a blessing or a curse, a talent or a disability?   What of Isaiah, and the timeless mysteries of the book (possibly two books) named after him?   Who was this prophet and scholar who lived in the 8th century BCE kingdom of Judah, and from where did his visions come?
I have only the beginnings of answers; but in rendering an image, I can forever honor the questions.

The fires of resolve:
TISHA B’AV (July 2015)
Tisha B'AvThis image is painted in acrylics on a collage of textured rice papers.  Each piece in the collage makes up part of the whole image – like the blocks of stone out of which Jerusalem is built; and the events of history that make up the fabric of Jewish tradition.  Tisha b’av is a date: it means the ninth of the month of Av on the Hebrew calendar.  For Jews everywhere, it is a day of mourning.  On this day throughout the ages, in Israel and in the Diaspora, Jews have suffered tragedies on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.  At the hands of first the Babylonians and then the Romans, the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, scattering the people.  Fifteen centuries later, over a quarter of a million Sephardim (Jews of Spanish origin) were expelled from their home of eight centuries during this week in 1492.  Up through the Holocaust, the persecution and massacre of Jews on this day has continued.
How can the individual Jew come to terms with such historical horrors?  Like a fire, the facts burn within.  Yet this fire also burns away illusions, and makes our intentions clear.  It enriches our yearning to do good in the world.  Just as the modern state of Israel was born from the flames of the Holocaust, so too does the knowledge of a shared history forge new initiative, new resolve.  Judaism allows space for the fires of creativity to burn within each person in an individual way.  The future gestates in our understanding, soon to be born.


Bright light, white stone:
Jerusalem ForestI’m not a city person, but a cityscape in Jerusalem is like heaven to me.  The view through sparse Mediterranean undergrowth of rolling hills and stone valleys . . . the proud forests of cypress and pine planted a century ago by immigrants from the shtetls of eastern Europe and Russia . . . the white stone shimmering in the sun . . . what more can an artist ask for, but to sit here and paint?  I had to finish this painting from photographs . . . but the late afternoon breeze that swept in from the Judean desert was with me just the same.




History underfoot:
JERUSALEM ALLEY (September-October 2015)
Jerusalem AlleyI can’t get enough of the narrow passageways of Jerusalem’s older neighborhoods.  The ancient stones underfoot are worn by time and history on a scale that is difficult to fathom.  Today’s rubber soles and tires do not have the same effect as the countless millions of donkey and camel hoofs, leather sandals, wooden and metal wheels that rolled over these cobbled alleyways for thousands of years.  White stone anointed by oils, baked by the sun and eroded by wind all speak to the passage of time.  Buildings, rooftops, windows and alleys have all evolved along with the many people who have lived and died here.  To paint this place is to capture a mere pinpoint in a continuum of history that stretches far into the past and future.


Out of the old:
RESURRECTION (November-December 2015)
ResurrectionThis painting is one of my most realistic renderings.  Nothing less could do justice to the cracked and convoluted bark of this ancient olive tree that stands in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem.  Legend has it that this is where Jesus Christ spent his last night – and that this olive tree, thought to be over 2000 years old, was standing there that night.  Today it appears as a living sculpture, its deep fissures dividing the tree almost in two.  Yet the tree still produces olives!  The day I saw it, the late-summer olives were still  small and green.  I noticed a slender young branch growing out of a hole in the trunk.  Olive trees will regenerate almost indefinitely as long as they’re pruned, making them appear both young and old at the same time.  Out of the old grows the new: that’s Israel, and that’s the Jewish tradition.
THE JEWISH EYE calendar of art contains secular and Jewish holidays, plus the weekly Torah portion and candlelighting times for New York.

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