During my MA studies in Jewish Education, at Hebrew University, we were working in groups on analyzing artistic portrayals of biblical stories. I decided to add my own take, and make some art, since I haven’t been actively doing that in a long time. I miss it.
So, here goes.
Naomi’s devastation upon the loss of her two sons, a decade after her husband died. And this time her loss is complete, since as long as her children were alive, there was hope of rebuilding the family.
Then those two—Mahlon and Chilion—also died; so the woman was left without her two children and without her husband. (Ruth 1:5)
Note two details.
The two sons’ pronoun changes. At first they are banim, sons. Ben comes from the root binyan, which means “building”. But after they die, they change to yeladim, which merely refers to their having been born. They are children. But there is no potential for being built by them:אל תקרי בניך אלא בוניך
The Sages interpreted this verse homiletically: Do not read your children [banayikh], but your builders [bonayikh]. (Berakhot 64a)
When they die, Naomi loses her husband again. She is truly bereft of him, because now she can no longer be built by her children.
Ruth and Orpah, the daughters in law, are embraced in the background. They are also bereaving, but their loss is not as utter and total as Naomi’s.
This came to mind because I’m planning a trip to London, this summer.
My father visited London in 2009, and bought me a set of Unison Pastels. I decided to try using them right away, and placed an Etrog (citron) on our living room table, in the Old City of Jerusalem. The sun was quite kind, as I wrote this song – or rather, made this drawing.
Back in 2009, I was working with a person who owned a jewelry store in Meah She’arim. At the time, we were working on some ideas of reproducing my art in giclee – printing pastel painting scans onto canvas, and adding paint into them for a higher value.
Well, I’ll say I’ve experimented with different ways of selling my art, but I am happy that this venue didn’t work out. It didn’t feel authentic and I did not want to market myself in such a way.
Anyway, he asked if I would make a pastel painting of his wedding. First of all, I don’t really like working from photographs, and second – there are so many people in the background – overload!
Long story short, I ended up doing it anyway, and here is the result:
Pharaoh dreamed, and behold, he was standing on (or: by) the Nile, (Gen. 41:1)
He fell asleep and dreamed a second time: Seven ears of grain, solid and healthy, grew on a single stalk. But close behind them sprouted seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven solid and full ears. Then Pharaoh awoke: it was a dream! (ibid 5-7)
Ok. We know the story. These dreams were foretelling of the seven years of plenty, and then of famine, that were to come. Joseph interprets these dreams, and then rises to power, helping Egypt prepare for the inevitable famine.
What caught my attention was the imagery: Ears of wheat swallowing a stalk of wheat. Wow. How does that happen? I mean, sure, it’s a dream, but still, I couldn’t quite imagine how wheat does that?
And then I had a bizarre idea. In 2014, I was doing a weekly Parasha drawing for my middle school students, as a way to engage them in discussion about the Parasha. I would typically try to draw something which doesn’t often get attention. An example would be Joseph’s dreams – which are very popular, versus Pharaoh’s dreams, which aren’t often illustrated. But how to illustrate this idea? What came to my mind was Disney’s Fantasia. Just imagine – a dreamlike reality in which inanimate things come to life with the right music, and then act in strange ways. If Hippopotami can dance and Brooms can carry water, why can’t ears of wheat be threatening and devouring? So I don’t have music, and I don’t have the means to illustrate this as a video clip (which I would love to, one day!), but I had my pastels, so I got busy!
This was my initial sketch for a future drawing:
It has been three years, and I decided it is time to act. I’ve been spending considerable time studying about ancient Egypt, and was inspired to paint this idea in a Papyrus-like imagery. I even bought papyrus, but by the time the order arrived, I had invested significant time into this sketch, so the Papyrus will have to wait for a future painting.
This painting will include hieroglyphs which tell the story, and I have posted that on my Instagram feed a few weeks ago. Below are a couple pictures of where the painting is holding as of now. It will be painted in watercolor, and BE”H will be part of a series of Parasha related paintings, which I do hope to exhibit in the future.
In the drawing, I had to tone down the Fantasia style dancing of the ears, to make it resemble a Papyrus painting, while gently stretching the borders of that style. Notice that the ears are hinting at being three dimensional, and Pharaoh is standing on the Nile, as some of commentators take the verse to mean. It is a dream, so why not?
However, after completing this, I feel that it is still not so clear that Pharaoh is on the Nile. To make it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt, I added some of the reeds and lotus flowers behind him, adding as well to the natural borders of the painting.
This post is in honor of the current weekly Torah portions, and my favorite Biblical character – Yosef!
(For the general public, I will call him Joseph, henceforth).
My hero, Joseph the Dreamer. Beloved of his father, hated by his brothers, and oh, so romantic. Sold by his brothers – only to rise to the top of Egypt and meet his brothers again – and try to bond with them, once again. Yet this post is not about Joseph the Dreamer, nor the Seeker of Brotherhood, but about dreams per se. Joseph is part of a new saga in the development of the Genesis narrative: The Saga of Dreams.
Up to this point in the narrative, Biblical characters are driven by conviction and purpose, perhaps even vision or revelation (which could have occurred in a dream). Seekers and fighters, yes, but not dreamers.
From here on, we hear about several dreams: Jacob’s Ladder, and later a bizarre dream relating to the strange goat-sheet breeding episode. Joseph dreams time and again, and then becomes an interpreter of several critical dreams.
On his way northeast, Jacob makes a rest stop in Beit-El (Bethel), and in his slumber he has a defining dream – one which speaks of history (taking for granted Midrashic and Kabbalistic interpretations), the rise and fall of the Great Empires of the world, and his place in the scheme of things. But it is also a dream in which he sees himself from the outside.
He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.
And G-d was standing beside him and He said, “I am G-d, the Lord of your father Abraham and the Lord of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. (Gen 28:12-13)
Jacob – dreaming – seeing himself from the outside. Out of body experience? Freudian analyses, anyone?
This images speak strongly to me of a delving into the experience of consciousness itself, and the matter of the subconscious. Several contemporary ideas come to my mind. One of them is the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder. Not an easy movie to watch, but it has a poignant interpretation of a ladder: Constant, repetitive awakening from a nightmare. Once awake, it was clear that the previous experience was, indeed, a dream. But then he wakes up again, and again, and again.
The main source of inspiration for my drawing (though poorly represented) is KurtGödel‘s incompleteness theorems. The ladder could thus represent an infinite climb to higher orders of truth, or reality, from which the lower levels can be better understood. Kabalistically, this would work well with various interpretations of Jacob’s attributes, as well as his connection to Truth and Beauty.
I tried to express, in the least, the idea of a ladder which takes us outside of the confinements of the parochial. A vision which takes us outside of the planet and into the stars.
The next drawing is about starts. And the sun, and the moon. And sheathes. Josephs’ two defining dreams, both a premonition of his greatness, and the cause of his alienation from his brothers:
His brothers answered, “Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams. (Gen. 37:8)
All that didn’t end well for Joseph.
Joseph was driven by his dreams. And dreams indeed helped him rise from the depths of despair to the top of the world.
This acrylic was created out of an experiment I was doing with mixed media, on some used pieces of canvas. I was going to throw this out, and then I realized I can do something with it.
The colors were right. Reminds me of something primordial. I was inspired by the line that was in between them (after removing a strip of masking tape), and this painting was born. Based on the following verses from Genesis 1:6-7:
The Lord said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water”. The Lord made the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse. And it was so.
ציור אקריליק, בד על קרטון. הציור הזה נולד מתוך התנסות על שילוב סוגי מדיה שונים. זו היתה חתיכה שהתכוונתי לזרוק, ואז שמתי לב ליופי הגלום בצבעים הללו. מראה קדמוני, רדום, מים…הסרתי את חתיכת המסקינג-טייפ שיצרה את הפס המפריד, ונולד הציור הזה. ע״פ הפסוקים מספר בראשית א:ו-ז
Song of Jerusalem is part of a series that never took off. I was working at the time with author and musician Yerucham Levi, in Jerusalem. We were going to make a series of ten illustrations for his book She’arim – שערים (more information soon), which were to go hand in hand with texts from his book. It is a beautiful song about Jerusalem, with many elements in it driven from Midrashic and Kaballistic literature.
The text is copyrighted to Yerucham Levi. An attempt at translation will be added later.
שער חמדת ירושלים
חיי יום יום: אחדות ישראל
פנינת חן, מארת, פוריה, יפת-מראה, מהוללה, ירושלים, אבן פינה מאירה, ירושלים שירה.
עיני עולם בירושלים צופיה, ציפורים מצייצים שיר, ירושלים תפילה.
Meanwhile, I will attempt to highlight the main components of the song, as I was able to relate to them. The entire song is about Jerusalem being a song manifest. Birds are singing to Jerusalem, and its walls are pearly white. The way I drew them is inspired by Dr. Seuss.
The fig tree, which symbolizes long-lasting fruitfulness.
“Challah” or bread, an icon of the Jewish Sabbath, and also being a source of sustenance.
Milk and Honey – need I explain? The milk and the water mix and there is a tunnel under the tree to illuminate that difference. An artistic solution to an overwhelming amount of motifs.
Fresh spring water emerging out of the fig tree. This is inspired by a famous fig tree in Israel, which has a spring coming out of it. The song itself just describes water coming out of Jerusalem, which is probably related to the prophecy about water coming out of the Temple Mount. See Ezekiel 47:2.
Olive Oil and Wine. I mixed these two in an orb, or globe, on top of which the city sits. Though I am not fully sure what the author intended, to me the two are a representation of energy and investment. I’ll explain:
Olive Oil – The motif of Olive Oil is replete in Jewish philosophy, law and kaballah, as well as history. Chanukah, for example, is a holiday in which we celebrate the “Hidden Light” of Creation. Or Zecharia’s perplexing description of Olive Oil representing the modality of God will being carried out in the world. In short, it is about potential energy. It is representing raw, pristine energy, or the very Will of Creation.
Wine – What is a more Jewish motif than wine? Every Sabbath, Holiday, celebration and even types of mourning, integrate wine. Wine is seen as both a potential greatness, or great loss. See Yoma 76b, Sanhedrin 70a.
Wine is unique in being an expression of the ultimate reward for the faithful commitment to the process of history. See Isaiah 64:4 and Berakhot 43b.
What a perfect representation for this idea: Every investment, toil and suffering, every joy and understanding, integrated into a totality of a whole creation. Wine is an expression of every hour of sunlight, temperature and cold night, the exact type of soil, its fertility, and altitude. So much goes into the creation of each batch, and no two are the same. Indeed, there is grandeur in this view of wine.
Indeed, Jerusalem of Song, or energy and light, of history, and of life.
Disclaimer: At the time, I was going back and forth about changing my family name “Selavan” back to “Cohen”, as it was five generations ago in Ukraine. To my great dismay, I signed it “Nachliel Cohen”, a hallmark of that stage in my life. I am happy to be over it.
To order prints, please contact me via email. Until the site is properly set up.
Jerusalem of Song. Watercolor and pastel on paper, aprox. 50x70cm
The lions of jerusalem. I was their caretaker, or “apotropus”, as I liked to say, for five years. That’s a joke that you’ll get when you know the talmudic adage “there is no apotropus for arayot“.
How did I get started? Well, these lions were a big deal, back in 2002. Not unlike the Chicago cows in 1999 (I happened to be there), a large amount of standing or sitting lions were decorating Jerusalem, each individually painted. Here is an article I found about it.
While you may spot the occasional lion still hanging around, they have been mostly bought and moved. Two of them were bought by a Mr. and Mrs. Hakimian from Jerusalem, and placed on Misgav Ladakh st. in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, Jerusalem. When in the Jewish Quarter, they are on the right hand side before you descend the main staircase to the Western Wall, or the Kotel.
They were placed there, facing the mount of olives, where Mrs. Hakimian’s sister, Mrs. Makovsky, is buried. Her sister loved children, and Mrs. Hakimian wanted to honor her sister’s legacy and place something for children to play with. However, there is a lot of wear and tear from tourists – young and old – touching and climbing the lions. So there is a municipality contractual agreement with Mrs. Hakimian that she is responsible for the upkeep and “well being” of the lions.
As it turns out, Mrs. Hakimian was friendly with the grandmother of my classmate, Yonatan. Yonatan asked me if I’d be interested in a painting job, since there current painter and “lion caretaker” was on maternity leave. I took the job, thinking it was just a painting job. Little did I know…
As an artist, I do get interesting jobs, which go beyond the occasional mural and construction work. This one involved learning which paints to use to withstand the weather, and wear and tear, the occasional car backing into the lions and smashing off a piece, and sadly enough, vandalism. I’ve had to deal with several of those, many times over. I got better over the years. One morning, for example, I strolled by the lions to see how they are doing, and I saw this:
That is no accident. Somebody intentionally destroyed it. For what purpose? Why? I do not know. And as you can see, this is after I already fixed it once. I learned how to use epoxy, a special type of clay that comes in two colors. When you mix the two, they form a putty that hardens like rock within an hour, and an be sanded down and perfected to make up the broken pieces. Below is an example of a facial reconstruction, before the epoxy is dry and ready to sand down and repaint.
There are so many good stories that come with painting the lions. When I actually paint them, I have to close the area off, finding police fences and tape that will keep people out. The hundreds of tourists that stop by often stop to look, talk about Jerusalem and its connection to Lions – the symbol of the tribe of Judah, in which Jerusalem is located – and many times I’ve had fascinating conversations. I learned, for example, that “Assad” is Arabic for lion, el’malik el-hayatna – king of the animals.
Sometimes it gets crazy. Once, as I was actively painting the back of the lion, some children approached out of curiosity. This happens a lot. But they usually have the common sense to stay behind the tape, or not to touch. One kid, however, decided to start climbing up the lion, while I was painting the very place he was trying to put his hands to climb. What would you do? Well, I kept painting, right over his hand. That got his attention, and a good laugh from his siblings, as it turns out.
Now here is the difficult part: The paint can take 6-12 hours to dry. What’s the problem? Well, people’s curiosity and desire to climb the lions. So I had to be very, very clear that the paint was wet, and shouldn’t be touched. I placed three police metal fences round the lions, with tape surrounding it, and a “wet paint – don’t touch” sign in three languages. Next morning, when I came to survey the lions, I found that the signs and fences have been moved, probably because they were in the way of the person who wanted to sit on the lions. As annoyed as I was, I was happy to see that their jeans were well imprinted on the damp paint. I hope they were expensive!
Anyway, those lovely five years were over, when I moved to New York in the summer of 2013. I did my final job, and passed the torch to a local artist. And with this I will end. Though I was required to stick to the classic lion colors – with some artistic license – I never went overboard. The frequency of having to upkeep and paint made it worthwhile to stick with a simple, clean coating, nothing complicated. The new artist, however, has taken the liberty to experiment with the lions. I’ve been getting the periodic update of Purim costumes, Pesach “crossing the sea” paintings on them, and lots more. Fascinating, though not my taste.
On my last visit in July 2016, I came to say hello to my lions. I hope they still recognize me!
Another parasha-related drawing (with darkened edges added by computer) which I did during a parasha class in Barkai Yeshiva, in 2014. The image depicts the space between the cherubim, from where emanated the Voice which spoke to Moshe (translation from Chabad.org)
And you shall place the ark cover on the ark from above, and into the ark you shall place the testimony, which I will give you. I will arrange My meetings with you there, and I will speak with you from atop the ark cover from between the two cherubim that are upon the Ark of the Testimony, all that I will command you unto the children of Israel.
When Moses would come into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the voice speaking to him from the two cherubim above the covering which was over the Ark of Testimony, and He spoke to him.