Reprise

When I had finished with preparations for the pop-up show I had some concern that the narrative line these canvases laid down was too tenuous and thus confusing. The responses overwhelmed me in their depth of feeling and those feelings were frank and true including the non-jews who started off “well I am not Jewish but this is too moving, I cannot stop crying and I too joined them in the universal implications of the images.

An early interest came from my fascination of his two novels which I read in the Penguin paperback edition for which Philip Roth wrote the preface. The story of his tragic and absurd murder so perfectly illustrates the end of European Jewry. I was fortunate that my best friend Angello Bellfatto who’s deeply felt reading of these short texts aided my shallower one. We would walk home to Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge discussing Bruno Shulz’ images (and his drawn ones too) and it would take forty-five extra minutes to cross for all the laughing at a particular passage. I had one advantage. Drohobych, Schulz’ home time was close to Lodz where came one side of my family.

Street of Crocodiles

The Murder of Bruno Schulz, for which I had always envisaged a triptych, established one locus for the construction of the series.

In a very different way the canvas of the Exiles entered the collection out of a portrait of a different time and place.

The women holding the silver candlesticks was painted for a series on the life of Antonieta Rivas-Mercado, who I had seen as the the feminist heroine of the second ten years of the Mexican Revolution and originally it was a panel for a triptych and this panel never made its way out of the studio. I painted it from a friend who was living in San Miguel and who was Croation. She was so completely sad that it seemed not possible to sell it and I was tempted to alter it or paint over it. I didn’t and when the time came her ineffable sadness.

I paint from life. If I feel the model fits if the model brings the appropriate sensation to the work there is all I need as resemblance, although it works just fine if I have both…

Emigration

Their has been from the beginning a constant query into the veracity of memory. How often I close my eyes and try to model a face of someone who might have been the most important person to me and how elusive this has become.

I was not at the wedding, nor saw the proposal of my grandfather to my grand mother. I remember them with an affection that never wanes. Still, I have to close my eyes and then might have a momentary recognition of their personage. Memory, History and Mortality. These are unknowable and elusive. I do not know.

Marriage

The world came to an end for me. No big deal. As much as I contend with modernity a new consciousness arrived. I rue the loss of my past. Who will tell me my great grandmother’s maiden name? I bend to put a stone on the monument that carries the family name just to say that in my own way I recognize them as all of myself.

S-Ansky

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Its position as the great Jewish theater piece remains unassailable; its debut performance of the Dybukk a memorial to its creator who had died several weeks earlier. Ansky had conceived and organized the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition of 1912-1914. The Great War aborted that effort.. The indefatigable Ansky then organized an extensive War Relief project for the Jews of Galicia and the Pale of Russia and wrote a book about The Destruction of Galicia, which is a masterwork. At the onset of World War I the Russians had occupied Galicia which is the name for Austro-Hungarian Poland and had reigned terror on the small Jewish towns. Before the shelling had even started the Russians and particularly the Cossacks killed and destroyed what Jewish settlements they passed through. These settlements were poor and vulnerable and the misery inflicted once again in the Russian retreat elevated the casualties and left them with nothing.

Into this carnage and misery Ansky entered with eyes and ears acutely open and his heart breaking.

The terrible pogroms of 1903 and 1905 in Russia had instigated the Great Ethnographic Expedition. Ansky had anticipated thae oblivion that loomed over the authentic shtetl Jewishness Ansky fled from the Yeshiva before he turned fifteen.. He had then organized a commune for other yeshiva refugees on the outskirts of his town, Vitebsk.which is Marc Chagall’s hometown as well. Ansky worked various jobs. He left Vitebsk.. His name still Shloyme-vanyl, he eked out a meager subsistence tutoring young Jews in various Pale of Settlement towns.He had been a Yeshiva wunder-kind. Leaving the Pale Ansky worked as a miner where the miner’s changed his name to Semyon Akimovich, a Russified version of his birth name

My grandfather too, David Leventhal , abandoned his Yeshiva studies at fifteen, entered the world of Revolutionary politics and exiled himself from his family, birthplace and relation with Judaism. His scope was much smaller than Ansky’s, the impulse the same. For my grandfather the words of the Bundist Hymn were an ethos, as written by Ansky,-and like Ansky his life had been sacrificed on the plane of revolutionary politics. The Bolshevik Coup took everything away from him and left him a hollow man ranting about “racketeers” and “comes the revolution” at the dinner table where he barely ate anything and endured my own father’s alkaline criticisms.

Ansky had what looks like an ambivalence to traditional Jewish life up until the pogroms of 1903 and 1905. The poem Oath to the Bund starts by saying “ Messiah and Judaism-both have died, another comes-the Jewish worker….but by 1910 he said to his friends at a dinner in his honor in St. Petersburg in all transparency that his life had been fractured and broken by his neglect of his own people. His own people needed every ounce of help and support it could get.

If his encounter with the writing of I.L Peretz in 1901 had begun his shift toward the Yiddish culture he had previously ignored his salvation came during the Great Ethnographic Expedition he had conceived and implemented in 1912.

“Do you believe that when the last shovel hits the earth , the dead man forgets everything?”

“Have you ever heard any stories of a dead corpse that left unattended disappeared?”

unnamedAnsky died broken in health, his life’s work seemingly unnamed 2

disappeared by Bolshevik authority he himself smuggled out of Russia in a priests habit to Vilna. His play “The Dybbuk” was inaugurated by a performance three weeks after he died of complications from pneumonia.

Joseph Roth 2

He spent his last four days of life in this world suffocating from pneumonia and stalked by delirium tremens. Among the throng of mourners at the grave-site eight came forward and carefully pushed the presiding Catholic priest aside and then intoned the Kaddish, each taking their turn to spill a shovel-full of dirt on the coffin lowered into the ground.

Das bin ich wirklich; böse, besoffen, aber gescheit

“May his great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen) in the world He created as He willed, (Amen)

Joseph Roth suffered in his life from complications knotted by profound distress and self abuse, by existential realization and cosmic irony, More than anything he knew that some unknown unknowable fault shadowed our lives., and that shadow had grown immense, more viscous and poisonous.than could be imagined and yet in plain sight. We would not see the end of it as it was the End itself.

Roth,_Joseph_398

Joseph Roth came from Brody in eastern Galicia and during his youth he spent a lot of his time denying this and his orthodox Jewish family. He spoke Yiddish fluently and wrote in an elegant and literary German. He was happiest in the cosmopolitan mileu of Paris.and miserable even there. He was most of all conscious and made ragged by the events unfolding around him and wrote about them with power induced by urgency.

My Father’s Violin 1

When my father was in his forties he precipitously took up playing the piano. His posture at the keyboard, elegant and authoritative, immediately announced a virtuosity that disappeared in the first few notes of Fur Elise, notes that drove a stake into the heart of Beethoven’ intentions, so that we all felt injured, damaged by the constantly atrocious sounds emanating from the belly of the infected piano.

I had been offered the opportunity of taking lessons on this same instrument and abjured. Could I have done better? I doubt it. It was not the first musical instrument my father attempted. A violin lay unattended in a closet for many years. A violin.

My mother’s older brother Charlie Binder had played violin for us for many years. He played with infectious verve and panache delighting us with his virtuosity and inventive progression from classical to popular tunes, forward and back. On Saturday in summer nights outside our “dacha” a little bungalow in the wilds of the Pocono hills of Pennsylvania Dutch country, Charlie played his violin with a country square dance band and between sets played pieces of Yiddish music; Romanian horas , and songs with names like Beigelach, and Oifin Pripitchik. He taught the bass player and the clarinetist these and other tunes. Charlie played with an authority that might have led to virtuosity, or at least first chair orchestra. He gave up aspirations to devote himself to his family.

After my father and mother were reunited in the winter of 1945 the air of love and devotion between them was tempered only by the economic fragility of returning to the beginning of his career as a textile designer and so part of the apartment filled up with his mammoth drawing table and tabourettes and a particularly cumbersome eight drawer flat file. So a brief campaign of sorting out non-essential things ensued and in the course of salvage and discard a violin case appeared.

With great feminine delicacy my mother carried it down from the closet shelf to the dining table and there my sister and I assembled awaiting disclosure of its contents. Looking back over seven decades I recall my father’s reticence to open the clasps. When he did so a curious smile passed over his face. It vanished in a moment and as we watched, the violin just simply settled into itself in a bed of dust as a wayfarer on a cheap but comfortable mattress might after a long day’s travel. The upper part of the body intact: the scroll, the bridge, the top plate, the pegs and the tail piece, even the strings. But the under part and sides had gone down in the feathery dust of decay. Since when, G-d only knows.   What we most probably had witnessed was the final collapse: the sound peg holding the upper plate in place over the bottom, jarred just enough to shake loose and the declension emitting a little final sigh.

What differentiates a violin and a fiddle. A wit in the family said a violin has a case and the fiddle has it not. Basically, no difference except for the type of music played.

I do not know the provenance of this instrument; neither where it was made nor whose hands made it. Did my grandfather or grandmother purchase it and how much did it cost. Like the earliest history of the violin itself, its origins are obscure but attached to Jewish history.

The boy in the window

When the War ended the remnants of European Jewry came to places like New York City to live out their life in some sweet haven that they hoped might give them succor and some relief from the hideous nightmare of the Shoah.

In an apartment window to the back of ours. I think it was 1947, the year of the Great Blizzard, a boy appeared. This boy played on a violin and did not go to school. He sat there in the mornings as I left with my younger sister to go to the public school we attended five streets away and silently greeted me on my return from school. He played mainly passages from Mendelsohn´s Violin Concerto and if he played anything else I would not have been able to recognize it. He might have been another Millstein or Heifitz for all I could discern about the playing. The few clear views of him made me think his age to be twelve or so but I had mistaken that by several years it turned out. He was fifteen.

In the afternoon stick ball game we made a holy racket arguing for many minutes over every action and no one was louder than I.

I had for much of the Wartime been of very little solace to my ever suffering mother and when the War ended and my father returned safely, appearing as a stranger in the house, I believe she kept many things hidden from him that I had done or said letting them out bit by bit.over the course of several years.

I wonder if she had ever related to him the spurious obituary I had concocted for the butcher´s wife, which soon spread across the block until it reached my dear mother, who with the stoic tenacity of her breeding began a beseeching series of calls to the War department until I, and I cannot recall the circumstances that provoked my confession, told her the truth.

My father returned unscathed except his beautiful nose had been bent a bit by a soldier’s helmet thrown across the close quarters of an U.S.. Navy light cruiser. My mother loved him unreservedly, which was so apparent that even I could tell.  She loved me dearly as well but she was constantly vexed by my behavior although after time had passed each event became for her a droll amusement. Not so my father.

In the winter of 1949 he had decided to put cellotex tiles on the ceiling of our apartment kitchen and had gone to sleep full of pride in the skill of his work. I had received a gift around Chanukah of a chemistry set and in the wee small hours of the morning had set up my lab in the kitchen the better to catch any drips that might occur..I was cooking a blue fluid in a test tube over my bunsen burner. Suddenly the fluid exploded straight up to the ceiling. Since it sll stayed up there there were no drips to clean.

In the ensuing pandemonium of trying to deal with the blue ceiling my mother somehow got me to a aunt’s apartment, negotiated a deal for my return later and got back into the kitchen to help my father whose attention to the celotex had been partially eclipsed by the punishment he was dreaming up for me.My mother tried to mitigate the situation for me by pleading my curiosity, and their lack of wisdom in selecting such a volatile gift for so irresponsible boy.

I did not go to to school that day until late in the morning. When I returned home that afternoon my mother awaited me with my paternal grandmother standing allied with her. I sat at the table awaiting the start of my sentence. Mother in her calmest voice kept asking me how it had happened. I was a very laconic conversationalist with my family, terse in response, as a boy. I could tell my Mother sought some mitigating information to assuage my father’s anger but all I could do was repeat “It went up”

Still something in my Mother’s tone of voice compelled me to want to aid her, something pained in her posture stirred my wish to make it all make sense, but nothing came to me. All my Mother could do at last was to sit across from me and keep repeating how irresponsibly I behaved; why?; and how I made so much difficulty for the family.why?

I thought she might cry . The sight of a tear from her eye panicked me. She waved her hand toward the window and said more or less as sigh “Why can’t you be more like that boy, the boy with the violin.?” And I, for which I may be eternally judged said “ Mom, that boy is dead.” My mother reeled as if I had slapped her. She said, in a voice that trickled like acid over her larynx; “what happened?” I see her now on the kitchen chair, her body collapsed, tears washing her beautiful high cheekbones, a supplicant  for an answer she did not want to hear. And I told her. “Georgie Ortleb’s father said he died of TB. Georgie said his father said what a damn, to survive the camps and to die here of the TB.”

In that same squeaking voice she suggested I go downstairs and outside onto the street. I did so quickly as I had seen more of a profound pain in her than ever before. Out on the street I listened carefully and no music floated over the rooftop.

The following morning and for several days after I would search the window in the house across the way and I never saw the boy again nor heard his violin.

Over time I heard the violin playing in places I had no idea existed and the boy, that sad, patient pale boy, plays on in my mind and will until I breathe no more.

Memoriam

The Sisters Moshinsky 1

In the industrial city of Lodz, in Poland, a city dedicated to the textile trades, there lived towards the turn of the nineteenth century four sisters and a brother Moshinsky. One of them, Rebecca, turned out to be my grandmother and her sisters Annie, Chippa, and Etka my aunts. My uncle Max changed his name to Mays.

Known as the “Manchester of Poland” Lodz had one hundred seventy plants owned by Jews and one of which, the Poznanski, was one of the largest in Europe.

“Half our life we pass in the shadow of the earth, and the brother of death exacts a third part of our lives.” so wrote Thomas Browne

The Barber and the SeamstressI slip into my dream time. To construct a visual narrative I cannot depend on any thing except that which avoids the taint of obligation of the expected or pretentious. The day is ours but the night is of the divine. The dreams that authenticate my life emanate from my sleep with some other consciousness at work, angelic I would say. Which is perfect in my grandmother´s case for my grandmother cared for me as an angel might tender the daffodils of the field. I can without effort conjure up one vision of my grandmother with some valid accuracy by first making my way through the veil of aromas and tastes that bedeviled my childhood., aromas of rolls , breads, donuts coffee cakes pies, tarts, poppy seed cakes and hummentaschen piled up on the counters, which were cleared away to make room to make luchshen noodles for the evenings chicken soup along with knoédle and kreplach dumplings. I weighed one hundred forty five pounds in fourth grade of elementary school. Along with the knickers she made for me, ever expanding like a grotesque simulation of the Zeppelins we occasionally saw above New York streets, these pants became the focus of the derision that passed for banter in the small gang of friends with whom I associated. Since my weight anchored me so firmly to the pavement and made me stationary I got punched or whacked a lot but never very badly, even by the Polish boys in the neighborhood..

My grandmother and her sisters had a small business called Eagle Embroidery. They sewed. They sewed dresses, shirts, jackets, tablecloths and best of all gowns and hats. The business had started in Poland,. in the home of my great-grandfather Moise Moshinsky, a turpentine maker. Now, you see I do not know my paternal great grandmother’s name. Such is the vagaries of remembrance.. While this may simply be a failure on my part of doing adequate research it does remind me of the fragility of memory. How quickly and eternally our lives pass into oblivion. So I will leave it at that.

The Jewish milliners dominated the millinery trade in Warsaw, Lodz, Lvov and Vilna.

Grandma Becky aspired to write poetry, serious poetry, so serious that one week in 1906 she traveled the eight hundred kilometres from Lodz to Czernowitz, Bukovina to listen to the readings of Czernovisti poets and then to read her own works. There she met David Leventhal, an itinerant Bundist, lately sojourned in a czarist prison, a lover of the spoken arts especially as in the enunciation of such a fine Yiddish, an operatic Yiddish, as emanated from the plump and graceful bosom of the lady from Lodz.

Itinerant and with nothing better to do he followed her back to Lodz, although who paid his fare is anyone´s guess for , as my father said he never had two nickels to rub against one another. There he pleaded his matrimonial case and perhaps because Rebecca Moshinsky was the fourth child and third female to be born to that family the union was joined. I will never know if Moise knew of my grandfather´s background, except that he had been a Yeshiva student destined for the rabbinate and he carried with him, in a small bag, the tools and advertisement of the journeyman barber.

To watch fine needlework is to be privy to the Divine. The signal operations of the hands withThe Jewish Bride their small baroque arabesques, the sudden long pull on the thread and twirl of thread on the finger and then the breaking of the thread with a quick snap resonate as the structures of any number of Hadyn quartets.

I spent hours of my childhood watching my grandmother perform her tasks, while I counted the blood red buttons in their trays and distributed the ivory bone whites amongst them after an accounting of their numbers.

To watch a hat take shape, the felt armature wrapped over the wood form, the bits and pieces of ribbon or lace or feathers adhering to the object in a confectionery serendipity entranced me.

For quite a few years of my youth once the War ended, Friday night meant two things; the challah breads my grandmother had baked and the bag full of pieces of material my father brought home to his mother from his work; schmattahs we called them.

My father entered the textile industry as a designer. The needle trades belonged to his mother and his aunts for whom he bore an enormous affection and respect.  In the World to Come the place, a glorified version of the house of Worship, the men sat together parsing the Holy texts in rapturous leisure.. While women are assigned certain important tasks and ceremonial obligations the Jewish woman entered the marketplace and the trades which were more an extension of the household than of the house of prayer study.

My father often expressed disdain for his father on account of his father’s devotion to study, in his case as a student of revolutionary politics after a short career as a rabbi.. My grandmother conformed to some extent with the traditional wifely role carrying the economic burden so that her scholarly husband, my grandfather, could pursue his studies. Never mind that his scholarship was in Marx and Engels, in Bakunin and Herzen and not in Talmud. For him my my grandmothers work was a mitsvoh.

Discordant Tombs

31_16-li-3_JosephRoth.jpg.6027788He said to his friend Stefan Zweig in 1933, just as Hitler took power, “now the word has died, and men bark like dogs.”

In the darkest of times “there are a handful who know, and they know everything”

Josef Roth knew everything. Everything except that he was a tzaddik nistarim and a lamed vavnik.

The most melancholic of men.he said. “I have no home…wherever I am unhappy that is my home.”

hofmann_1-122211_jpg_250x488_q85His alcohol consumption killed him. A constant cadger of debts he owed his closest friend for his constant support yet had no qualms about criticising him with a distinctive eloquence that would be crueler had he known of his friends suicide just four years after his own death in 1939.

Yet his most eloquent pleas for financial aid were for others than himself; a Polish seamstress whose work he admired; a German doctor facing the trip from Hamburg to Shanghai.

joseph_roth_photoAll very human in its sentiment, all with a comprehension of the catastrophic disaster tearing down the shredded edifices of western culture. He saw this clearly and wrote about it with pithy grace made more urgent by his disillusioned ardor for the remnants.

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Jerzy duda gracz father

fo_duda_gracz_jezdzcy_apokalipsy

Some things that occur truly exhaust comprehension. Their addenda simply confuse and confound beyond any means leaving us blank at the barrier of our existence and that which proceeds beyond.

At the end of the Second World War, the father of the gifted Polish artist Jerzy Duda Gracz, arrested as a collaborator with the German assassins, was sentenced and executed. Eventually recognized by the Israeli nation as a Righteous Among Nations who had harbored seven Jews for several years under the pretext of collaboration, his life resurrected as a saint. Although the trade might provide but little consolation.

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Franz Rosenzweig 2

A hundred years ago in October of 1913 Franz Rosenzweig prepared for his conversion to Christianity. Insistent that he convert as a Jew he attended Yom Kippur service. Adamant that ·he go through his Judaism into Christianity, not that he would break off from his Judaism.he said to his already converted cousins that he needed a little time longer to meditate on his decision. “I am a Jew”he said “and I want to understand the things from which I will be separated from by my conversion.” So for the first time he fully participated in the ten high holy days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. For him these became his ten days of return to Judaism

His journey to Damascus ended on the day of Yom Kippur. The call came like the sound of the shofar; suddenly and with a finality representative of authentic conversion. He remained a Jew, becoming the great philosopher of Judaism in the twentieth century.

On the Day of Atonement shrouded in his tallit, the ritual shawl, as he would be on the day of his death, the Jew stands alone before God, although he may be surrounded by others in prayer.The Jew stands resolutely as a man, nothing more, before a judgment that leads him to experience eternity within the confines of time. Rosenzweig said “To have found God is not an end but in itself a beginning”. To come to an understanding that consciousness establishes limits on our reason need not discredit the knowledge that the experience is a tremendum that can never be comprehended.   Rather it is a path to an intuitive grasp of the limitation of thought and an insight of the endless connection of all things.

schoenberg

In 1922 Frans Rosenzweig developed a degenerative paralyzing disease, ALS. In time he developed a tedious device for writing in which he would listen to his wife recite the alphabet and then blink at the correct letter for her to transcribe.

“And now it comes to me, the point of all points, which the Lord has truly revealed to me in my sleep, the point of all points, for which there-“ this was interrupted by a question from his doctor and shortly thereafter  Franz Rosezweig was dead, December 10 1929, and the sentence left unfinished.

Franz Rosensweig 1

The tradition of my Fathers is an acceptance of a pre-existent reality. It may be hidden, but even obscured it is mysteriously active. The Thirty Six Righteous Ones opened my heart again. Then I realized I had been practicing all this time the acceptance that consciousness comes to us and that the reality beyond reality is the perimeter beyond which we cannot go. Except to live as a Righteous One.

Death is not a thing many people wish to converse about. One starts to speak on it and the companion glazes over as though shot through with curare,their eyes flutter momentarily, instigated by the indignity of such a shadowing, the departure is swift, and the speaker left only with the faint odour of their anxiety.

“Love is only surpassingly sweet when it is directed toward a mortal object and the secret of this sweetness is only defined by the bitterness of death.”

Franz Rosensweig wrote this beautiful sentence.

F11511The thing is to bring a little bit of the Divine down to earth

Now I understand how aging affects every part of me and how transient is existence

My mother´s mother died, her heart worn too thin, when my mother reached fourteen. My mother died at age ninety, died on the second week after her birthday. My mother always spoke of her mother, Pauline, my maternal grandmother, with great reverence. I have seen a photograph of Pauline perhaps a dozen times, always the same photograph, so that I have come to believe only one existed. Who can tell me now who Pauline was, what she knew, what she did that wore out her pretty thin heart. Pauline is gone. Who actually viewed her exhaustion, fueled with frustration as she tried to organize transport out of the Pale for distant cousins and neighbors as well as for her family? My mother has the tenuous existence of the memory I possess of her. Soon I will die and my mother Rose will have no one left who remembers her.

I used to believe in forever, but forever is too good to be true  A A Milne

For I, who suffer a chronic, neurologic deterioration, sleep and its deprivation becomes the critical locus of an existential crisis. Deep in the black moments of the nocturnal wandering of sleep, one awakens in a moment and a choice arises-to sleep or not-that capriciously is not of our making. It becomes gradually clearer that the day is ours and the night is not. Sleep is god’s gift to us and in exchange we owe a gratitude we can only hope meets the largesse given us by the gift. What Rilke called the torn fabric of existence needs daily repair.

Given the frustrations and loss of functions wrought by age these present insurmountable impediment to any attainment of immortality. Even the inscription written by chisel on granite wears into oblivion. The tailor needs to refine technique and finesse in the tiny needle to hold the cloth intact. A terrible tremor seizes the withering limbs, their strength and architecture dissipate, frailty and enervation do not dispose themselves easily to mirth and contentment, and all, as the author of Ecclesiastes writes, is meaningless.

Even then the allure of vanity maintains its hold. Through ever dimming and clouded eyes, despite the evidence of an increasingly sharp odour of decay, the gentleman turns himself obliquely to the mirror and imagines, what? Certainly not the shadow that presents itself…”and he shall rise up at the sound of the bird and all the daughters of music shall be brought low.”

Exile

I seek to wander without burdens.We wear our mortality as a coat of strings and stones.

While my body begins to wither my heart grows massive.Or so it seems.  My daughter´s heart weighed two hundreds fifty grams at her death. I cannot measure the weight I feel in my chest

We need art, writes Nietzsche, lest we perish from the truth.

One of our greatest artists, the composer Gustave Mahler, lamented that he was three times homeless, as a Bohemian in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew everywhere in the world.

Is this lamentation not a signature of the Jewish mind? Is there not a constant, the crisis of faith, and is not faith rightly to be carefully considered as a gnosis. So The Law becomes the essential, The Law defines our lives; It is neither doctrine nor religion.

Here is a Jewish story.

In New York City, I lived for many years in an exceptional building called the Belnord. Built in the early twentieth century by a consortium of wealthy Jews whose rejection from living space on Fifth Avenue had inspired them to construct the most illustrious building in New York City, they had succeeded magnificently, and the building on the upper west of Manhattan continues to stand as a classic of elegant architecture.its stature indisputable to this day. Built around an interior courtyard as large as a football field, its Florentine inspired design takes up the entire quadrant from Broadway to Amsterdam Avenue between eighty sixth and eighty seventh streets

Isaac_1

In my time it housed many illustrious and talented people in the arts; Joseph Heller, Bruce Davidson, Zero Mostel, Byron Browne, Theodore Upmann, Isaac Bashevis Singer. The management ownership for twenty years had worked to destroy its magnificence. While its infrastructure was a mess; (the elevators slipped continually, forcing my daughter to avoid them and to climb the ten floor up to our apartment); the elegance of the edifice was indestructible. The entire neighborhood declined into shabbiness. And the two avenues to the east became dangerous. So the rent was affordable. Bruce and Emily Davidson introduced me to Isaac Singer and his wife Alma. Alma worked at Bonwit Teller (I believe) and I had sympathy for her immediately. Isaac wrote in Yiddish, went down to the Famous Dairy cafeteria, and had a manner that intimidated me.

One day I came into the courtyard, my daughter on my shoulders and brown paper shopping bags in my fist. I had just seen the headline in the papers that Isaac had won the Nobel Prize, making him famous, rich and even more intimidating. Alma was rushing off to her floor clerk job when we met. She stopped me and said “Mr. Leventhal, what a wonderful man you are.” I congratulated her on the Prize. She repeated what she had said as though she had not heard me ,adding, “You always go everywhere with your beautiful daughter on your shoulders, and to the shopping and I know from an article I read that you cook for her too.”

Then she raised her chin and looked up at the sky as though searching there for a number she could just not make out. She sighed. “Mr. Leventhal, mine Isaac has never carried a shopping bag in his life.” And then she was gone.

I stood there for a few moments. Then it came to me that those who carry, shlepping we say, do not win prizes.

Isaac_2

Guide for the Perplexed continued

 The tradition of my Fathers is an acceptance of a pre-existent reality. It may be hidden, but even obscured it is mysteriously active. The Thirty Six Righteous Ones opened my heart again. Then I realized I had been practicing all this time the acceptance that consciousness comes to us and that the reality beyond reality is the perimeter beyond which we cannot go. Except to live as a Righteous One.

Bund election posterMy paternal grandfather and grandmother met one evening in a socialist coffee-house in the town of Czernowitz, in Bukowina, for a weekly gathering of poets. There my grandmother went to read her poems. She traveled eight hundred kilometers from Lodz to read. My grandfather saw her enter the coffee-house and would not let her alone until she would marry him. He was an early member of the polish-lithuanian Socialist workers Bund although he had been earmarked in the yeshiva for the rabbinate.

Called the little Vienna, my father used to say of Czernowitz, “A first class city with first chair violinists.” He then added “Not an Ellmann or Heifitz among them.”

Rose AuslanderIt did have in its diverse population a great poet named Paul Celan and a remarkable one named Rose Auslander and hundreds more. By the end of the Great War its population contained 50,000 Jews. Its cosmopolitan character was defined by Jewish linguistic diversity, with German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and Romanian as major constituents.

In 1908 a major conference of intellectuals gathered there to debate whether Yiddish would be the national language of the Jewish people, with participants coming from many communities and states, the majority from Czarist Russia. The congress ended with an agreement: Yiddish would be but one of the possible languages, along with Hebrew.

Here, at the easternmost prospect of German speaking Jewry, like Ovid on the borderland of Empire and barbarian, language nationalism laid claim to a dominant intellectual position.

Czernowitz exists in the memory as a dream. Of course it was,and is, a real place. It continues in the imagination of the Jew as someplace that embodies the authentic Jewish experience, a projection of possibilities other than that which occurred, and as a “vanished” world erased by what did occur.

The Hebrew name for Poland, Polin, can be split into two words po (here) lin (you should dwell). From the tenth century on Poland became the homeland of European Jewry then it vanished, kaput, like that.

The absence of Jews and their culture in Europe resulting from their torture, slaughter and murder by Germans has had serious consequences for the level of discourse in the world. It has put to question the most fundamental principles of modern European Enlightenment. The apocalypse came without redemption, neither for the dead nor the living.

felix_nussbaumWhat followed obliterates all hope. What should have instigated a complete transformation of modern existence, that which had been engendered by the Enlightenment, in which we now so ungainly stagger, has been obscured by the atrocity of a culture which knows no limit to its depravity.

I did not have bar-mitzvah, nor had my father. My grandfather said some words in Hebrew at the dinner table which I did not understand. I have educated myself to understand my religious connections, perhaps with grotesque results.All I know is the deep affection I have for the black letters running along the parchment scroll that I don´t know how to read. (Follow this link.)

Here is a story about the Hebrew alphabet. “It is told of the rabbi that in an auto-da-fe he was wrapped in a scroll of the Torah and set on fire. Just before his death his students called to him, “Master, what do you see?” He answered “The parchment is burning, but the letters, the letters are flying up to heaven.”

The Hebrew alphabet is not simply of pen and ink and paper nor is it a collection of signs for sounds to utter. They are symbols whose internal dimensions and shapes and placement to one another in the words they form have a precise yet mysterious existence. This manifold existence creates a vast spiritual realm.

From Lodz in Poland and Czernowitz in Bukowina my family came first to London, England, and then to Montreal, Canada. From Montreal they came to New York. I was born, the second first-born son in America.. I loved the yiddishkeit world I eventually found. My grandfather took me to the Garden Cafeteria on Rutgers Street, near where the Forvitz newspaper published at 175 East Broadway. The lingua franca was, of course, yiddish. And what a Yiddish! Russian Yiddish, Galician, and Polish. The signs on the shopfronts bursting with letters, Hebrew letters adapted to Yiddish, as though they could barely contain all the information they intended. My grandfather was, by trade, a barber. Later, when I had my first studio at the corner of Christie Street and Division Street in Chinatown when I had returned from Paris it was a short walk to the Public Library on Rutgers Street where the shelves bulged with books on philosophy. My grandfather had difficulty grasping the painting of pictures as a job. So he told me to learn a journeyman´s trade.He picked up his barber´s tools, handed the small leather bag to me, and asked, “Have you ever tried to carry a plumber’s bag? A barber.You can go anywhere, quickly.” On Hester Street eating a pickle from Guss´ Pickle Shop with my grandfather made me bloom with a sense of the divine; a rich man with forty-five cents in his pocket.

What do I mean by the world beyond the world? I mean neither something scholastic nor fantastic. When the Eternal One sits with Abraham and discusses how many worthwhile inhabitants it will take to spare Sodom its incendiary fate Abraham bargains. Hashem starts at fifty worthy souls, settles for thirty and subsequently, for ten, and Abraham, unable to produce one, gives up his request. Sodom burns. This is not a fable. Abraham lives in the world beyond the world. He is one who has seen the Shekhina. In the world beyond the world the Divine presence is revealed, illuminated as the essence of the thing but it is that thing as well. Being that is. The Divine is the reality behind reality and its presence is everywhere. “The last messiah will be the one who has fathomed life on its cosmic ground, and whose pain is the Earth´s collective pain.”writes the philosopher. Moses delivered his people from bondage, endured their perfidy, and then after forty years, wandering in the desert, had no entrance into the Promised Land. Moses understood. Even so his heart must have seized in anguish.

A messiah has come many times and there is no entry into the Promised Land.

I am not anything but a painter of pictures. In these paintings I bring myself in awe of those who are the righteous ones.

Before the world of truth can appear, says the Rabbi, the world of lies must disappear.

So I start with the lamed vavniks.In the Talmud it is said that at any one time there are thirty-six special people in this world, who each day are priveliged to look upon the face of the Shekinah, the feminine aspects of God, and by whose presence, all thirty six of them, the world continues.If one of them disappeared, just one, the world would come to an end. The suffering they endure staggers imagination. They are receptacles for all the grief mankind manifests. When they arrive in heaven their souls are frozen, petrified by the suffering they endure, and God must sit by their side and warm them for a thousand years before they can enter paradise. For some who never warm their grief at human woe so inconsolable that even God cannot warm them and then, from time to time, God sets the clock of the last Judgement foward one minute.

The Talmud also speaks of a light, another light that the Eternal One made so penetrating, so intense, that Adam could see from here to the end of time. This light, the light of full consciousness, cannot but burn the eyes not ready. The Eternal One hid this light, replacing it with a paler, a weaker light, until such time as it can be endured. Adam had the light for thirty six hours. Obviouly, it is the light of illumination. There are thirty six candles on the chanuka menorah, their light a reminder of the light of illumination and understanding, and that holy event of the oil lasting eight days occurred thirty six centuries after Adam saw the light.

In the dark night of the soul despair is also a cry for repentence. A hidden redemptive source awaits awakening. In the months that followed my daughter´s death I could not cry. I felt like it, always. The tears would flush my face and swell behind my eyelids and remain there. Occasionally a large, single drop coursed my cheek and disappeared. It was as if I were a Sahara and while her loss tore my soul to shreds my soul would let me give up only the tiniest bit of moisture. Had I known the following story I might have given myself over to a more lachmyrose duty.

The narrative takes place in Syria. Amidst a terrible drought the rabbi called the congregation to synagogue and they prayed night and day for rain. No rain fell. The rabbi called for a fast and they fasted. When they asked for relief none came. In the back of the synagogue sat a shabby man, isolated and stumbling in the prayers A cobbler by trade.  One night a voice came to the rabbi, saying ¨ The Eternal one will send rain only if Rahamin will lead the prayers of the synagogue.¨The rabbi said, ¨But he is a fool, an ignoramous.  He is illiterate and sits in the back of the synagogue saying words that mean nothing. Besides in his home he does not keep kosher, and he cannot read so he does not follow the prayers.” Only silence.

The Rabbi had Rahamin sent for and told him that the next day he, Rahamin, would lead the prayers for rain. Rahamin protested, saying that he did not know how to pray, that his illiteracy kept him from understanding anything. The rabbi responded, tomorrow you will lead the prayers.

The next day, in a packed synagogue, the congregation looked to the bimah and to the ark that stood on it. They saw Rahamin standing before the Ark. He held an earthenware jug with two spouts in his hand. ¨Now I ask you may pray with all your might¨he said to the congregation.. The Ark was opened and the cries rose in crescendo so plaintive, so bitter, for teshuva. Then the cobbler held the jar up and put one eye to a spout opening and then the other to his ear. Immediately there came the tremendous sound of thunder and a soaking rain poured down. The Rabbi later asked Rahamin why he had brought the jar with him.

¨Rabbi, I am a poor, ignorant man. What I earn as a cobbler barely feeds my children.. Everyday they cry for food and I have very little to give them. When I hear their cries my heart breaks I too cry, and I collect my tears in this jar. When you asked me to come here to pray, I looked into the jar and said ¨Eternal one, if you do not send rain, I will break the jar in front of the whole congregation. Then I heard a voice that said, Ask again, when you stand before the congregation.¨So I did and I heard a voice saying ¨Do not break the jar.

And then it began to rain.”

I should have taken a ceramic jug and cried my tears to fill it.

¨The Baal Shem Tov speaks of a special group of at least thirty.six unkown righteous people whose devotion to Judaism keeps the world from being destroyed. The Talmud indicates that there may be one thousand more who experience Schekinah with permission because of self-sacrificing Mizsvot (adherence to the laws of the tablets Moses came down from Sinai and good deeds) and hundred more by Mitsvot (good deeds) and  the force of prayer. For other reasons we might consider from the Talmud that the number reaches eighteen thousand. So there may be thirty-six and eighteen thousand Jewish and Gentile righteous souls in the world in every generation. The number does not act as a barometer on the spiritual health of the world says a chasidic Rabbi. I disagree. The Reform rabbis tell us that there are eighteen male and eighteen female righteous souls.

WarsawI heard the stories of “the vanished world” my entire childhood. The old ones spoke in aggrieved murmurs of such things nightly in our kitchen. The war ground on with overwhelming bad news. My father volunteered for the U: S: Navy and left. The news of the barbarity in the east became more and more ominous. In 1943 at Passover there came news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising leaving us with a momentary lift of morale that soon dissipated in anguish so great it could not be spoken aloud,  Too young to understand, my sister and I could only feel the apprehension, the slight moments of elation that quickly fell to despair.   Looking at photographs of Jewish life in Galicia and Poland overwhelms me with a broken sadness, a despair torn and rent in my soul.  Then I stop and the bewilderment, the gross astonishment that a million and a half children, Jewish children, were murdered. This fact sinks in and sinks and sinks without end and vertigo in reverse takes hold. I mourn them along with the untold numbers of Gentile children who were murdered on the same bloody ground. A favorite little boy smiles out from the photograph. I recognize him in others, always smiling. What is there to do except to cry.. A theodicy of these events goes nowhere.

My grandfather, whom I called Grandpa King David, (my maternal grandfather was Abraham), used to say to me that we are born to suffer. When he was not present my father would remind me: “ÿou know what your grandpa says, “you are born to suffer. One day I said to my father, a very conceited and handsome man, that he did not seem ever to suffer and he replied, his elegant hand pointed at me, “oh no,no…..you are born to suffer. So it is so.”

How is the world to be saved? What happens if there are less than thirty six?

It is my understanding that what we call God means something ineffable and beyond comprehension; a universal consciousness immeasurable and outside the brain and the mind. And certainly consciousness is outside of us itself. We receive it but cannot send it without its mediation by something more numinous, something beyond thought, but perhaps not a dream.

Jacob and the Angel 1940-1 by Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959Dreams pervade the first books of the Tanach. Once the Law is received the Dream disappears superseded by the Commandments.

The task is simple. Do good in this world.Repair the rent fabric of our existence.Be humble in the fact of the Divine Consciousness, that which we feel as Holy.

Exile is a spiritual and cultural existence, and an emotional experience. I live as a stranger in the world, and the rootlessness I feel has its counterpart in the acceptance I receive.Always a conditional experience, exile also brings with it a sense of being in a world of confrontation with total indifference and a wasteland of ashes.

Is the mark of Cain upon my brow? As a Jew my tentative sojourn wherever it is carries with it a condemnation. And how can I speak of the unspeakable when even the survivors say that they could not believe what occurred around them. A finger of accusation points out of the dark and implies annihilation,

Guide for the Perplexed

 The tradition of my Fathers is an acceptance of a pre-existent reality. It may be hidden, but even obscured it is mysteriously active. The Thirty Six Righteous Ones opened my heart again. Then I realized I had been practicing all this time the acceptance that consciousness comes to us and that the reality beyond reality is the perimeter beyond which we cannot go. Except to live as a Righteous One.

sofer restoring Torah scrollGeographica esoterica: A philosopher says that artistic gifts sometimes can transform anguish, the pain of existence, into a valuable experience. I hope so.This philosopher says that as long as mankind recklessly proceeds in the fateful delusion that it is destined for triumph, nothing essential can change.

 A little more than three years ago my daughter died on a cold January day and grief covered my soul in chill and bitterness. Plagued with a chronic disabling condition, despondent at the loss of an only child, troubled by the prospect of poverty ahead, melancholic at the core, more often than not I felt suicidal.  I knew I was not destined for triumph, that the inexorable brewed no solace where jubilation was concerned. Shortly after her death, an astrologer I knew came to our town and I went to see her more for consolation than for illumination. At the end of her session she said, “Be patient and wait. You have one more task to do, one more series of works.”

Nothing happened. I did not suicide, although the inclination accompanied me daily. No unique inspiration came my way for three years, years of constant work with its own small revelations.I learned to carry the wound of my loss.

 And then, while working on a painting recently. I thought of the story of the 36 Righteous Ones, the lamedvovniks. My grandfather King David had spoken to me of the tzadikim nistarim, the hidden ones, when I was a child.

 It is said, that there are thirty-six righteous ones in the world at any one time, and they are hidden, even to themselves, and were even one to disappear then the world would come to an end.

The idea of the 36 Righteous People has a beautiful implication  Since their special gift is hidden, from one another and themselves, anyone you meet could be one of them and each person encountered needs to be treated as though they were a lamed vov.

It also implies a tremendum et fascinans; a fearful, fascinating mystery, one that fills us with awe, and terror too. After all, it takes the eternal one a thousand years to warm the frozen soul of a righteous one in heaven: frozen from the suffering that soul took upon itself in the world of men.

What happens when there is less than thirty.six?

After a few moments of consideration I felt that the Story of the lamedvovniks might lead me to the world beyond the world and that I might construct the revelation in pictorial terms. It had been done before. The various examples exist.

A single niggun, ( a wordless song) , sung by my grandfather to put me asleep,  carries more emotional weight and profound connection to my identity than anything else I  might encounter in this life.

 The Story of the Lamed vavniks attaches me to my destiny more spiritually.

Then there are the aleph-bet, the little black letters running across the parchments raised ever so slightly, as though bubbling up from the parchment itself. These letters antecede the creation. Consciousness begins with them. They are connective to the mysteries of Holiness. They themselves are Holy. They connect us with the Divine.

A kabbalist text speaks of one letter missing from our present aleph-bet which will only be revealed in the future. The writer explains that our deficiencies in this world are mysteriously connected to this missing, unimaginable consonant, whose sound will create undreamed of words and worlds transforming repression into loving.

And then there sits fear and exile, memory and loss of memory, and the decay of civilizations.

Each of these things, I thought, might gain me access.