Jerusalem in the works of Michael and Inna Rogatchi
First published in The Times of Israel – https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-feeling-of-jerusalem-artistic-perspective/, as well as in Tribune Juive ( Paris, France) and The Jerusalem Connection Report ( Washington, D.C., the USA)
When examining the stones of Jerusalem, one can get as close as it gets, to the real understanding of what the Lurianic teaching means when it says that stones have their own soul, too. Stones accumulate the energy of people and their emotions throughout the time. This energy does not disappear. It stays in stones. And never deeper than in the stones of Jerusalem.
In the Temple Tunnel, there is one particular, very special place, archeological sensation. I never saw anything like it in the world. In the same hall called as Hall of Epochs by the Temple Heritage Foundation, there are physical stones, architectural details, and artefacts from five epochs: the floor and from the period of the First Temple, the stones from the Second Temple period; a column and pillars from the Hellenistic time; the arches from the Hasmonean period; and corridors from the Roman rule time, – all of it in the same physical space of not that large hall.
Jerusalem, My Stonesart video essay which includes my art photography and collages and some of my husband Michael Rogatchi’s paintings, is dedicated to all Jerusalemites, those who are physically in the Holy City and those who hold it in their hearts.
When the Silver Thread becomes the Golden Bowl
Bar-Mitzvah ceremonies for Jewish boys are organised regularly in the Tunnel today by the Temple Heritage Foundation. Significantly, many of those boys are orphans and from underprivileged families. This is what I call the Silver Thread – or the Silver Cord as it often translated from Ecclesiastes – “Remember Him before the silver cord is broken (and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed), (Ecclesiastes 12:6).
I find it very symbolic that there has been only one documented episode in the entire Jewish-Arab history where there was Arab and Jewish unification on a certain issue. What was the issue? Back in the early 20th century, between 1907 and 1914, there were scandalous and farcical escapades of British aristocrats led by Monty Parker, to excavate in the heart of Jerusalem to recover nothing less than the Ark of the Covenant. They efficiently bribed the Turkish officials who were administering Jerusalem, and they went for unauthorised excavations hiding what they were doing in the most hilarious way. When word went out that the Brits were after the Ark, Jews and Arabs of Jerusalem united in fierce riots against the illegal doings of Monty Parker’s ‘brigade’ and made him flee for his life.
At the junction where Muslim Quarter comes to Temple Plaza, there is another remarkable place, the Ohel Yitzhak Synagogue, which was destroyed by Jordan to its foundation – the same as the Hurva synagogue was – in 1948, and which had been restored in mid-2010s. The synagogue which formerly was the Synagogue of Hungarian Jewry and was built in 1870s and now it is back to life, is very light, gracious and beautiful . Just before it was re-opened in mid- 2010s, we saw the IDF soldiers with their officers there with some of them able to pray at the quiet and inviting place. This is how the Ecclesiastic Silver Thread is becoming the Golden Bowl – without cracks.Inna Rogatchi (C). Ohel Yakov reborn. Fine art collage. 70 x 50 cm. 2014.
The energy of these stones has provided the nourishment for many generations of the Jewish people, for all those who keep Jerusalem in their hearts as the nucleus of their universe.
There is no other sensation in the world like the one felt when one’s hand is touching those warm, wise stones, the stones which are speaking to you, one to one. Inna Rogatchi (C). The Thread of Jerusalem. Fine art photography. Limited Edition. 2015.
When we had visited Jerusalem for the first time in the beginning of the 1990s, we were trembling in excitement and disbelief at being on Israeli soil.
The most powerful sensation that I’ve had at the time was losing the sense of time. I felt as if the city had been kept above the earth and held upward by a superior power. It was a very distinct magnetism, gentle, but extremely firm. Most importantly, time has no power over it. I also was stricken by the the gentleness of the air around us, that unique Jerusalem gaze, those tones of gentle blue and rose and shimmering beige being melted into that one and only aired, flying colour of Jerusalem. If colours can fly, it happens at this very place.
The Feeling of Jerusalem is the sort of a sensation which transforms into conviction.
As a matter of fact, Jerusalem, to me, has never been a city – it is the Place. The unique, blessed Place of unparalleled, re-assuring power and magnetism. The source of strength and hope. The place which is upheld by the ultimate power. The Talmud provides a straightforward explanation for this: “Eternity – this refers to Jerusalem” ( Berachot 58a). Inna Rogatchi (C). The cloud of Glory. Watercolour, wax pastel, oil pastel, lapice pastel, perle le blanc on authored original archival print on cotton paper. 50 x 70 cm. 2013-2020.
The Wonders of the Tunnels
Later on, exploring the Temple Tunnel, we were extremely privileged to be at the place which is just ninety metres from the Holy of Holies. The place which is the holiest one for the Jewish observant people, is quite simple but appropriately adorned. It is a place for praying, with many praying books around, a few chairs, and a couple of rows of seats. Everything there is unpretentiously gracious and just incredibly calm.
I always think that we, people, are so small staying next to the solid parts of the Wall which are 55 and 45 thousand tons of weight each, correspondingly. But as small as we are next to these stones, we do feel their warmth – which is wondrous given the fact that they are staying erect from the Second Temple period, and are under the level of earth for thousands of years by now.
In the Tunnel, one can also see the place where the Kotel really ends, and one realises, happily, that the Kotel – and our strength emanated and sustained by it – is substantially longer than the visible part, those precious 87,5 metres of the Wall at the Temple Plaza today.
Inna Rogatchi (C). Giant of the Wall. The Temple Tunnel. Watercolour, wax pastel, oil pastel, lapice pastel, perle d’or on authored original archival print on cotton paper. 50 x 70 cm. 2014-2020.
Among the wonders of the Tunnel, we can also see the part of the authentic, original street from the Second Temple period, – and one just close of losing one’s mind trying to comprehend that we are able to touch and to be present among the stones which were witnessing and were the part of life in Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple.
The Oleh Yitzhak Synagogue re-birth story was preceded by the well known Hurva Synagogue, a crown of the Hurva Square today. After the date of its completed restoration in 2010, it is almost impossible to imagine that this central place of the Old City once looked very different. Additionally, the Hurva story was particularly painful as it was the largest Ashkenazi synagogue in Jerusalem. Inna Rogatchi (C). Hurva Reminisce. Fine art photography. Limited edition. 1993-2013.
But when it comes to Jerusalem, there is something particular even in despair. In the early 1990s, the Hurva’s only surviving arch jumped into my husband’s and my hearts and stayed there. There are symbols like that in one’s life. Despite all the sorrow, that very arch meant our bridge to Jerusalem, for both of us. Reflecting this tangible bridge, Michael painted his so very special My Stones.Jerusalem painting which belongs to the Permanent Art Collection of the Municipality of Jerusalem, alongside famous works of Chagall and other great Jewish masters who did love Israel and Jerusalem with all their heart.Michael Rogatchi (C). My Stones. Jerusalem. Oil on canvas. 110 x 90 cm. 1993. Permanent Art Collection, the Municipality of Jerusalem.
Seventeen years after the completion of Michael’s work, Hurva Synagogue was restored. And then we united our artistic efforts and our love for Jerusalem and its spiritual treasures, and have created a special art collage, existing in the only copy. In that work, the ruins and the Arch of Hurva painted by Michael are merged with my artistic photograph of the Hurva restored. The piece is entitled Hurva Return, and we have presented the work to the outstanding Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzki who was an instrumental figure in making the restoration of Hurva possible. Inna & Michael Rogatchi (C). Hurva Return. Fine art collage on canvas. Unique. 2013. Permanent Art Collection, the Chief Rabbi of Dnepr, Ukraine.
With Jerusalem in heart in the desert of Gulag
Our generation is lucky to remember the Day in 1967 when it had happened, when historic justice prevailed due to human courage and commitment.
My husband will never forget when Jews exiled to the Soviet Gulag who were listening to the Voice of America secretly, risking their lives, were coming out to the streets in Kazakhstan crying out of joy “We’ve made the victory! We won! Jerusalem is ours, back again!” ‘We’ – were crying with joy Jews exiled in nobody’s land. Many of us have been sharing their joy every year since Iyar 28, 1967 all over the world.
When many years and decades later, Michael was approached by the Jerusalem culture authorities with an idea to create a special collection of his works dedicated to the city, he worked with love and joy. Some of these works are the part of his special Zion Waltz series of exuberant paintings created in 2015-2017.Michael Rogatchi (C). My Yerushalaim. Exclusive art poster. 100 x 80 cm. 2021.
It is interesting to observe the transformation of feeling of Jerusalem in the artist’s heart: from painful, dramatic unsettling in Michael’s visioning of the Kotel as the essence of the Jewish history of suffering in his Portrait of the Kotel ( 1999) to the airy, flying, gentle Under the Skies of Jerusalem in 2016. In between those drama versus flight point, there are two depictions of the Lion of Judah, created by Michael with an 8 years gap, his shining Lion created in 2008, and his soothing one created eight years later, in the work called Strength of Love ( 2016). The interesting and telling detail in the both works is the thoughtfulness of the Lion. The determination of love defending the essence of Judaism and the heart of Jewish nation in the second work is pretty clear manifestation of the artist’s thoughts.
Embracing ‘the whole Jerusalem’
My heart aches every time I pass the house where Israel patriots were hiding while fighting in the underground in 1948. My heart jumps every time when I am privileged to hear our Psalms at the Great Synagogue with its magnificent choir led by Ellie Jaffe. My heart stops when I feel the gentle but powerful push of the wind at every Shabbat we start at the Wall. That push of that wind signals us that the people of the nation are heard.
And I am thinking of Bella Chagall who was willing ‘to embrace the whole Jerusalem’ when she was a five years old child sitting with her family in Vitebsk, thousands of miles from it, – but knowing by her heart, the heart of a Jewish child, what Jerusalem is about.
Thirty years passed since my first acquaintance with Jerusalem, and our life has been stuffed with events. But I still remember and do feel the sensation of my personal discovering of Jerusalem three decades ago as if it was happening today. Probably, it was the main discovery in my entire life.Inna Rogatchi (C). The Dove of Israel. Exclusive art poster. 70 x 50 cm. 2021.
The Talmud provides the insight into the secret of the Kotel: according to it, there is a mirrored image of the Temple in the Heaven, and that entity keeps the Wall standing, no matter what occurs. Yet more importantly, it transcends the Presence. This presence is felt by anyone who ever visited the Kotel, even the most self-convinced atheists.
For those who are not, in the beginning and in the end of the day, Jerusalem is the only place in this world where a person can talk with the Creator directly.
Michael Rogatchi’s Interpretation of Astor Piazzolla
Music and Soul: the 100th anniversary of Astor Piazzolla
Cultural Diary series
Ageless sources of solace
Perhaps one needs to live enough to realise that a genius is ageless.
Non-existent age of a genius has to do also with migration of souls whatever sceptics on the subject might be saying on this magnetic fact of the universe and experiences of our existence there.
According to the certain school of thinking in Judaism tradition, every soul bears its certain ‘age’, so to say, which defines the behaviour of the person in whose body it lives. This is what people mean when saying about someone ‘he or she was born as an old man or woman’, or to the contrary, this is, in fact, the reason explaining ever youngish behaviour and reactions of the people in an advanced age. It all is there, marked by ‘the age’ of our souls that we, our bodies are hosting during a span of our conscious existence in this world. Or rather they, our souls are hosting us which would be the more correct way of describing it, I think. Michael Rogatchi (C). Dance II. Oil pastel on cotton paper. 42 x 24 cm. 2013. Private collection, Austria.
The souls of geniuses are like diamonds which have been put into certain bodies to illuminate the world from within. These people are blessed to communicate with the Ultimate Source of their knowledge, their talent, their energy and their intuition directly, and this is an essential quality defining a genius who might be living and working among us. This kind of blessing is not a syrup poured over the chosen personality’s head. So very often, it is a torment, like it was in the cases of Mozart, and Leonardo, and van Gogh. What they had created very often was the outcome of a painful inner struggle, and very often it had appeared in a process of sublimation of torment into stunning reflection.
This kind of revelation is not for faint-hearted ones, it is for those who just cannot do otherwise, does not matter what. It is for those who are led by the Ultimate Force to create by the talent given to them via their unique souls and to originate completely new phenomena in our lives. The fruit of those people’s labour lives on for years, decades and centuries on – meaning that in every given generation, there are many people who accept a song, a poem, an image as their own personal, intimate treasure. As a building material for one’s own soul. As ever existing contra- punctum of solace. Michael Rogatchi (C). Breakthrough. Libertango. After Piazzolla series. Indian ink, oil pastel on lilac hand-made Italian cotton paper. 50 x 35 cm. 2013.
Unique communication of a soul
Unlikely any other field of art, music forms both our inner and outer atmospheres, sometimes simultaneously, sometime in turn. But it is always there.
In Judaism, music is regarded as the primary means of self-expression, and also, importantly, as a primary creative faculty of a person. I believe that this postulate is universal. And I understand why: it is the most organic, immediate way of letting one’s emotions out, both in joy and sorrow. It is the soul’s talk which does not require any translation. In this, such communication of a soul is unique.
Astor Piazzolla whose 100th anniversary of birth is on March 11, 2021, is among ageless geniuses, too. What he had created qualifies to this level of human achievement, indeed. Interestingly enough, and not that usual, it is not the way he played, there are some, very few, of his interpreters – like the one of his last pupils, incomparable Richard Galliano – who might come even close in their interpretation to what Piazzolla meant while creating his ageless ocean of emotions.
What Astor Piazzolla has created is not some music however interesting it might be. His genius is in creating the universe, a totally original, encompassing universe of musical dimension that absorbs a human being and which opens its own sphere of emotions. In my opinion, there is no other music created in the 20th century which does it with the same harmony, same novelty, and same beauty. Michael Rogatchi (C). Piazzolla Universe. Indian ink, oil pastel on lilac hand-made Italian cotton paper. 50 x 65 cm. 2012.
Fearless nudity of a soul
In a paradoxical way, while I call Piazzolla and his genius ageless, I am convinced that his musical language is quite-essentially organic to the 20th century. That syncope-crypted world, that fearless nudity of a soul, not due to self-centered exhibitionism but due to inexplicable strength to face the pain as it is. That screaming silence of insuperable scars and voids, both self-inflicted and received from outside. All this language of a musical monologue, and Piazzolla is an emphatic monologue, has originated namely in the 20th century, with its raging disfiguration of soul. This unique musical language has also incorporated into itself a stunned silence of a human being of the 20th century facing fruitless efforts of amending the disfigured remnant of oneself in the non-stopping turmoils of that utterly tragic period in history of civilisation.
Because of the character and quality of the energy emanating from Astor Piazzolla creations it is utterly impossible to realise that became 100 years old on March 11th, 2021. Because of its superb intellectuality, the quality which is extremely rare in music, Piazzolla’s music is perceived as ultra-modern ever. Because of his honesty and courage to share what his soul was seeing in a mirror, Piazzolla has created a unique cosmos of revelations that people often are not daring to make for themselves. With this gift of disturbing, edgy, beautiful emotional experience, Piazzolla has become the part of so many of us.
In an amazing experience of creating beauty by sharing pain, Piazzolla did express the feelings of people in a more articulated way that we dared to do it ourselves. He did it with such dignity of suffering that it has become a distinct human achievement of all times. That is what has earned him the place among those ageless geniuses – making suffering dignified and beautiful. Michael Rogatchi (C). Talk to Me II. Indian ink, oil pastel on dark-blue hand-made Italian cotton paper. 65 x 50 cm. 2013. Private collection, Washington D.C., USA.
Interpretation of music as a reflection of mentality
As a devoted member of Piazzolla followers world-wide, the matter of various ways in which musicians from different countries, with different backgrounds and of different generations are reading and understanding Piazzolla interests me always. And I never tired of hearing 20+ versions of a certain Piazzolla’s piece to compare them in nuances of interpretation.
In those interpretations, once and again, apart from accordionist Richard Galliano, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Gidon Kremer, over the years, I am repeatedly taken by the authenticity of the understanding of Piazzolla by the musicians especially from Russia and Poland. And I understand where it comes from. The degree of required openness of musicians’ nerves in the musical schools of both Russia and Poland, albeit different ones, provides the finesse of reading of Piazzolla by their musicians.
There is no surprise in this, though, as interpretation of music reflects a general mentality. Piazzolla requires courage of a special sort: courage of opening one’s inner feelings to an uncomfortable, and for many, forbidding degree. Piazzolla also requires intellectuality, his sensitivity is very brainy one. And finally, Piazzolla requires a pleasure of paradoxicality, his music is a melodic Magritte. All these qualities are historically organic for the mentality and inner distinctions of culture of people both in Russia and Poland, and for their music schools, as well.
If Polish musicians are playing Piazzolla in the most filigrane nervous equilibre imaginable, many Russian masters of music are playing Piazzolla as one breaths, without even noticing – or caring – that one may be staying on the edge of a cliff. Sometimes I think that those musicians are getting in their never-tired search for an ultimate secret of Piazzolla code yet deeper under his skin than he did sometimes allow it to himself. Michael Rogatchi (C). Tango Memories II. Indian ink, oil pastel on dark-blue hand-made Italian cotton paper. 24 x 42 cm. 2012. Private collection, Italy.
But my total surprise of the finesse of the interpretation of Piazzolla and simply bottomless, tangible tenderness of it was caused by Mongolian Symphony Orchestra. I have no explanation for that extraordinary phenomena but love. And I am so grateful for that.
Artistic homage to Piazzolla
My painter husband Michael who plays several musical instruments, accordion including, himself, and who is painting music all his artistic career and who flies in the Piazzolla space all his life, knowing , seeing, reading, thinking about Astor for years, additionally to constant listening to his music in all its variety, started to work on his homages to the creator of tango nuevo from 2011 onward. In 2013, the main part of Michael’s Libertango: After Piazzolla series appeared. The series has been exhibited widely, in many countries, with great success. Michael continues to work on this important theme for him – “because there always is something new in Piazzolla that emerges from the melodies which you are supposed to know by heart and to understand well, you thought. But in fact, Piazzolla’s thought, his inner message fluctuates on a daily basis. It enriches life to the degree of total amazement, and I am never tired of following his tunes, his inner tunes, trying to discover something intimately personal for myself. And, with never seizing gratitude to great Astor Piazzolla, I always do”, – said Michael on his ongoing work on looking, artistically, into the Piazzolla’s mirror. The expanded series of Michael’s homage to Piazzolla refers to many musical phenomena within that unique Piazzolla universe. Michael Rogatchi (C). Libertango. After Piazzolla. Homage to Piazzolla series. Indian ink, oil pastel on dark-blue hand-made Italian cotton paper. 50 x 35 cm. 2013.
Perhaps, one needs just to concentrate a bit in the midst of a hectic life whirling around to realise that a genius always is of the age of one’s at the given moment. Especially in music. And particularly in the ocean of a tango nuevo.
One hundred years of Astor Piazzolla? We are so incredibly lucky to be his contemporaries. And it is only the first century of the music of the man who brought an open heart on the proscenium of music.
Michael’s Dance painting ( 1995) created in the same period that his Freilax has won him the place among the finalists of the highly prestigious and professionally demanding British National Art Award in a very tough competition conducted by the world renowned Ben Uri Society in London, and was exhibited widely internationally. Every time it is hanged on the wall of any exhibition hall in the UK, Italy, Israel or any other place, it stands out . Michael Rogatchi (C). Dance. Oil on canvas. 92 x 60 cm. 1995.
So many times we were hearing amazed feedbacks of the people who were as if feeling that dance almost as real one. The work is close in the time of its creation to Freilax and has a similar warm atmosphere and the coloristic of that complex Jewish cosmos, with all its dark elements inevitably present due to the course of our history, and also due to the challenges of our lives in any given generation. But still, our Jewish atmosphere is keeping us by its warmth, its humanity, its comfort of common memories, experience, and values.
It is only in this kind of weaved by kindness world, a person can dance in the way Michael’s Jewish dancer does: by flying. To me, the most important element in this special figure is his emphatically erected back, with one hand behind it, and the pose of his straight up head. This is the pose of Mordechai who would not even think about bowing down any Haman on his way. The grace and self-respect of this canonic by now figure of the Jewish man dancing with his flying heart has become the one of the most important, most personal, and most beautiful statements of the artist in his entire Jewish-themed oeuvre.
In the ocean of imaginary of Jewish musicians and dancers in the visual art, it is not easy to create original characters. Michael Rogatchi opted to resolve this challenge by addressing the aspect of universality of multi-centuried Jewish experience and its emotional expression by placing his playing, singing and dancing heroes in the abstracted space of our common accommodated experience throughout our painful, but so bottomlessly humane history, and settling his figures with flying heart in the space of encompassing devotion, portraying the essence of Jewish character at the time of its pure emotional peaks – such as at the time of Purim, the time of victory of our spirit. Michael Rogatchi (C). Soul Talk. Jewish Melody series. Indian ink, oil pastel on dark-blue hand-made Italian cotton paper. 35 x 50 cm. 2013.
The 5th century BCE? Absolutely. And ever after, a year after another, living through our history, our memory, our terror and our relief, our tears and our joy. Guided by miracles, in an unique mode of survival in human experience. Being carried on in our joyful dance by the warmth of our families. Being sustained in our life journey by the warmth of our homes. Keeping hands with our people, including those who live in our memory now. Celebrating with a flying heart.
The Joy of Purim in Michael Rogatchi’s Art
Joy with Tears
In Jewish tradition, we have ten major holidays annually, with only two of them, Simcha Torah and Purim, is about exalted joy. And on Purim, that joy comes after miraculous rescue from a mortal danger and prospect of total extinction.
Many of us knew in generations that our Jewish joy is so often a joy mixed with tears, so often it contains an essential drama in it. We are genetically aware of the complexity of our joy, and many of us, also in generations, value it as a more precious gift in our lives, the same as it was known in our families and went back by generations.
And of course, the Jewish history, as the history of one big family, imprinted in our common psyche all these special marks of so many of our holidays made us to hold our breath, to pray ( including non-believers), and to have yet another layer of trials pushed onto us by those who toyed with an idea about world without Jews.
Of many and many terrible ‘specific-date’ pointed executions of Jews in Europe during the Holocaust, a horrific mass murder of over 5 000 men, women and children, with prevailing number of children there, many of them buried alive, in the Minsk Ghetto on March 2nd, 1942, on Purim, stands apart in its volume and cruelty.
Of all Jewish holidays, for some reason, Hitler and some close to him butchers were obsessed with Purim of all ten of our holidays. From the fierce ban of Purim from 1938 onward by Hitler personally, through repeated return to the theme of Purim in particular in his speeches during WWII, highlighted by his hysterical warning in an important radio-broadcast in January 1944, when he started to realise that he was losing big. What was on his devilish mind? That the Jews ‘could celebrate their second triumphant Purim festival!’ When a psycho is in a panic, he turns a seer.
And of course, that most striking sample of Purim’s miracle in our times when ten of modern-time sons of Haman, in capacity of highest the Third Reich officials, were hanged in October 1946 after the Nuremberg Trial, with the eleventh of those convicted to this punishment, Hermann Göring, committing suicide, in an incredible parallel to what has happened to the Haman’s daughter, the eleventh from his and his wife’s children of that vile family. That’s why the episode of the ten top-Nazis’ hanging in 1946 is marked in history for good by the terrified scream of one of them, Julius Streicher, the notorious publisher of Der Sturmer and the evil who personally ordered destruction of the Great Synagogue of Nuremberg in the Kristallnacht pogrom. When Streicher got on the platform just before being hanged, he screamed “Purimfest!” . Indeed, it was – and the day, October 16, 1946, was actually Hoshana Rabbah, the day of final judgement in a Jewish year. I always wished so much that Hitler was next to them on that platform on that day. And so many others, as a matter of fact who never got their punishment.
Hamentashem’s scent of victory and belonging
On a personal note and recollections, in our Jewish families, every year, with no failures, so much of that special, gift-like, hopeful joy was brought with every Purim, despite often close-to-impossible circumstances of life of the Soviet Jewry in post-Holocaust life.
Before the blossoming, larger-than-life Pesach celebration, our grandmothers were so very happy to bake hamentashems, every time with joy, that special joy of defiance, stoicism, belonging. I still remember the shape of my grandmother’s hamentashems and their taste. Most importantly, I vividly remember her smiles while she was baking them for a large enough family. My grandmother Adel Chigrinsky-Elovich, the niece of a treasurer of a huge Ekaterinoslav Jewish community with 96 synagogues in the city built by Catherine the Great as the third capital of her empire, and the daughter of Meir Chigrinsky, the person who saved that huge community of famine in the 1930s, was a limitlessly kind person. She was easy-going, warm, soft, a beauty, a fun, an able musician, and a cook extraordinaire. No wonder that her rare transformations into a steel-like, determined and absolutely off any compromise personality, always impressed me greatly. A few times in life that I saw my ever-singing grandma like that, were always about the same: self-traitors, Jews who decided to convert. The feeling of belonging in my grandmother’s world was paramount. Does not matter what.
The smell of Purim in our home was the smell of hope and smell of victory. Can a professional writer successfully describe these kinds of scents that were filling the houses of the people who were prevented by the tough and utterly unfriendly regime from using the word ‘Jew’, not to say practise Judaism? It is a hard mission to accomplish.
But we are lucky to have other means of expression in our family’s creative arsenal. My husband Michael’s large and devoted Jewish family was also Purim-tuned always, despite being pushed to live in the harsh circumstances of exile in Kazakhstan. With years distancing us from the reality which sometimes seems not that real, we are thinking on what kind of feast a few hamentashems must have been in the homes of the people where dinner sometimes consisted of a piece of rye bread, an onion, and some sunflower oil, and where herrings added to that list, was regarded as delicacy. And there had been always hamentashems, for all large Michael’s family, does not matter what. Miracle? Dreaming? Belonging.
Flying Jewish Heart
And still, they danced, they sang, they played our great music, with every accord, every move, and every breath celebrating this unique joy. The joy of flying Jewish heart – especially on Purim, of all ten of our annual celebrations of spirit.
In Michael’s Klezmorim ( 2016), the family of Jewish musicians in three generations, violinist grandfather, clarinet playing son, and contrabassist grandson, is whirling in non-stop music which is a pure joy, for the change, and which colours the world around them – and us – into the feast of hope. In this Michael’s work from his Zion Waltz series, the overwhelming joy created by celebrating musicians transforms reality into the bright dimensions marked by the colours which are not that often constituted reality for Jewish people. Michael Rogatchi (C). Kletzmorim. Oil on canvas. 120 x 100 cm. 2016. Zion Waltz series.
But on Purim, our world becomes like that: inviting, easy, infused with light, happiness , and a non-stopping melody of joy. Special, Purim joy.
Some 20 years before that painting, Michael has created another study of Jewish joy, dedicated to our families and their way to celebrate. The work Freilax ( 1995) is a warm lyrical reminiscence of the inherited way of celebration when every move of every dance, every syncope and every melody are soaked in our memories, both of immediate family one and of our common one, with all the Purims, from the 5th century BCE onward. Michael Rogatchi (C). Freilax. Oil on canvas. 77 x 94 cm. 1995.
Knowing the history of music well, Michael has a special place in his heart for Jewish musicians, many concrete ones, and also for an archetype of them, and during his career, he has created many well-known images of them. But the violinist in this work, who quite possibly has opened the gallery of Jewish musicians among created by Michael characters, stays special – in his thoughtfulness, the balance of his emotions, his content, and his belonging to air of our Jewish homes whenever they could of being.
The composition resolution of this tangibly warm painting also brings the metaphor of ever-lasting presence of major phenomena in Jewish life: the characters in this painting are playing and dancing not in the concrete place or time. They are doing it in the cosmos. Jewish cosmos which is everlasting and warm. This is what we bear in ourselves, and this is what bears us in life.
The Ancestors Families Series, part III of 4 – fine art essay by Inna Rogatchi
Fine Art Analysis by Inna Rogatchi (C)
First published in The Times of Israel, January 2021.
Artistic View: An Accord of Four Types of Spiritual Light
The Ancestors Family series
Michael Rogatchi Contemporary Biblical Art
As central as the Jacob family is in Jewish spiritual life and narrative, as it is in Michael Rogatchi’s series of his contemporary Biblical art works known as Forefathers project.
In the case of Jacob and his family, the artist sees it in two ways: as continuation of the line of the Patriarchs, of which Jacob was the last one; and as of fundamental beginning of the Jewish nation. “We all are children of Jacob”, – Michael says often.
What is interesting is that Michael’s paintings on the Jacob family created in different periods of time during a six years period are all united by the dominating expression in them, light. According to the core of all portrayed characters, that light in Michael’s paintings is different. It represents four different types of spiritual light.
Jacob: the Light of Faith
Reflecting the dual essence of Jacob, as the last of the Patriarchs and the pregenitor of the Jewish people, his Jacob on well-known Jacob portrait ( 2004) is a reflective and thoughtful man as if observing his difficult, turbulent life from a distance of time.
Of all three Patriarchs, Jacob is perhaps the most enduring character although his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham had had to endure their own enormous and unique lots. But Jacob had to overcome appearing barriers repeatedly throughout his life, from the time of his early youth after dramatic switch of identities in front of his not well-seeing father, being sent away from home by his courageous, loving and providential mother ( I personally think that Rebecca had a lot of prophetess qualities in her noble self), until his old age being confronted with terrible blows of believing that he wouldn’t seeing his beloved son Joseph again and suffering, with his entire family, by the devastating famine before being saved from all that by Joseph re-appearing in his life.
In the middle of his life, Jacob had had to fight for his love, to experience a tremendous disappointment being cheated by the close relative, the brother of his mother, Laban, over Jacob’s marriage to his daughters. He had to overcome a huge fear facing his twin Esau at the point of his life when he was responsible not just for himself, but for many children and four wives in front of his brother capable of a lot of harm to be caused to anyone, and especially so to his antithesis Jacob.
Jacob had had to witness the utterly premature death of the love of his life Rachel on the road, without being able to bury her within the land of Israel as he knew everyone expected him to do. He was left to live without the only woman he really loved for the rest of his long life while Rachel passed away so early.
Then he had to withstand the most severe blow being told that his beloved son Joseph had perished. Joseph was 17 at the time. And if all that was not enough, at the late stage of his life, Jacob and his large family had to sustain a severe famine before being saved by Creator sending Joseph back to him.
We often are thinking after reading and returning to Jacob’s story of the life of that almost devastating non-stop trial: how did he sustain it? And why was such a righteous person, such a good man, exposed to it all, the one blow after another? There is a known concept in the Rabbinic commentaries that says that a person is exposed to his or her trials in accordance with that person’s inner capacities of taking it. It is logical to see the point in this, and the life of Jacob is probably the most convincing sample of this line of thinking.
I also think that being the last Jewish Patriarch and the progenitor of Jewish people, Jacob was destined to become an ultimate example of endurance which is the core characteristic of Jewish man and Jewish people in general.
Faith is not a recreation. Faith is work, a hard work, often. It is not just knowledge, or awareness, it is living according to it – and this is not always an easy thing to do. It does require understanding, conviction, and quite a lot of strength to live in that accordance, not merely a willingness to be in an accord with a world-view and norms dictated by the faith. And here, the role of Jacob for Jewish people in all and every generation is the most important one. His role as the one who overcomes the most demanding circumstances in one’s life is not only an exemplary, it is all-assuring for every single Jew in generations.
Michael’s Jacob is thoughtful, he is in the midst of people and events as he was destined to be his whole life. He is also quite firm and decisive in this portrait, as Jewish man has to be. And he is beautiful, as all three Patriarchs were. There is another kind of beauty present, as well. The beauty of life experience is imprinted on Jacob’s reflecting face. There are wrinkles – and wrinkles. The wrinkles on Jacob’s face on Michael’s portrait of him are not only the imprint of his trials. It is also the statement of his wholesomeness.
And that look, that very special look of the man who is not surprised by challenges, but who knows how to meet them. This is the essence of the man who has become the father of Jewish people. Jacob’s endurance is the quite-essence of our genes. Especially if we are able to comprehend its necessity.
The light of Faith created by the artist in this painting is not homogenous. It graduated from its dark version into its blissed one, reflecting the whole spectrum of Jacob’s firmest, and so very dramatic in its genesis light of Faith.
Leah : the Light of Determination
Michael’s reading of Leah ( Leah, 2009) is truly special and out of usual. In the world’s art, the Matriarch Leah’s depiction is somewhat standardised: very rarely, she is portrayed alone, on her own, far more often it is done in double-portraying her with her sister Rachel in a rather predictable way and unfavourable for Leah comparison. In well-known work by Italian Dante Gabriel Rossetti ( 1855), Leah is not only obviously sad, with less life in her than Rachel, but also with very clear message-stamp by the artist who painted Leah in a violet dress, unequivocal sign of unhappiness in traditional colour code of Italy. In a well-known mural by Tiepolo done a century before Rossetti’s work ( 1726-1729), Leah is portrayed as obviously unhappy and clearly less beautiful than her sister. Even when Leah is portrayed alone, very rarely, as being sculpted by Michelangelo in his famous composition for the tomb of the Pope Julius II in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome ( 1542-1545), she is obviously sad and tired, sculptured by the artistic genius in tangible detail.
Michael’s Leah is portrayed on her own, on purpose, with clear understanding and with intention of the artist to merit the matriarch who born six of twelve Jewish Tribes. The artist searches for Leah on her own, for what Leah was in Jacob’s life, their family and in the history of our people.
This Leah is reflective, as there is so much on her mind perpetually, her husband and her sister who are so closed between themselves that they are as if amalgamated into the one, in Leah’s perception, both painted next to her. But there is also the Lion of Judah, the symbol of our national strength, and Jerusalem on the horizon, the essence of our spiritual home, fortified by David and Solomon, Leah’s descendants. And there is also that donkey which has played such a special role in Leah’s life and her complicated contest with her sister for the man they both did love so much.
Michael’s painting of Leah is light and bright, Leah herself is dressed in a lovely garment. Yes, her story is complicated, but it is not negative, neither is it the story of rejection. How can it be in the case of the mother of six Tribes, including the tribes of Levi and Judah, the essentially important families for entire Jewish history and the way of the nation?
Personally, Michael treats Leah with emphasised respect, and artistically, he wanted to paint a different Leah from the known ones in the history of art. In my view, he succeeded. Leah’s light in Michael’s artistic interpretation is the light of determination – powerful, not always too warm, but quite lucid one. And this lucidity certainly helps to overcome many obstacles.
This painting has also a very special effect being hung on the wall – it starts to illuminate and enlightens everything around it. We have experienced it many times in different circumstances and places, and the effect is always the same. The work produces a palpable and lasting all the time special therapeutic effect. It is one more phenomenon of a nice mystery of art.
Rachel: the Light of Beauty
In history of art, Rachel, expectedly, is painted probably ten times more often than her sister Leah, and this mass of depiction is divided in two large, but not equal, groups, one, prevailing in quantity of depictions, with young, sometimes naive, sometimes poetic, always beautiful Rachel as it is done by Chagall, Ryland, Dyce, and the smaller but still large enough group of Rachel in her dying hour, with grieving family around her, like we know from the great works of Francesco Furini, Jacques Pilliard, or Giambettino Cignarolli.
In contrast to his depiction of Leah, Michael’s portrait of Rachel ( 2009) is emphatically sad. It is sad because the artist is compassionate to Rachel’s destiny to die so young, to be buried outside Eretz Israel, and to be torn off Jacob, her dear sons Joseph and Benjamin , and her entire family’s life so abruptly, and so tragically. This Rachel is not naive. This beautiful young woman looks at us with full knowledge of her tragic destiny, and also with her understanding of that very special role which she would be playing after her death.
The artist’s aim in his portraying Matriarch Rachel was to expand that special light radiating from her soul and transcending all over the place and time, from the place of her burial, with that famous ancient olive tree nearby, towards the numerous Jewish souls in generations. Rachel’s is an essentially tragic story of an unique character: her tragedy transcends light that relieves despair not only among the members of her immediate family, especially Jacob and Joseph, but among multitude of those who were and are in need of consolation.
There is a telling historical detail in that connection on Sir Moses Montefiori’s personal attachment to Rachel’s tomb. As it is known, the tomb as we know it today and as it hinted in Michael’s work , has been the result of Sir Moses’ initiated and undertaken reconstruction of the Ottoman period’ building in 1841. It was at that crucial reconstruction that Sir Moses who luckily had a very able Italian Jewish architect cousin David Moccata, added an important chamber for praying to Rachel’s tomb, but also quite importantly he did obtain the key from the shrine for the Jewish community which was his another great, crucial deed for the Jewish people and Eretz Israel at the time.
Two decades after the renovation of the original Rachel’s Tomb, the replica of it had appeared at the Montefiore’s private estate which also is the location for their private historical synagogue to this day, in Kent, England, as Lady Montefiore and Sir Moses’ place of their final rest. The special attachment of Sir Moses to Rachel was in him from his childhood, his mother’s name was Rachel, as well.
Joseph: the Light of Strength
The connection between mother and son in the case of Matriarch Rachel and Joseph is worth a book of itself, as well as the role of Joseph in his family, his relations with his troubled but stoic father, and his siblings, the Tribes. Joseph is so very special not only because of thriller-like circumstances of his life, but mainly because of the purity of his outstanding soul and strength of his barely imaginably will. He is the epitome of the best in Jewish people. Maybe, that’s why Michael Rogatchi decided to paint only one brother from Jacob’s twelve sons, Joseph.
According to Midrash, Joseph was the first person who was praying at his mother’s place of burial when he was broken away from his Egyptian captors on the way to Egypt, to turn to help and protection in his utter despair. He knew and remembered the place as he was seven at the moment of Rachel’s burial. Ten years on, on his way as a captive of Egypt, Joseph ran, if even for a moment, towards it, marked with the pillar of stones, one of which was put by himself.
The fact that his mother was buried literally on the road was the open wound in Joseph’s heart for all his life. His father Jacob knew about it and tried to explain himself to his beloved son after they reunited twenty two years after the trick that his brothers did to him.
Based on the teaching of Tosafos, brilliant Baal HaTurim, Jacob ben Asher, the one of the most important Torah commentators, provides important commentary on the crucial role that Joseph played in the entire Jacob’s life, in Jacob’s own perception. According to it, and supported by the meaning of corresponding gematria, “this teaches us that Jacob did not have any good years without suffering except for 34 [years of his life], that is, seventeen years from Joseph’s birth until he was sold, and seventeen years in Egypt [during he and Joseph were together again]” ( Baal HaTurim Chumash, The ArtScroll, 2004). This is 34 years from Jacob’s 147 years of life.
No wonder that this expressive work always commands a powerful attraction among the audience when it is exhibited at Michael’s shows. The meaningful composition resolution in this painting is the artist’s metaphor of the light which encapsulated Joseph and all of us in the world which can be antagonistic, hostile and unmerciful. This is a captivating message of this profound work.
When looking and thinking on those works of Michael Rogatchi dedicated to the Jacob’s family, the combination of these four different types of spiritual light comes out as a major factor for each of these works and for all of them together: assuring light of Faith of Jacob, settling light of determination of Leah, consoling light of beauty of Rachel, and protecting light of strength of Joseph. All together, the light of the illustrious family of the progenitors of the Jewish people which still sustains us and infuses us with our ability to survive and to keep our spiritual integrity, the oxygen of life.
The Ancestors Families Series. Part II of 4 : by Inna Rogatchi (C)
Fine Arts: The Isaac Family in Pictures
Artistic interpretation of the Torah in Michael Rogatchi Art
By Inna Rogatchi (C).
First published in The Times of Israel , November 2020 .
In between the first Jewish couple of Abraham and Sarah and the couples that their grandson Jacob set with Leah and Rachel, the couple of Isaac and Rebecca might be slightly off the attention which it deserves, in my understanding.
Perhaps it was traditionally led by our non-comfortability towards Isaac. People are always at loss when they are facing someone who went through something unimaginable. And Isaac’s experience of a trial of Akedah is the ultimate one in the history of mankind.
So how Isaac should be treated by anyone around him, in generations? Pretending that nothing has happened to him and he is like any other person? Or to go to another end of a psychological make-up and to sit on his trial forever thus inflicting the awful experience onto him perpetually? To dismiss the non-comfortability of our own facing the extreme in the open without really knowing of how we personally would behave under the circumstances? Probably, the prevailing inclination towards the third, neutral-safe behavioural option has slightly shifted Isaac and his family off our attention in comparison with his father and his sons. Do we really understand Isaac? Do we know enough about him for that?
I always was paying attention to this aspect and was thinking about Isaac and his family with additional attention. That is why Michael’s artworks rendering Isaac and his family are having a special magnetism for me.
Isaac and his eyes
In his Forefathers project, including the Patriarchs, the Matriarchs series and drawings on the theme, Michael Rogatchi has turned to Isaac few times, firstly portraying him in Akedah in 2001 – detailed analyses of it and Abraham family is here – , and then in two more works, portraying Rebecca and her ( and Isaac’s) family in 2009, and reflecting on a special introvert character of Isaac in his drawing of him made in 2016.
There is a serious difference between the images of Isaac in the earlier artist’s undertaking and those one which he produced later on. If in Akedah Michael’s Isaac is a beautiful and attractive man projecting goodness and kindness, in Rebecca ( 2009) and Isaac ( 2016), he is much older and obviously sadder.
In the psychological history of mankind, Isaac is unique. His personal experience is so unbelievable from many points of view that it clearly sets him apart from everyone. Who else went through such a trial? What consequences did Isaac bear to the end of his days because of him to be chosen as a test of devotion of both his father and himself? How did it all affect Isaac’s family, his wife Rebecca, one of his two sons Jacob in particular, and even the one of his grandchildren, the most special of The Tribes, Joseph?
We know – and can easily follow it on the grounds of conventional logic – that after Akedah, Isaac has become clearly introverted. To emphasise it, both the Talmud and the Zohar are teaching us that Isaac was preoccupied with digging wells. As a result, he has improved the quality of Eretz Israel, both literally and metaphorically. And it is a very direct indication on what Isaac’s introvert essence meant : depth that seeks vitality. What’s more, we learn from the Talmud that Isaac dug five wells, with their exact locations provided. The Talmud mentioned that these five wells correspond to the five books of Moses.
Michael’s Isaac in his gentle, loving drawing of 2016 shows the man of devotion and reflection. Isaac in this drawing is slightly but clearly melancholic, with his eyes dimmed, in direct reference to the Torah.
Why did Isaac’s eyes become dimmed? Did he not suffer enough because of Akedah? There are several explanations or rather short mentions about it in our Scriptures, with the most grounded of them telling that it was the direct result of King Abimelech’s curse upon Isaac’s mother Sarah at the moment when Abimelech has realised that he would never have that woman. “Let it be for you an eye covering’ – Abimelech pronounces to Sarah in Genesis ( Gen. 20:16). Isaac’s blindness is understood by our Sages to be the direct fulfilment of Abimelech’s curse. Isaac was destined to pay for his great mother’s integrity. The drama of life projects these difficult things on the best of us sometimes, starting from our Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
Michael pays special attention to Isaac’s dimmed eyes in both of his later portrayals of him, eight and fifteen years after he portrayed Isaac in his Akedah. One is seeing in his close-range portrait of our second Patriarch in the drawing made in 2016, and another one as the telling detail on the large canvas portraying Rebecca in Michael’s stunning statement on our second Matriarch that he created in 2009 as part of his elaborated, extraordinary The Matriarchs series.
There is another very interesting circumstance in not that straightforward relations between Isaac and his son Jacob, or maybe in Isaac’s who as we know from the Torah ‘loved Esau’, in Isaac’s attitude towards Jacob. Many years after highly dramatic episode painted in Michael’s work, when Jacob was himself the father of twelve sons, and when he was mislead to think that his beloved son Josef is dead, Isaac who was still alive, he knew the truth, he knew that Joseph is alive – and he did not tell about it to his son who is in complete torment. How come? Why? The Talmud tells us that Isaac’s line of thought at the moment was subdued:” If H-shem does not let Jacob know that Josef is alive, who am I to intervene?” – he thought to himself. Drama bearing more drama. But this behaviour is completely understood if you remember that it is Isaac , the person who survived Akedah. This kind of trauma never goes away.
The interconnection inside the Patriarchs families is amazing. The connection between Isaac and his grandson Josef gets its own aspect yet later on, at the moment of Isaac’s death. What is the connection? The Talmud sees it as the direct one: Isaac died at the very moment when Joseph stood in the font of the Pharaoh. Isaac knew that his grandson who was in awful and imminent danger for so long, would be OK now. His soul was in peace and could depart.
Rebecca and her vision
Michael’s portrait of Rebecca is the one of the rare paintings which one can gaze upon for a long time, time and again, every time finding yet new layers in the narrative of the portrait which has been classified by the art expert as a historical portrait, the portrait of a historical personality.
One can immediately see that Rebecca is portrayed here in the most dramatic moment of her life, at the moment when she decided to go on with her bold – and elaborated – plot to make Jacob, her beloved son, the one who would get Isaac’s blessing, the pivotal moment not only in Jewish, but in the world’s history as well. Would not Rebecca intervene, Esau – and the forces which he was embodiment of – might get the blessing of his father, and the history of the world would become much bleaker, undoubtedly.
On the canvas, we can see a beautiful woman of exceptional qualities deep in thoughts. Beautiful she was resembling in her outlook Sarah, as it is mentioned in the Talmud. And this also was created with a purpose, to console Isaac after his great Mother’s death, and to continue the genetic line of the Patriarchs, also phenotypically.
Actually, Dr Freund who was very well versed in Jewish history and in the Torah, did not take his fundamental point on correlation between the psyche of a son and the psyche of a mother from nowhere. He took it from the Torah and Talmud practically literally and then developed it to something never proven and utterly subjective. But he knew the secret – that basic point of the most important inter-connection between a mother and her son will always resonate in most of his patients precisely because there is a pre-dispositioned knowledge about it which is related in the Talmud. That knowledge tells that a son is always deeply and on many levels inter-connected with his mother – until the moment when he gets married, and when that inter-connection switches from son-mother bond to husband-wife bond. The first instance in which the Torah tells us about it is Parasha Toldot in which Isaac gets consoled after the tragic death of his beloved mother Sarah when he married Rebecca.
One should not forget that as Sarah died at the time of Akedah without knowing of its happy-ending. It is also quite plausible that Isaac could well project some subjective self-guilt of that tragedy on himself. That’s why he was so specifically double-mourning, that’s why he needed that consolation twice as usual man under usual circumstances might need it. And that’s why Rebecca was resembling Sarah, she was ‘in the image of Sarah’, according to the Talmud – as she is in Michael’s beautiful, lyrical and very thoughtful painting.
This painting also refers directly to another very important detail in the Parasha Toldot and our knowledge from the Torah on that so crucial first meeting between Rebecca and Isaac when Rebecca without second thought knowingly and willingly followed Abraham’s ‘special envoy’ Eliezer whom Isaac’s father sent to his family home to get the right wife for his Isaac, and when running camels on their way back to the house of Abraham and Isaac, Eliezer and Rebecca and Eliezer met Isaac in the field.
What field was it, by the way? According to the Talmud and Mishah, it was the field next to the Cave of Machpelah, the place of burial of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs except Rachel, that Abraham has acquired some while before in famous episode ( narrated in the previous Parasha Chayei Sarah) for Sarah’s burial.
What Isaac was doing in the field at the moment Rebecca and Eliezer were approaching? He was praying, being in talis, and with his hand in front of his face. It was mincha, the afternoon prayer which has been instituted by Isaac, as we know. But what’s more, there is no coincidence in that, as there is no coincidence in any event narrated in the Torah and Rabbinic literature. Isaac who was conceived on Rosh HaShanah, was born on Pesach, and it was midday, according to Bereshit Rabbah tractate of the Talmud. So the afternoon prayer mincha instituted by our second Patriarch, has been ‘marked’ to happen in this way by the very time of his birth.
In stunning consistency of important signs, we know from the Talmud that when Eliezer saw Rebecca for the first time next to the well ( and here is another parallel to the well as a symbol and main occupation of Isaac in life in general), it was mincha time, as well, tellingly.
What detail in the artwork in question speaks directly on the important symbolic detail in the Torah narrative in the parasha Toldot of the episode of Rebecca and Isaac’s first meeting? The veil.
Seeing Isaac and was impressed to her innermost, Rebecca instantly has put her veil over her. That veil in the understanding of the Talmud meant twins. In Michael’s painting, the veil and its two contrasting colours represents exactly that, with depth of a very dark blue for Esau and warmth of sun for Jacob. It is wrong to think too simplistically on many phenomena. Isaac loved Esau, and later on in life, Jacob did receive his name of Israel from the Esau’s archangel, thus meaning that as Ishmael had repented at some point as it is known from the Talmud, as Esau did have important potentials and at least once had used it in a seriously meaningful way. And that decisive blue also means necessary action by Rebecca, and refers to that part of her thoughts. So, deep blue is not a total black.
As for Jacob, on the painting, the more concentrated, heavy tone of yellow part of Rebecca’s veil which is closer to her and symbolises all uneasiness of her and Jacob’s decisions and deeds in getting the blessing from Isaac which he prepared for Esau, that heavy colour gets more and more lucid behind Rebecca’s head and figure symbolising that Jacob’s way in life and what he did on his way that started from his home when his mother has sent him, with Isaac’s blessing, for safety, meant sun and purity for our people in coming generations. We all are children of Jacob and his sons, after all. And in a stunning artist’s statement, small figure of Jacob is completely alone on that long road. From now on, all decisions are his, and all responsibility too.
Because of her unparalleled bravery, Rebecca was emphatically marked by the Creator: she is the only Matriarch and the only female in the Torah with whom the Creator spoke. It happened at the moment when she was praying for having children. “H-shem said to her…” . The Talmud comments that it has been done, that the Creator has spoken with Rebecca uniquely, via Shem.
Why Shem? Because Rebecca was praying to the Creator at the very special place, the Academy of Shem and Eber, as it is written in Bereshit Rabbah. To the further excitement, the place is still there, it is situated in Safed, and I have personally found it completely on my own, with Creator’s help, a decade ago. It was an overwhelming feeling to be there. Later on, in a historical book, I’ve read that Sir Moses Montefiori and his wife Lady Judith were brought on their special request to this very place when they were visiting Palestine in 1839.
There are many things in Rebecca’s life which made her unique. Additionally to those mentioned above, she was also the first woman in history who married the man who was circumstanced in full accordance with Jewish law, on the eight day after his birth.
Michael is often asked by experts, curators and public members: “Why is your beautiful Rebecca so sad in your portrait of her?” The artist usually replies that he chose to portrait Rebecca at the moment of her taking the most difficult decision in her life – as she knew that she would not seeing her beloved son Jacob again.
This is a definite tragedy of our beautiful and very brave second Matriarch Rebecca. And also, I personally find it very sad that there is no mentioning about Rebecca’s death in the Torah, unlikely to the rest three Matriarchs. Why is it so? In Pesikta Rabbati ( 12:22), the Talmud says it that as is happened, at the time of Rebecca’s death, Jacob was not there, and Isaac “was sitting at home, his eyes dimmed”. Because the two closest to her beloved men in her life would not be able to accompany her bier for burial, she did ask the Creator to grant to her that she ‘would be taken out during the night’, so the Torah does not mention her death following and respecting her will. Rather sad, I would say, the same sad as the circumstances of Sarah’s death. In their deaths, both most important women for Isaac, his mother and his wife, were encountering similarity, as well.
Turning to the more positive side, Michael’s own interpretation of this painting about Patriarch Isaac’s family is about a miracle. In his own words, “ This painting is about a miracle. Rebecca was a chieftain’s daughter who never usually went to the well to get water for animals due to her status. But one morning she went there. And when she did so, and was about to start collecting water, she did not have to bend down to the well as the water jumped into her jar. That was the morning when Eliezer, Abraham’s trusted servant, went in search of a bride for Isaac on Abraham’s behalf. To my understanding , the memory of those miracles provided Rebecca with the strength she needed to be able to send her beloved son Jacob at the crucial moment to save his life, despite knowing that she would never see him again. Miracle and Jew are inseparable. There is no Jew without a miracle. Belief in miracles is one of the strongest elements in the entire Jewish world and heritage, even though many of us do not fully realise it. And miracles are definitely an explanation for our survival” ( Michael Rogatchi. Forefathers. 2011).
If anything in about a miracle in our incredible Jewish spiritual history, and in its origin, the history of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs families in particular, the miracles of Rebecca and Isaac are certainly about it, from the beginning to the end.
The ANCESTOR FAMILIES SERIES. ARTISTIC INTERPRETATION OF THE TORAH IN MICHAEL ROGATCHI ART
FINE ARTS: The ANCESTORS SERIES
Artistic Interpretation of the Torah in Michael Rogatchi Art
First published: The Times of Israel
Published: Tribune Juive, France
In memoriam: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks passed away on the morning of Shabbat Parasha Vayera. In our eulogising the great Rabbi and our friend, it has been mentioned about the special timing for his abrupt and shocking passing away. Parasha Vayera and following it Parasha Chayei Sarah when the shiva for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks will end, both are telling about the Abraham family, the first and most important among Jewish families.
Michael Rogatchi has been inspired by the Torah in his art profoundly. Michael also has developed a special intellectual and human affiliation to Rabbi Sacks, in his teaching and him as a warm, thoughtful and special person. In his turn, Rabbi Sacks knew and appreciated Michael’s work. “I found the work of Michael very beautiful and deeply spiritual”, – Rabbi Sacks wrote to the artist a year ago, in November 2019.
I would like to dedicate this essay to enlightening memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, thinking with love and compassion of his wonderful wife Lady Elaine, his children and all the family – IR.
The Flight Into Other Dimensions
The families of Patriarchs and Matriarchs in the Torah are more than a family. It is a prototype, ‘a matrix’ of a nucleus of our most important way of life. The fact that their own lives were full of events, drama and unexpected turns that needed unorthodox resolutions adds the convincing power to the Torah narrative when it is applied to our all’ lives, thoughts and ideas. But not only.
Art is a special domain of human activity. It makes our lives richer, interesting, spirited, it fills it with beauty and fantasy, with originality and dream. With freedom. It fills it also with imagination and allows us to find ourselves in other dimensions. And other dimensions we do need, as a rule, but now, in the realities of the pandemic which has altered our lives so deeply, widely and dramatically, we do need it more than ever. Much, much more. We need it badly.
In this ANCESTORS FAMILIES series of my FINE ARTS collection of writings, the attention is focused on the key-families of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs and the Moses family. In his Forefathers project, Michael Rogatchi has paid special attention to these four groups of our ancestors in his artistic interpretation of the Torah in a rare undertaking of contemporary figurative art. We are learning about these families every year while reading the Torah through our annual reading circle. Michael’s special attention to these four families has to do with the role of the Patriarchs, Matriarchs and Moses family in the Jewish spiritual psyche. In our common, and still, everyone’s individual identification to various degrees with these fundamental personalities and the key characters of the Torah.
What kind of people were our Patriarchs and Matriarchs? What can be added to their stories, their decisions and deeds narrated in the Torah from the worthy sources of primary commentaries of Rashi, Maharal, Malbim and the other early commentators? What special details are enlightened regarding the characters of Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Pirkei Avot, Talmud, and Mishna? What perspective is added to all that by the visions of our great contemporaries such as Rabbi Steinsaltz, Rabbi Sacks, and HaRav Ginsburgh?
It is from the tapestry of all that knowledge and insights that Michael bases and waves out his artistic interpretations of the fundamental Biblical figures, and forms his own, distinctive imaginary of the people who have become symbols, the pillars of our attitude to life and our understanding of it.
Abraham and Sarah in the landscape of the Torah
In his contemporary Biblical artworks, Michael created two double-portraits of Abraham and Sarah. It is the only couple, the only Biblical heroes whom he painted twice. Unlike many artists, Michael does not return to the same subject or character often, except when he is working on music reflecting on its ever-fluid changes. But this is another story.
In his Biblical series, the artist stays to his principle and his way of work which he has developed due to his scientific background: from elaborating the task, making a thorough research, forming the understanding, to expressing it.
Of course, art would stay science if an idea, thought, concept and knowledge in it would not be enriched by feeling, emotions, vision and originality. One can produce pretty useful scientific outcomes by being diligent in something not quite original, but important and useful. In art, if one is banal, he or she is lost. Copying, even of the best quality, is for learning, as all artists know, from Renaissance ones to Rotko.
In his approach to his work on the Biblical themes, Michael is guided by the aspiration to create a distinctive new image to express the phenomenon which is the primary one for his heroes in his understanding.
He painted Abraham and Sarah for his The Patriarchs series in 1999 and Sarah (and Abraham) for his The Matriarchs series in 2009 as a couple, instead of as separate characters. “Abraham and Sarah are that rare very happy case when a husband and a wife are becoming the one”, – Michael tells on the background of his works on the first Patriarch and Matriarch portrait.
His work created in 1999 is essentially about this vital amalgamation.
Michael has explained this rendition in his own essay on the subject: “ According to our sages, an individual Jew represents only a half of a whole, and in order to become a whole requires the missing half. Abraham and Sarah are the perfect example of the whole, shaped from the organic amalgamation of two halves. ” ( Michael Rogatchi, Forefathers essay, 2011).
Not surprisingly, the artist solved the work practically in a monochromatic way, with slight lightening of the unifying orange in the Sarah part emphasising the enlightening role of a woman in general, in a Jewish family, in any family, and in this very case.
The choice of the colour in the work refers to Eretz Israel in a symbolic way, its sun, its sand, its desert, which is seen by the artist – who genuinely likes a desert, in a rare quality – not as a threatening and hostile challenge, but as an accumulation of sun, as a reflection and depositary of it. And also, importantly, as an expression of energy, strength, livelihood which were characteristic for both Abraham and Sarah individually, and of their couple, as well.
A simple composition of this symbolic frontal double-portrait, which is at the same time is also a family portrait and is a romantic portrait, is clever to convey several important symbols via both Abraham and Sarah’s unified hairs which form ‘the borders’ of the portrait. It symbolises key elements of the Israeli landscape, its sand, mountains, slopes and rivers.
The stories of the Torah, and those of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs in particular, creates the phenomenon which can be described as the landscape of the Torah. To render that landscape artistically is a rare pleasure.
The orange harmony on Michael’s work is also about coexistence, its merits, its comfort, its conditions and principles. In the words of the artist: “Love, delicacy, consideration, mutual self-sacrifice, – all these elements defined the lives of Abraham and Sarah, the first Jewish married couple. In their case, there also was the crucial element of self-discipline, that unique mutual understanding, and their inability of one to live without the other. In this, they are quite different from Adam and Eve”, – believes the artist ( Michael Rogatchi, Forefathers essay, 2011).
My favourite term, and actually, the part of the vision of my husband in his perception of Abraham and Sarah as a whole is ‘delicacy’. How rare and precious it is in human relations in general, in marital relations in particular. Perhaps, the long-run relations are successfully long and loving just precisely because of this ability to exercise delicacy towards each other.
As Abraham was able not just merely listening, but hearing and believing what Sarah was telling to him, even if he sometimes not quite understood her or her motives, or it did not come to him immediately. As Sarah always was seeking to do what is good and right for Abraham, even if it might lead to her own suffering. Their bond was unique – and doubly important because it was the first one on both intuitive and conscious levels in the history of humanity and civilisation.
In this warm and thoughtful portrait of Abraham and Sarah, the most important feeling, to me, is the mutual content of our first Patriarch and Matriarch with their inseparability, as it is resolved in the work by a double-effect of their shared eye with those soft smiles and quiet radiation of unshakeable confidence of both of them in their shared love.
Sarah and Abraham: the beauty of the soul
Ten years after Michael’s first portraying our first forefathers in his the Patriarchs series, he continued the Forefathers project with The Matriarchs collection ( 2009-2010). Then Sarah appeared among his painted heroes again, this time in the leading role of the couple’s next portrait.
The second Michael’s double-portrait of Sarah and Abraham is the portrait of a mature married couple. Everything is different here from their first portrait: the portrait’s composition, its coloristic resolution, the expressions of his heroes’ faces.
If the first portrait was a portrait of overwhelming mutual magnetism, the second one is a portrait of wisdom. If the first portrait was a statement of a synchronised breathing of a pre-destined couple, the second one is about synchronised thinking of the same couple. This ongoing dialogue between Michael’s Abraham and Sarah does not need words.
The colours in the second portrait are as if coming from the first one, as life develops from its starting point when a family is formed. The same orange which was the only colour of Michael’s first Abraham and Sarah, stays on as a background of the second portrait, with colours of experience in their life weaved into that: dark-red of wisdom, light-red of the gentleness of love, blue of resilience, the emerald of will, the turquoise of challenges, light rose of loving-kindness, the light blue of hope in a child, the first Jewish child of the first Jewish couple; the dark green of determination. And a lot of light yellow, the light of sun over Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah.
Altogether, in Sarah and Abraham’s second double-portrait, the artist presented a full, vibrant palette of life which has originated from the first portrait’s monochromatic colour of promise rooted in deep conviction and warmth of love.
The expressions of Sarah and Abraham’s faces on the second portrait are similarly thoughtful as in their faces in the first portrait, but with a different kind of thoughtfulness. In this work, their thoughtfulness is more knowledgeable and bears the signs of life-experience. And what life-experience our first Jewish couple has had, indeed.
Quite interestingly, the emotional balance in this portrait keeps the ratio of the first one. In the second portrait, Sarah has a similar enlightening smile which is as if coming from her innermost, and Abraham has that inner expression of his unconditional support of Sarah, her thinking, her ideas, her feelings, her intention, whatever it is.
In a contrast with the first portrait, the composition of the second one is different. Instead of looking directly at us frontally, now Sarah and Abraham are looking at each other. It is like their joined life full of so many challenges and dramas, which did provide them both with so much to discuss, with words not quite necessary to convey the feelings.
Their faces are beautiful, and it is an important integral part of the artist’s understanding of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs who were emphatically beautiful people. There is a serious metaphor in their beauty which is much deeper than just the features of their faces. It is a special kind of beauty which the Torah sets for us. It is a beauty of the soul. An ideal towards which we all should strive if beauty speaks to us. And what else speaks if not beauty?
Sarah ( 2009) is a sophisticated and modern portrait of Matriarchs and Patriarchs, but it is also quite a tender one. One of its winning and special qualities is transparency, the effect which Michael likes to use. It is a difficult thing to achieve technically, but when it is applied successfully, the entirely new dimension appears in artwork, transcendence, and this is the category which is essentially important for our very understanding of Judaism.
In the case of artistic interpretation of the Torah, and this very work, the transcendence of light in it projects the image and the principle of the tradition gently. It is achieved by setting the attractive light of the nest of life which has been set for us by the first Jewish family of Sarah and Abraham.
Akedah: the rock-bed of Jewish family
Abraham and Sarah’s only son Isaac is portrayed by Michael in his The Patriarchs series as part of the family, along with his parents. Michael said that he sees Isaac ‘as the part of the unit with his parents, Sarah and Abraham, perhaps, more than any other central Torah figure, for a historically logical reason: together, the three of them institute the origin of Jewish people, the beginning of the line of Jewish generations. The birth of Isaac, the giving the son to Sarah and Abraham by the Creator, is the key-moment of Jewish civilisation”.
Michael has chosen Akedah, the most dramatic moment in the lives of all three of them, as the plot to portray his own interpretation of that meaningful unity of the first Jewish family. Was not he worried to step into such over-exploited territory? Akedah probably is the most referred to Biblical episode. On the contrary, Michael responded. “ I did not want to treat this episode in a purely illustrative manner, with legs and hands bound. I wanted to capture the spiritual moment, the moment of that father and that son’s greatest possible spiritual strain that – because of their both’ giant spiritual efforts – has become the touchstone in the history of our people”.
In the expressive masterly painting, the contra-punctus combines ‘the melodies’ of Abraham and Isaac in the most daring moment for both and each of them. Father and son, they both come from the rock ( following the Isaiah famous saying “ Abraham is the Rock from Which We Are Chipped, Is. 51:1) and return to the rock of our fundamental convictions as Isaac in the painting are forming the same rock with Abraham, expectedly, as his son, but in much-enforced motion after his ultimate life-threatening trial, consciously so.
Akedah is a triple-portrait. Sarah is created here by the artist as the figure above Abraham’s head, with her hands stretched forward in her dramatic effort to save her only son. With Sarah’s figure in that position of motherly wholesome gesture of sacrifice and protection, the portrait of Abraham’s family is complete. With her character and her resilience, Sarah is absolutely the part of the same Abraham’s Rock, the strength of our nation. The whole family is very embodiment of this strength. And the drama which is obvious in Sarah’s desperate gesture is that she would die of horror of the thought of her only son’s death being poisoned by the terrible thought by Satan intentionally. A woman’s heart is not made from steel.
Colouristically wise, the artist as if combines the ideas behind the two previous portraits of Abraham family, with its further development: the orange from the first Abraham and Sarah’s portrait is coming here as the main colour as well, being enforced into its darker tones, to emphasise the drama of Akedah. The contrasting beautifully deep turquoise background, the colour which is not used often in contemporary art, and in general too ( because it is quite demanding against all other colours), bears the idea which Michael will develop colour-wise, in the second portrait of Sarah and Abraham which he will create eight years after the Akedah. The contrast achieved in this painting is deep and thought-evoking, and as far from a banal resolution, as possible.
In this unusual family portrait, father and son are looking at each other in the same way in which Abraham and Sarah will be facing each other in the second portrait of them painted by Michael in 2009. I find it fascinating that Isaac here is having the very same place which his father would be having on the second portrait, and even their both faces are quite similar, as it should be because from the Rabbinic literature we know that Isaac and Abraham looked so similar that people often mistook them each for another.
Michael’s Isaac is special. One can see that in the portrait, he is an adult man, he was 37 at the time of Akedah. At the same time, his special thoughtfulness and immersion into his own reflections is distinct. The artist’s message is clear: a person who survived such a trial as Akedah, is special, different, and he becomes thoughtful and introverted until the end of his days. As Isaac was indeed, as we know from the Torah and the Rabbinic literature. This image of Isaac is memorable in the existing image gallery of the depictions of our second Patriarch in art.
Sarah’s figure in her desperate effort to save her only son is a bold and elegant composition decision. She is trying to protect Abraham and she is trying to reach Isaac. The only person she does not think here absolutely is herself. Typical Jewish mother. It is this dynamic metaphor that unites the three of them together, thus making their unit a family. Ceiling it as the family, actually.
And this is what it all is really about: when powerful, talented, mighty individuals are able to make a family which is the nest for everyone at any age. Who knows what kind of families there would be among the people in the Jewish world unless we won’t have the stunning, magnetic, powerful, and so very absorbing in their dramatic history samples of the families of our ancestors, starting from the Abraham family. The Rock of Jewish nation Abraham, the exemplification of femininity Sarah, who together, with Creator’s willingness, produced the heights of thoughtfulness in Jewish tradition, Isaac.
In Michael Rogatchi’s interpretation, all this is reflected in a special way of knowledgeable artistic thinking and fine expression, bringing the origin of our tradition closer to our modern way of perception and reflection.
Motif of Devotion and Joy in Michael Rogatchi Contemporary Spiritual Art
Motif of Devotion and Joy in Michael Rogatchi Art
By Inna Rogatchi
First published at The Times of Israel
Ushpizin: personal bond
There is a profound paradox that exists in the narrative of Jewish spiritual heritage when we look at it as the source for artistic inspiration: the league of leading heroes from the Torah and our history is well-known, fixed in its number, and is largely prescribed in its main features in the annals of our Rabbinic and other literature. Quality art is an innovation always, and to be innovative within so seriously defined territory is a challenge.
Another challenge for artists who work on spiritual themes is modernity, shortening the distance from the time ancient to us today while portraying the spiritual giants and human models for our behaviour while being responsible in your effort to reflect authentically and respectfully.
There is no answer or recipe for that. It is highly individual resolution for any artist who dares to step into that territory. Because it all is based on an artist’s feeling. His or her personal bond towards concrete figures from our Biblical heroes and heroines, an artist’s personal connection to that or another character among them. Without that personal touch, nothing happens. With that personal touch, all the challenges are given a way to process of work, long, uneasy, complicated, but absolutely engaging, educating and rewarding one.
This personal bond explains the selectiveness of the ‘repertoire’ of Biblical heroes portrayed by the artists who worked in that field ( except the cases of commissions, of course). I know it also first-hand, observing my husband’s work on the spiritual theme for several decades. Biblical personalities probably is the most difficult, after the Holocaust, theme to create original artworks, just because of your own, highly subjective, perception of them. And one’s versatility in the subject gets it yet more difficult, paradoxically again. The more you know about our Forefathers, the wider the ocean of their inner world is getting in front of you. You have to navigate there, to be able to create something new, original, authentic, sensible, and not cliched. What is your compass in this navigating process? Your feeling. Your personal feeling of Moses, and Aaron, and Rachel, and Yochebed. Or not. And then, nothing happens, and just cannot happen.
In yet another paradoxical twist, artistically interpreting so well known leading figures of Jewish heritage is, in fact, terra incognita for an artist. And his only real chance to do it is his very personal connection towards some of those shining souls, using the Talmud reference.
I was writing previously about Michael’s well-known, widely exhibited and reproduced Forefathers series which has started as his artistic tribute to seven Ushpitzin and expanded also to the Matriarchs and other Biblical heroines.
Working on the new book of Michael’s drawings, I came across a rich trove of his artistic dialogues with some of the Biblical personalities especially important for him.
Some of those expressive works tell us not only on the artist’s search which always provides interesting and telling insights, but also get us closer to the resolution of that challenge posed by modern perception.
In his Study for Sarah and Abraham ( 2010), Michael based his intellectual and artistic search for understanding and expressing the inner, deep reasoning for Sarah and Abraham’s unique pair-ship, that one-soulness between them that has become – or should become – the fundament of our all’ relationships between Jewish man and Jewish woman in the family on the Talmudic understanding of meaning of addition of Hebrew letter Hei to the names of both of them, making Abraham from Abram and Sarah from Sarai.
Not only Creator has added these two heis to the names of our principal ancestors simultaneously, it is also happened at the moment, as it is recorded in the Torah ( Parasha Lech Lecha , Bereishit 17:4 and Bereishit 17:15) when they are informed about future birth of their son Isaac, thus sealing with two heis foundation of Jewish family-hood.
Michael’s thoughts as he related it in his own essays and comments for Forefathers were led by the multiply meanings of gematria in that process of re-naming of Sarai and Abram by the Creator. There are many worthy comments and explanations on that fundamentally important moment in the Jewish spiritual history.
The following quote is the facet via which Michael visualised it: “In Genesis, the Creator gave new names to Sarai and Abram. According to the Talmud, to do so He took the Hebrew letter Yod from the end of Sarai’s name. This letter is the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and has a numerical value ( gematria) of 10. He divided it into two equal parts and added a half each to both names using two Heis which have the numerical values of 5. He therefore made Sarah and Abraham. He thus made them inseparable. In that glorious couple, the archetype of a Jewish family, each individual was a half of the other. And this is the eternal secret of Patriarchs and Matriarchs”. ( Michael Rogatchi, Forefathers. 2010).
How many artists rendered Akedah, the Binding of Isaac? It is arguably one of the most visualised Biblical plots in art. How to make that incomprehensible key moment of Jewish and mankind’s history closer to us living today? Michael chose to concentrate on Abraham and Isaac’s, father and son’s closeness at the most dramatic , shocking, actually, moment of their lives.
He wrote on his version of Akedah – and his approach is also illustrated by his dynamic study for the work: “ Abraham, the Rock from which we are chipped ( Isaiah 51:1), in a moment of unbearable torment during which he was prepared to part with his beloved child forever to satisfy the Creator’s will, resisted tears. It is significant that Isaac, who at the time of the Akedah was a thirty-seven year old man, fully understood both his father’s torment and the Creator’s will. I have tried to convey in this work that rare and amazing unity between father and son born from their limitless belief in the Creator. I did not wish to treat the subject of Akedah in a purely illustrative manner, with both bound legs and hands. Instead, I wanted to capture this spiritual moment, a moment of the greatest possible spiritual strain that has become the touchstone in the history of Jewish people’ ( Michael Rogatchi, Forefathers. 2010).
And then, there are sometimes the works which do not need an explanation. In the case of Michael’s study for Jacob, pure love transforms itself into a beauty. It is known that all our Patriarchs ( as well as Matriarchs) were beautiful people in appearance. And it is mentally registered in Michael’s images of them in all his works dedicated to them. But in this special drawing, on which I personally can look non-stop, and am doing it all the time, the finesse of features is the result of the artist’s love, understanding and close feeling towards his subject. When this subject is the Father of Jewish People, the beauty of seeing Jacob-Israel in this lyrical interpretation is a totally new sensation, with long-lasting effect. A rare work, indeed.
In Michael’s new and latest rendition of the images of Forefathers, his David with Shofar ( 2020) is young, hopeful, and enlightened. In the artist’s own ‘gallery’ of Biblical heroes, this new King David comes in a sharp contrast with Michael’s very well-known King David from his “Absalom, My Son!..” oil painting (2003) in which Kind David is depicted in the most unusual way, being a tormented father who has just lost his beloved child. The previous tormented King David is a critically acclaimed achievement of the artist who produced that touching, tormented, and making us think King David with his full compassion. Seventeen years on, the artist who is studying Torah, Talmud and Rabbinic literature deeply and all the time, has produced this young David, playing shofar with elation, David who is an epitome of devotion – and importantly, the kind of devotion which uplifts. Perhaps, one has to live enough to fully understand the beauty, the light and the enlightenment of devotion.
Shemini Atzeret – at the King’s Banquet
After a week of Sukkoth, relaxing under semi-permanent roof, enjoying life with family and friends in our decorated dwellings, altered by the covid realities this year drastically, but still, a special time, we are inevitably getting into the period of concentration – basically, on ‘what it is about’? After stress of Rosh HaShanah, climax of Yom Kippur, and joy of Sukkoth, we are led to that truly special day of Shemini Atzeret, known as our each’ personal attendance of the King’s Banquet, to have that rare moment of contemplation of a different character than we are having in preceding Chagim ( High Holidays), more celebrating, less stressed, in that special anticipation of the new year in our life which has recently started and which lays ahead of us.
This mood is reflected in Michael’s special work which he calls his ‘self-portrait’ and which he does not exhibit often, for this very reason of privacy. In this survey, however, it takes its just place illustrating that Shemini Atzeret visit of each of us to that King’s Banquet, in its clarity, laconism, harmonious co-existence of warmth and strictness, and importantly, that dynamic of a questing man, with all kinds of appearing and reappearing questions to the Banquet’s Supreme Authority on so many of our ever popping in and out doubts. It is also always utterly private conversation, and the essence of this ‘self-portrait’ is fine and telling.
Privacy is ‘a salt’ of our all’ relationships with the High Sphere of our prayers and thoughts. How to relate it? A sole figure on an empty bank of a river would not do for this delicate balance. Such an attitude can portray solitude, not devotion. Because devotion means connection, and solitude means a loss of it.
Michael authored several different versions of his canonic by now Zion Waltz work which exist as an oil painting and as a couple of works on paper in mixed technique, one of which was owned by Leonard Cohen who did thank Michael for it warmly, and which now belongs to Cohen’s estate. There are several revelations in this special work, those dancing & embracing doves, that distinct figure of a Jewish poet who is a musician of his own inner thought, as many devoted Jewish people are, independent of their occupation in life.
But this very study for Zion Waltz, one of several, expresses the essence of privacy of that devotion between a Jewish person and the King at the special moment of those Banquets.
And then, our trees. Starting practically from the beginning of our core spiritual narrative, the Trees – of Life, of Knowledge, of Mercy, of Souls – are commanding the landscape of our thoughts. with different meanings. Those various trees arise in our inner perception with different questions related to the different stages of one’s life. There are also trees connected with our Forefathers, Abraham notably. And then, as a quite-essence of all this, there are trees of Israel, of Jerusalem, of Tiberias, of Safed, the subject of love and devotion of all of us, inside and outside Israel.
Precious, meaningful, dear, beloved Jewish trees of Eretz Israel that every Jewish person bears in his and her heart. As the one of the Michael’s Tree of Light ( 2016), his study for a stain-glass window for the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London known also as the World Jewry’s London address.
Beauty of Jewish Devotion
So many times we are saying kiddush during the month of chaggim ( High Holidays), all those kiddushes are different in their inner meanings – and varies our hopes connected to it. One can perhaps create an art series of different kiddushes, from exalted to reflective ones, as there are books with collections of various kiddushes, true enrichment of Jewish tradition.
But again, when it gets to authentic transferring tradition and heritage into the creative sphere of public domain, it is always personal. Of all possible kiddushes, Michael chose to portray the moment of that concentrated devotion that makes kiddush so special. He did it in two versions of his thought, on paper and on canvas.
On paper, the modern symbolism is evident. What is important in this truly special work beyond its aesthetic elegance is the success in creating an artistic archetype. It is not that often when symbolism gets its right with regard to people. It easily succeeds with subjects, and our eyes and minds are used to these memorable manifestations of symbolism as we know it from Picasso, Braque and their circle. But when it gets to people, for a number of well-grounded reasons, symbolism rarely succeeds. The best known samples of such success is Matisse’s Dance, but there are not that many of such works of art creating that successful archetype by the means of symbolism.
Michael’s man in his Kiddush on paper is a beautiful symbol of observing Jewish man. At the same time, this work is also an elegant symbol of our special Kiddush tradition. It tells it all, and does it in the rare case of artistic success when there is absolutely nothing should be added or left out.
When Michael handed his work to its extremely happy recipient in London, in a huge completely full synagogue, there was a wonderful and memorable moment of unified breathless silence of palpable delight , common and shared at the same time. After the ceremony, people were queuing patiently to see the work closer, and everybody smiled , warmly and engagingly, while examining the work from a close distance.
On a big canvas version, Michael decided to portray a slightly different Kiddush. The Jewish man there is of recognisably Sefardic origin, and the painting’s background represents our desert, both physical one in Negev, and metaphorical one, as well, of our people’s way to ourselves. This desert is not a homogenous or dull or desperate one, it is the kind of a desert that is an essential element of entire Jewish history. On the canvas, it filled in with the images of our Shabbat candles which are always around us and which are guarding us from one Shabbat to another.
The two works are united by the men’s devotion at the time of Kiddush, and from that perspective, from the symbolism presenting the archetype of observing Jewish man it gets to the symbolism presenting the archetype of Jewish emotion. In this case, the most personal and guarded of it, devotion.
Special aspect of devotion: its privacy
When an artist works from inside practicing tradition, his understanding serves as the best guide to his narrative. It is also the genetic memory of Jewish people that appears sometimes in our artists’ works, and this kind of loving loyalty makes this kind of art a sincere and simple song which reaches everyone.
Michael’s work Journey in Time I ( 2016) from his Journeys in Time series relates just this kind of the connection to the Jewish spiritual life-rope, our Torah. The life-rope that has saved us from extinction many times during all our over 3 300 years of history from the Exodus onward.
Devotion has its unmistaken aspect, privacy. The real thing is always quiet. For simple reason: a person does scream when he speaks to himself. How more so it is true in our personal inter-connection with the Creator. The one of the most profound and beautiful descriptions of this core aspect of Jewish Faith is found in the famous episode in the Writings describing Elijah’s encounter with the Creator ( Kings I, 19: 11-13). It tells Elijah in the process of powerful demonstrations that the Creator is not in the wind, nor in an earthquake, or in a fire. But then comes that ‘still, thin voice’ – and upon hearing it, Elijah knows that he has just met the Creator, in person.
There is mass of commentaries of this central episode in the Scriptures, expectedly. The one of the most beautiful and reasonable ones comes from the great Ralbag, Moshe Ben Gerson, known also as Gersonides, star Talmudist and serious scientist from early medieval France, who notes that the characteristic of ‘still, thin voice’ means a transition between state of silence and state of sound, or in another words, the inner voice, the kind of voice when revelation is perceived by a person for himself. The most convincing moment of truth.
Importantly, all our commentators agree on the main outcome of that episode: that the Creator is not to be found in a pompous manifestation, but in a quiet devotion. Michael’s modern drawing expresses the view of Gersonides that he had written in his brilliant commentaries to the Kings seven hundred year ago.
The Joy of the Torah , the Warmth of a Friend’s Shoulder
And then, at the end of our annual High Holiday month, after that contemplating period, after the end of Sukkoth, at the Banquet of the King, comes the exuberance of joy, Simchat Torah. We all have our favourite holidays in our rich circle of them. Michael’s one of the dearest for him is Simchat Torah. It is impossible to explain, it is – yes – personal. I guess that being raised in an observing Jewish family under the Soviet oppression of religious freedom, the outpouring manifestation of gratitude to the Creator for having the Torah, the guide in life, has its special overtone for Michael. Additionally to that, he simply loves people and his friends, and loves to be in a good company.
His lyrical Shtetl Song III ( 2013) drawing was created after spending the end of the High Holidays with our dear friends, a warm and family-like congregation of Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine led for 30 years by now by a brilliant man and outstanding Rabbi of our times, Shmuel Kaminetski. With regard to this work, Michael says that it is a clear-cut case when the inspiration comes from a concrete address. What is interesting to me in this live connection it is the fact that the revived life of Jewish communities in former Soviet Union after 70 years of its total suppression awoke the live creative energy in the artist who created the image celebrating the Jewish life all over the Eastern and Central Europe yet for centuries before the Bolshevik suffocation of freedom and before the Nazis annihilation of Jews and our Shtetls there. This work , and the history behind it, is a live proof of our Silver Thread that keeps us together from the ancient times until today. What can be more modern than the proof of ancient heritage alive?
Rose is one of the central symbols in Jewish tradition, and it gets close to Michael’s heart in his work as the artist, as well. He paints and draws roses often, always in a symbolic way, not as a plain illustrative exercise. Among many of his roses, the one giant one on his Simcha.Dance of Joy painting is special. It refers to the famous and bellowed symbol of the Thirteen-Petalled Rose which was first introduced by talented and original thinker and early Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Abulafia in mid-13th century before it was brought closer to the wide audience of modern times by the late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.
It is also Rabbi Abulafia’s gentle metaphor comparing the Torah for Jewish people with ‘ milk for children’ in its absolute organic necessity and its pre-destined naturality, and also in its abundance and vitality in building one’s body. This famous rose of Jewish wisdom and petal-like multi-facetedness of our educated and family-inherited values’ approach to life, coloured as milk is a background for the Chasidic dance of happiness, Simcha, in this Michael’s painting. The rose flies in the cobalt-blue skies symbolising the stronghold of our principles and willingness to defend them. Together with the flying rose there, the cobalt-blue skies of strength are forming the universe of Israel and Eretz Israel. The work occupies a prominent place at the hospitable house of our dear friend, great Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetski, as I am happy to note with his kind permission. Rabbi Shmuel always mentioned that his family always gathers together next to this painting.
This artist loves to place his personages in skies, for a number of reasons. Especially Jewish ones. Jewish musicians, dreamers, singers, dancers. ‘Why is that?’ – Michael was asked numerous times, at many of his exhibitions and encounters with viewers, – ‘is there a straightforward metaphor of lyrical flying applied in these works, telling on your romantic perception of your people?’ – ‘Not necessarily’, – Michael replied several times, – ‘in my understanding, the thing is that music, dreams, dances, thoughts, and prayers originated in Jewish heart, conducted in sincerity, simplicity, and devotion are losing its gravity. Simple.”
Simple, indeed, when it is felt – and painted – organically.
As the European Days of Jewish Culture are commencing the first weekend of September and expanding it through the beginning of the next week, with events in many countries programmed until September 8-10th, we know that this year, so very difficult and challenging one because of the pandemic and its multiple restrictions, many of our colleagues in different countries are approaching the celebrations with double energy, double efforts, and double aspiration to show more, to open doors of Jewish institutions for longer, to appeal to more people to celebrate our culture with us.
In Helsinki and in Rome, in Paris and in Italian Barletta, in Krakow and in Sicily, there are new, specially prepared events, exhibitions, concerts, lectures, with open doors events in many Jewish institutions all over Europe. Being in constant touch with many of my colleagues all over these strange times of covid, I know that they have put so much of their energy and will to share into all these events. The trend can be seen in its unifying character: European Jewish organisations are trying really more than ever to carry on the public events on various themes connected with our heritage. Public is a key-word here for all of us, understandably.
The European Day of Culture is not that long tradition. It was established just 25 years ago in Strasbourg, and from complete novelty it has been progressing in more tangible form into a special event in the cultural and public calendar of Europe. So far, it is largely Jewish communities’ inner events, still. In my opinion, the more we would be able to engage the public outside our communities, the more successful the very message of these events would become. How to do it? To understand it, we really need to clarify for ourselves: what do we celebrate at our annual Days of Jewish Culture in Europe? Our history? Our persecutions, dramas, and tragedies? Or our victories, victories of our spirit, resilience, survival and capacity to survive due to an inherited humanity and cherished love for our families and brethren? Our struggle to survive, or our achievements in arts, science, and education? Are we staying with our past by revisiting archive materials, or are we striving into our future by designing and creating new forms of expression?
Out of our own and our many European Jewish colleagues’ experiences, I know that the answer includes a bit of everything. But in order to get not just our own Jewish circles interested in the annual events of those days in September, but a wide and different public to attend those events, I believe that the working way of doing it should include a paradox in the way of our narrative for the wide not necessarily Jewish audience. When an intelligent paradox is in place, it gets people interested. In our own extensive public work promoting Jewish heritage to large and wide audiences in many European countries, and beyond it, we have many memorable stories to tell. One of them is connected directly to the European Days of Jewish Culture.
A Melody on the Place of Ghetto Liquidation
It was September 2013, just after High Holidays that year. In Vilnius, the IV World Litvak Congress gathered, with a vast program for several days, and full-scale participation of the state’s leadership in the event. The European Days of Jewish Culture had been also extended from its regular first weekend of September, for such an important occasion. There was one solo exhibition in the official program, Jewish Melody by Michael who was invited to create it specifically for the Congress and the celebration of Jewish history and culture.
The timing for the Congress was chosen with meaningful precision: on September 23d and 24th in 1943, the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated. Seventy years later, the big official event, with following series of various events were commemorating the efficient, cruel, cold, horrendous extermination of the great Lithuanian Jewry with all its history, culture, education, traditions, contributions, and simply life as such.
It was an uneasy context to participate in. I was curating that project of my husband, and we both, each of us differently, were approaching and experiencing it. Michael was creating his works, and I was waiting for them to be ready, to speak with him, and to work on presenting his works and its message authentically.
My husband did surprise me, and much more he did surprise those many different people who did gather for his Jewish Melody opening, and who visited actively ever since, long after the end of the Congress, as his exhibition had been prolonged several times and lasted several months in Vilnius before it was relocated the following year to celebrate the Day of Jerusalem and anniversary of the Tallinn great New Synagogue and its wonderful community in a joint event with the Knesset to Estonia.
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Back to Vilnius, and yet before that, to Michael’s working on his Jewish Melody series. He was working in his studio non-stop, to be in time for the exhibition in Vilnius, Vilna, as we always call the place we love in our both families. Appearing one evening after a long day of work, he was smiling. I thought that he was happy with the results, but there was more, and different.
‘Do you know what I am actually doing? – Michael asked. – ‘I suppose, I do. You are doing the series for Vilna.’ – Yeah, but what, or how I am doing it? Can you guess? – ‘Nope, and I would love to hear about it, as I have a couple of things to write and to think about hanging, composition, etc.’ – It will be a Melody, – Michael kept smiling. – A Melody, and that’s it. – ‘A Melody? Very nice. A good idea’. I was thinking that it would be a solemn kaddish-like reflections on the unspeakable tragedy of the Vilna ghetto, and for that matter, all and every of ghetto established and liquidated with that barbarian approach to life by the Nazis and their ever-willing local collaborators in Lithuania and literally everywhere else. As it was once mentioned by my good friend, great Karl von Schwarzenerg, “ Among the European countries’ attitude towards the Jews during the WWII, perhaps only Iceland could pledge its innocence, and yet, one cannot be 100% on that, too”.
Michael, as usual, was aware of the line of my thinking. “It is not that melody that you think, – Michael said. – ‘No? What kind of melody then?’– All sorts of our melodies. Our melodies from our normal lives, ghetto or not. I will be speaking about love and memory, memory and love, not about extermination and sorrow. This is how I decided to approach it”, – Michael said.
I felt enormous wave of warm gratitude to my husband – whose grandmother’s maiden name is Litowska, and whose family, as well as mine one (with also proper Litvaks surnames of Pinsky and Chigrinsky ) did lost many family members in desperate circumstances of the Holocaust – for creating this sort of commemoration, and for having this philosophical and psychological stand in his way of artistic response and re-addressing the Shoah.
Of course, an immediate and subconscious reaction of any normal human being, Jewish or not, but twice so Jewish, on the Shoah realities and its consequences, is a horror, sorrow and devastation. But if we would dwell on that only, we would not be able to commemorate our beloved ones, our six – and more, up to eight – million in the way which is closer to how they lived and who they were, and with the strength that our memory requires.
In our both’ opinion, in ongoing process of re-adressing the Holocaust, there is way of featuring it, and there is way of commemorating the victims of it, and those are two different paths. Featuring Holocaust does not allow, or should not allow its fictionalisation. That’s why Elie Wiesel has been so categorically against creation of any feature film on his books.
When it happened, as in the utterly cheap case of The Tattooist of Auschwitz book, caramel-like, third-rate, stupid and ignorant exercise, or absolutely repulsive, pervert The Painted Bird film, we all see the result of the games in the territory where normal people are not gaming. Of course, those are extreme cases of tasteless attitude of ignorants, and wrong approach of amateurs. I know that most of those authors who were and are working in fictionalisation of Holocaust do have a noble motives and are trying their very best. But I would always remember the eyes of my good friend Pauline Wrobel from Australia who has told me how her parents, both survivors who lost entire families in the Shoah, were quietly and hopelessly crying for hours after watching the first Hollywood fiction on Holocaust. ‘They were crying and crying after seeing that film, and I did not know what to say to them and how to comfort my parents – Pauline told me with tears in her eyes good half of the century after that episode that stuck in her memory for good. – I just asked them, Ma, Dad, you are crying because it brings you back to that? – and they’ve told me : ‘No, Paulie, we are crying because they did show that all so awfully wrong. You cannot make a show from that. You just cannot”. And I knew for 101% that Elie was absolutely right about his resistance to any feature film on Holocaust on any of his books, and I knew why.
But in commemoration of the Shoah, yes, one can make his or her own allusions and use one’s imagination in the reverence of memory. Actually, the more personal it gets, the more connected we are getting with our families and our brethren, those who perished in the Shoah and because of other calamities. Personal way of remembrance ensures its endurance and authenticity. Our feelings applied in such personified way are not somewhat abstract and short-live cliches, but they are becoming special song straight from the heart. Everybody’s own niggun, according to one’s family tradition and memories of that.
Michael believes that a melody is a special language in general and especially in arts. He knows how to visualise it artistically, too. He shares our sages’ understanding that singing is so highly and warmly valued in Jewish spiritual tradition. He reasoned it by people’s devotion, but also, importantly, due to the special effort that people singing in a spiritual dimension might make, possibly overcoming one’s shyness, privacy, introverted character. When niggun comes from the heart, it is not that loud one, but it is beautiful in its sincerity. Michael’s own nigguns from his childhood and adolescence are also living on his artworks in its visual form.
What Michael is doing in his art often it is to create a new, visual dimension for the nigguns. He is transferring our tradition with its familiar melodies into the other sphere of art. In Michael’s creations, it encompasses all possible ways and sides of our Jewish life: our chuppahs and our lullabies, our Shabbeses and our gatherings on the Haggim, our daily routines and our dreams, our memories and our aspirations.
It is not that often when an artist who works on his national heritage theme, chooses not to go for landscapes or genre scenes, but to express it all via melodies, to bring music, a very strong, emotional, warm, but also quite difficult ‘tool’ due to its fluidity, to portray life in all its phenomena.
Not surprisingly, in Michael’s Jewish Melody, there are so many Yiddish tunes. His works are portraying Yiddish Tango, Yiddish Lullabies, Yiddish love songs. Our families were immersed in Yiddish culture, and the series is Michael’s ‘postcards’ back to them. But it is not only about the artist’s imaginary dialogue back in time with his family and friends and close people from his past. His idea for creating Jewish Melody as a special series was to commemorate exterminated Lithuanian and Vilna Jewry in the way of speaking about them, memorising them alive, not annihilated.
Who they were, those men and women and their kids? How did they live? Which songs they were singing to their children? What music was sounding at their chuppahs?
Some of the work from this series were discussed in the essay dedicated to the family theme in Michael Rogatchi’s art.
“I wanted to speak about these many thousands of Jewish people, their children and their families alive, not dead. I wanted to memorise them with a smile, not tears. I tried to recreate their world as we know our Yiddish world, not to paint the dreadful ravines in Paneriai ( the forest next to Vilnius where at least 70 000 Jewish people were exterminated during the Shoah)” ,- Michael was explaining his thinking behind the series at the opening of his exhibition in overcrowded hall of the Vilnius Jewish Public Library where the initial exhibition took place.
People who were gathered at the opening in the capital of Lithuania knew the history and realities of our all’s lives there well, with first-hand experience. Many of them were not Jewish. The more meaningful was their perception which was not only highly appreciative, but very deep too.
In his opening speech, well-known scientist and educator, professor Algirdas Gaizukas emphasised: “ Michael’s Jewish Melody is lifted up and is fused with the very essence of human existence. The artist’s metaphors are amalgamated into the deep thoughtfulness of the very meaning of life. His newly created artistic reality is becoming a melody itself. This unparalleled art series dedicated to the memory of the people destroyed in the Vilna Ghetto 70 years ago, has become the melody which is full of light.
This is the melody of life itself, the very meaning of it. To remember the people who were exterminated with the most cruelty and absolutely senselessly, in this highly human, fine in expression, and aesthetically simply beautiful way is certainly a very high and special achievement of the artist, and also a thinker, a philosopher. It is the elegant and very distinguished way of remembrance. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Michael for this great alternative to our post-Modernist time. I do feel that this kind of art is much needed today, and should be especially appreciated “ ( September 24th, 2013, Vilnius, Lithuania, opening speech, Michael Rogatchi’s Jewish Melody exhibition at the IV World Litvak Congress).
Feather-planet of Jewish music
This commemorative art series includes not only the works which are re-addressing the past and features concrete ways of Jewish traditions in Central and Eastern Europe, but there also more philosophical etudes on Jewish character in general which in Michael’s opinion is expressed with relation to music in the most interesting and authentic way.
“Why are there so many feathers all around in these works? In Jewish Melody, Melodies of Jewish Violin, No Place for Wagner, Trace of Your Smile, and the other works? Because not only Jewish musician stays on a feather instead of a ground, metaphorically speaking, but also he plays with a feather, and his melodies are fluttering around as feathers. His violin is a feather, to me, and his bow is a feather. His music, the world that he creates standing on a feather and playing on and by feathers, creates the world of feathers around: fine, light, gentle, so very special and unique world of Jewish, and Yiddish music and musicians. It is a feather-planet, so to say, to me, and that’s why there are so many of them in my Jewish Melody’ – explains the artist.
We were only happy that one of those feather-planet’ intricate works, Melodies of Jewish Violin, has been selected some years ago for Permanent Art Collection of the Finland’s diplomatic mission’s official residence in Luxembourg.
Some other works from this special series have become widely known and appreciated, as well: the title work Jewish Melody has been reproduced many times in the leading international media and special issues, both in arts publications and for the general public. Michael was requested to do a couple of new editions of that instant classic, and now the one of those works are in the collection of the world-famous theatrical director who keeps it as the closest thing next to him in his study, and the other is the part of notable private collection in Israel. The special enlarged edition of another expressive work, Zion Waltz, was made by Michael for Leonard Cohen. After receiving the work in 2014, Cohen had written back to Michael: “As you know, Michael, I am in the age when I am in the process of giving many of my things away. But not this one. Not this. Thank you!” After Leonard’s passing in November 2016, the work is in his family estate, and it will take part in our new forthcoming international project in artistic commemoration of Leonard Cohen.
Yet another work featuring feather-planet of Jewish music, created a bit later, but belonging to the same series, No Place for Wagner, is with our good friend, great talent of Jewish music himself, Rabbi and Cantor Lionel Roselfeld from the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London, the same Synagogue where Lord Rabbi Sacks was administering and where he still administrating High Holidays in his eloquent, friendly, warm and deep way. Lionel Rosenfeld has said of the work that belongs to his and his family collection that ‘ not only I love the work greatly, but I am simply ecstatic about its title and would love to write it down on the wall next to the work, if I could, in giant letters’. We love our friends. They do share our attitude often, and shared key principals is truly important ground in one’s life, indeed.
As many as six more works from this series belongs to notable art collections all over the world, from France to New York, and from London to Jerusalem.
When thinking of his own way of commemoration of Jewish lives brutally taken off by the Nazis and their local barbarian helpers back 1943, Michael was also creating the works in which the very way of such artistic commemoration was analysed and thought of. We are here – and we are not here; we are not here – but we are still here. We are serious but the trace of our smiles are present. We are smiling, or were just smiling, but are thoughtful and serious, full of memories, reminiscences and thoughts. Our thoughts are flying as feathers, the feathers of your, next generations’, memories on us. Our eyes are not angry, as we never ever were meaning ill to anyone. They are just thoughtful, with staying imprint of that unanswered astonishment on our own, our families, and our people’s destiny. Especially that one in Vilna. And so numerous places of that unspeakable tragedy all over Europe. We are there, in traces of your memories – and we are here, in the colour of our faces.
We are here -and we are there. We, the Jewish people. We, the Jewish artists. We, the Jewish writers. We, the Jewish guardians of our culture which is a live imprint of our memory. And this is what we are commemorating at the European Days of Jewish Culture every September.
ART ESSAY ON DETAILED ANALYSIS OF FAMILY THEME IN MICHAEL ROGATCHI’S ART IN ITS HISTORIC CONTEXT
The Story of Devotion in Pictures: Family Theme in Michael Rogatchi’s Art
By Inna Rogatchi (C).
First published: The Times of Israel, 27.07.2020. On the TOI site, the article can be read here.
Devotion on Canvas: Long Way for Real Feelings
The topic of a family theme in art is more intricate than it seems. Before photography, the immediate and primary function of it was clear: to leave those who could afford a family portrait for posterity. People posing were at unease, artists behind their easel most of the time were just earning their living. However masterly in detail Italian and especially Spanish portraits before the XVIII century are, they are largely impassioned, not to say indifferent.
Before Rembrandt, portrait as a genre had produced a beautiful, memorable, in many cases stunning in their harmony images of people as it was the case with all great masters of the Renaissance, but the inner light and depth of ordinary people’s lived- through faces had been brought to us by that great master who did revolutionised art in general and who meant everything to practically all and every serious artist thereafter. To see the beauty in not beautiful, to be such a philosopher while being a great master of art craft, to bring such depth into the artistic perception and set it up as an artistic criteria, to be that human one had to be a giant. As Rembrandt certainly was and still will be forever.
The XVIII century and the first half of the XIX centuries brought in engaging French portrait that did show a vivid interaction between a model and an artist , – and we are talking about family portrait here – with artists being an ultimate master in those relationships most of the time. After the appearance of photography, artists have become engaged more in self-analysis even while painting other people, as was the case with many German and French artists for almost another century, 80 years at least, until the end of 1930s.
Perhaps, it was something inevitable, some special way in psychology of art that helped an artist to open up about him – or herself while painting the other people, in this case, their family members. Tens of portraits by Monet, Manet, Renoir and many other their colleagues and friends made of their wives, girlfriends and children is proof of it.
Until the end of the XIX century, classic family portraits were not that much about a family as such , but rather it manifested about its separate members.
From Impressionists onward, family portrait has become more about art approach, experiment, style, light, coloristic, all the nuances of applied art that was bursting into an living experiment at the period.
Myriads of portraits of their family members mastered by the French Impressionists are more about themselves, with rare exceptions of Modigliani who did paint his wife with love and palpable human inter-connectivity, the portraits of his family members by Giacometti who did not belong to Impressionists, and who did bring that family connection into his works. He did these portraits of his father, mother, brother precisely for keeping that family connection alive. It was like writing a poem about his home, for Giacometti. And it seems to be a surprisingly rare thing in the history of art.
Probably, the most powerful from those rare works of devotion on canvas is Mother and Son, great work from the early Blue period of Picasso, the outstanding work of art of all times, indeed.
Speaking on Jewish art, Chagall did immortalise his wife and the love of his life Bella and their daughter Ida in his great works, of course, but his artistic impulse in the case of Bella was to paint the essence of romantic love which is another theme. In the case of Ida, his approach was similar to the French Impressionists who were painting their family members as models quite so very often.
But there is also art that creates, maintains and develops the theme of a family, even today, in contemporary art and in its figurative domain. Because of a number of reasons – fashion, priorities, changes of mainstreams and trends – it turned out to not be an easy thing to do. Seemingly, it always was the case. But when succeeded, this kind of art serves in many ways.
I am lucky to know such a contemporary artist who still values the theme of a family very highly and who keeps and develops the theme as dear for himself throughout his career. It is Michael Rogatchi –www. michaelrogatchi.com
Being privileged to observe the work of my husband artist from a close distance, I can see how the family theme has developed during his career. It turned out to be a case-study of the family theme development in the work of a contemporary master.
The Shield of Jewish Family
Among the oeuvre of Michael, there is a substantial amount of works, mostly oil paintings, dedicated to his own and our extended family.
It started from Lullaby, the portrait of his mother Maija-Mara Rogatchi-Reiss, created in 1994. Two Little Goats is an eternal Yiddish lullaby, and Michael did bring the goats on the canvas decades after his mother who was an aspiring and able singer used to sing it to him.
Her face of a strong-willed Jewish woman who was caring and protective for her son and who was extremely helpful for tens of people around them who knew that they can always come for help to this special woman and always get it. This woman’s ivory-like face also shows the never left reflections in her bottomless eyes. And there had been so many things that she kept reflecting upon during many years of her not that long life, keeping it all to herself, without bothering anyone around, never frightening or saddening her only son, but always protecting him from harsh realities and cold winds around them while teaching him to be strong and courageous.
How to protect a baby born inside Gulag, the son of Stalin’s political prisoner and his devoted wife who went after him, lived nearby and was allowed to see him once a month? How to protect a baby born in the absolutely harsh place of Soviet Gulag known as Valley of Death? How to protect this boy in the unspeakably hard exile in Kazakhstan, with that extreme climate of plus 45C in summer and minus 45C in winter, in the reality when a human life cost almost nothing but human dignity was highest possible? How to present to his boy a regular meal of a rye bread with a bit of vegetable oil and an onion as a normal and even good dinner? This woman did manage all this in a marvellous way. She did it by the way of her great lullabies which were still heard in the head of her son decades later, but also by the way of warm family evenings of non-stop music from gramophone, classical and operas, reading the best literature aloud extensively, immersing her boy in etiquette and best manners, not forgetting about teaching him to help to the others, everyone who does need help, elderly, young, sick, poor. To be human. To be brave. To fight for things fair.
Michael’s father was arrested by the NKVD in 1949 being very young, for his alleged belonging to the bourgeois ‘organisation’ ( there was none, arrested were several co-students from the first year in university) and initially sentenced to death which was later commuted into 10 years of Gulag. Thanks to Stalin’s death in 1953, he was eventually released from the camp, but instead of being free, he and his family , as millions of others Gulag’s prisoners in Soviet Union, were sent to exile to Kazakhstan where they lived surrounded by thousands of people with the same destiny. Henry Rogatchi, talented, good looking, joyful and very kind man, who contracted tuberculosis in the camp, died relatively soon, being just 39. His only son was brought by women mostly, his mother, grandmother and aunt.
Not surprisingly, Michael’s other important works on the family are dedicated to his grandmother, Sofia Litowsky-Reiss. That brave woman who used to be a member of Jabotinsky’s organisation in Ukraine and who being a mother of four children of her own has adopted two more orphans in the years of devastated famine in Ukraine, also has lost her husband to the Stalin’s regime. Shimon Reiss, brave and smart military engineer from Budapest who was ‘a white’ officer in the Austrian Imperial Army, fell in love with Michael’s grandmother and settled with his family in Ukraine after WWI. One morning in 1937, accomplished and widely respected engineer Reiss went to his work, never to return. He was eliminated by the NKVD on the spot, in the first wave of their purges that started from ‘cleansing’ of foreign nationals and ‘bourgeois enemies’ of their bloody Bolsheviks coup. There is just one very small photo of him left in the large family.
His wife Sofia who raised so many children of their own and adopted ones, was a person whose motivation in life was to help the others. Thus she voluntarily went to Kazakhstan to help her daughter to raise Michael. And his grandma was his fortress and his heaven. “When grandma took us under her wings, literally, my cousin Galja and myself, and sang us all Yiddish songs in her melodic and warm voice, the outside world ceased to exist. It could be a terrible freeze and snowstorm outside, but we knew nothing about it. We lived in the world of Yiddishkeit, and it was the most wondrous one in the universe” – Michael recalls.
Michael’s first tribute to his brave grandmother is My Grandmother’s Songs work from his celebrated Jewish Melody series ( 2013).
He has elaborated it further on as an oil painting for his Zion Waltz series ( 2016). In this work, the lines of Michael grandmother’s caring face appears from the sky in gentle appearance on canvas.
Sofia’s biggest dream in life was to bring her family to Israel. Her entire family, she always emphasised it. Michael was quick to go, naturally. He packed his little suitcase very quickly, put it under his bed, and reported to his grandmother that he is ready to go. He was 12 at the time. It was the first time when in the 1960th the USSR did open the window for its Jews for Israel for a short time.
Sofia Litowsky-Reiss was not able to fulfil her dream, however, because many members of her family were not allowed to leave the USSR. And she was unable to leave some of her children behind. She was the matriarch of the family and felt all responsibility for all its members. Michael’s packed suitcase however was kept by the boy intact for many months there under his bed. For the long time, he was hoping to reach Israel with his family, despite any hurdles.
During the long dark cold evenings in Kazakhstan, his family got together quite often. Family dinners and gathering on the Shabbes, it was the time of the week that kept us together and filled us with joy. And our grandparents did keep our Jewish holidays, especially Pesach.
On these days, in Michael’s family, his uncle Reuven Kotljar would play piano with a great talent, and Michael’s mother would sing with her strong and beautiful voice, to the entire family’s rejoice. Reuven grew up in an orphanage. His and his twin brother’s parents were killed as ‘enemies of Soviet state’ by the NKVD when the boys were babies. By known tradition of Soviet humanists, children were separated and had no clue on each other’s existence. Reuven also never knew that he was Jewish until he became an adult and left the orphanage. Incredibly, meeting no single Jew in his early life, he spoke with the heaviest Yiddish accent possible. And he was a super-talented pianist, self-taught one. Reuven and his brother did find each other being married adults each. It was another Jewish miracle.
Michael’s portrait of his uncle Reuven was not conceived as a direct portrait. Michael created the general portrait of a warm, kind and thoughtful Jewish man who saw a lot in his life. Only afterwards did he realise that he gave his Jewish man the face of his brilliant uncle Reuven. This portrait has a special quality: the eyes of this man follows you wherever your movement would be. It is the one of most critically acclaimed Michael’s works on Jewish heritage.
The Way of Unity and Belonging
Music was much more than music in the life of the Soviet Jewry. It was probably the only universal way for millions of Soviet Jews to feel and express their belonging to each other and to our people.
My father Isaac Buyanover, talented engineer, inventor and chess-player, has had congenital heart disease, as he was born in the midst of severe famine in Ukraine. He had to be careful at all time in his movements and everything he did. But he completely abandoned any precaution when hearing the first sounds of Freilach, Hava Nagila and any other Yiddish dance music. My father danced his heart out at family’s and friends’ gatherings. His giant love of Cohen to his people bursted out in his dances. Everybody loved him dancing, because everybody saw that love outpoured, unmistakably.
Michael’s work Freilach ( 1995) is dedicated to my father and is about him. It is also about the essence of Jewish belonging. I wish my dad who died so prematurely, would see the work. He would be endlessly grateful for such heart-felt understanding.
The work dedicated to the memory of my maternal grandparents, Abram Elovich and Adel Chigrinsky is called Mirages ( 1995).
My grandfather, high-ranking engineer, paid his toll to Stalin’s regime, as well. He was arrested without any guilt at all, in the anti-Semitic purges in early 1950s, and was released a couple of years after Stalin’s death. As he returned home alive, the family regarded it as a great luck. My grandmother belonged to a well-known Jewish family that was closely related to Menachem Ussishkin, and was a daughter of a legendary man, Meer Chigrinsky who saved a huge Jewish community of Ekaterinoslav/Dnepropetrovsk from that devastating famine in the 1930s, and the niece of another legend, great doctor, Falk Chigrinsky who saved very many sick of tuberculosis children’s lives during the Siege of Leningrad, to die from heart attack on May 9th, 1945. More about it can be read here.
As practically all Jews in Soviet Ukraine, the family suffered many losses, many of them in the most tragic way and circumstances. My grandmother was unable to overcome it for the rest of her life, and the painting emphasises it.
As all Jewish European families, our both families, or our one extended family paid a terrible toll in the Shoah. Michael’s strong love to our grandparents and parents who both did suffer a lot being hunted, deprived, and mourning the lost members of the family every single day, materialised in his well-known My Train work ( 1993) from his In the Mirror of the Shoah collection. Being the work reflecting Holocaust in general, it is also profoundly auto-biographical account. Amazingly, every member of our extended family does recognise itself among the faces presented there.
I know that my Michael’s mother and aunt, and his grandmother who lost her daughter with her entire family in the Shoah, my grandfather and mother, who also lost her aunt with her entire family, and several other members of our family are there, additionally to that boy who will always look on the history of his extended family and the history of his entire people from that track which will not disappear in our hearts and minds ever.
Embrace of Love and Sound of Caring
Michael always maintains that despite harsh objective circumstances of his life, his childhood was blessed and great one. Analysing the lives and attitude of our parents, we understand that it is because of their talent of heart and their stern will to give their children the best possible care, not to mention love which was immeasurable, our childhood was the most loving, protective, rich and fruitful one. That childhood created by our parents and grandparents naturally and effortlessly towards us, but with great overcoming towards the impossible circumstances of their lives, in the aftermath of Holocaust and WWII, under the Stalin’s siege and surreal Soviet realities, has made us opened to the other people’s needs, rooted in our people’s heritage and belonging to its history. It is the most essential source of one’s life. So there is no surprise, actually, that Michael has devoted so many works in his oeuvre to the theme of a family, both his own one and in general, too.
That Jewish family’s origination and caring love is depicted in several of his lyrical works.
Ljuli-Ljuli, after the name of yet another beautiful Yiddish lullaby exists in two versions, initially as original drawing from Michael’s Jewish Melody series ( 2013) , and later on in its developed version as an oil painting from his Zion Waltz series ( 2016).
People who were looking for an oil version at special vernissage in 2017, stopped next to the work for a very long time. Then one of the guests, formerly top politician of an international fame, said in an unusual, cracked voice: “Michael, we have just seen a real classic. This work will live a long life, and it will warm people’s hearts all over the world. Ever”. My joy was that it was the reaction of a non-Jewish person.
Most of Jewish children have their hearts formed by their Jewish mother, and that’s why Yiddishe Mama song and the term are so universal in our midst. Self-demanding artist is always trying to avoid cliches, and so it took years for Michael to create that image of that love which we all know as Yiddishe Mama. He did it in 2018, and as I understand it, he did put into that work the essence of all Yiddishe Mamas in our extended family, from one generation to another.
Some of his works on family theme are speaking about the very birth of one more Jewish family, including his own, as the two drawings related to our chuppah, Before Chuppah ( 2009) and Chuppah Memories ( 2017).
To me, it is like Michael’s own niggun, just the one on canvas. He has many nigguns of his own, with some of them materialising as artworks. Every good niggun is good because it gets universal, with many people associating with it. I think and hope that it is the case with Michael’s nigguns on canvas, too.
He is known to international art critics as the master of rendering music in visual art in original and fine way. Some of his works on music are actually his works on his family theme, as Family Concert ( 2015) that was created for Divertimento series on classical music, but is staying apart of it precisely because its main theme is the family theme, actually.
The number of the artworks of Michael dedicated to his extended family is 13 which is a gematria for word ahava in Hebrew, love.
Silver Thread and Heart Cord
With Michael devoting so much of his effort to creating the consistent collection of the works depicting family theme throughout all his career, it is not coincidental that he also created several important works which are related not just to his own family, but are symbolic in to the theme generally.
Michael’s important work on the phenomenon of motherhood is The Next Year in Jerusalem ( 1995). The symbolism of this work is so universal in its message that it had been selected by the artist’s curators to be the part of many of his projects: his famous and unique Forefathers project of contemporary Biblical art, to his In the Mirror of Shoah series, as well as his Daily Miracles collection on Jewish heritage and his Zion Waltz series on the Jewish universe. In a word, this work speaks on so many themes and ‘clicks’ to so many allusions, addresses so many sides of dramas of past and present , both Jewish and non-Jewish ones, that it is regarded as the one of the most widely reaching works of Michael, with a universal message of powerful humanism. Which is all true, and we are especially glad and grateful that this image of Jewish woman protecting and caring for her Jewish child is perceived as a symbol of motherhood in general.
Michael’s another well-known work, Yiddish Son ( 2011) is highly symbolic work speaking on Jewish childhood and boyhood. The work has a special history and provenance. It has been commissioned to Michael by the leadership of the Vilnius Jewish Public Library with the purpose to be the only oil painting in the premises. Being Litvak on his maternal grandmother’s side, Michael took the commission close to his heart and has created one of the most lyrical of his works on Jewish heritage. The universally acclaimed work has been dedicated to Elie Wiesel ( who was an aspiring violinist and came to Auschwitz with his violin) after Elie’s passing away in 2016.
It is not coincidental for Michael’s vision as an artist that he analyses and portrays the biggest calamities and highest joy for our people through the prism of a family, symbolic one.
It has happened in the one of the most powerful re-addressing Holocaust in contemporarily art, Michael’s Faces of Holocaust triptych ( 1991-1992). It is telling, to me, that it was absolutely important for Michael to address the Shoah since the very beginning of his artistic career. Faces of Holocaust is the one of the early Michael’s works. The symbolism of the incurable tragedy of the Shoah conveyed here via the thorn images of three generations of a Jewish family. That boy, the artist himself, is a bearer of the pain of the generations of his parents and grandparents and acute remembrance of our people’s tragedy for good.
And of course, it is important for Jewish artist Michael Rogatchi to show that the domain of joy and gladness lives and thrives in the domain of the family, as well. Not only lives but accelerates via its different generations, strengthens and spreads on. This is the message of another symbolic work on family theme by Michael, Kletzmerim ( Klezmer Players), 2016. There are three generations of the same family of Jewish musicians in this shining and engaging work, as Michael believes strongly in the strength of family in everything that a human being, and in this case, a Jewish person, endures.
Family as Nucleus of Love
In Michael’s understanding, “there is no family without love, and there is no Jewish family without devotion’. This is what we both are deeply grateful about to the Creator in the case of our both lovely, loving, living-does-not-matter-what families which created for us the universe of warmth, gentleness, loving care, caring endurance, joy and laughs, talent and depth, music and literature, arts and culture, books and more books, science and more science, and the strong feeling of belonging to our people, its heritage and its history. The silver thread and the heart cord.
The one of Michael’s works on family theme is called Heart Talk ( 2015). It symbolises that beautiful unity when a man and a woman become the one and set up a family which is our first and last home of all things good.
The number of these works of Michael on the symbolism in family theme is 5 which is a very good, strong and beautiful number corresponding to Joseph in Jewish tradition. Together with previous 13 works dedicated by Michael to his family, it produces 18, the magic and hopeful gemara in our tradition, standing for Chai, alive and living.
It is not without a reason that the new film about Michael, his life and career, to be released in 2021, is named Dream, Memory, Love ( Rogatchi Productions, 2021).
Without a dream, there is no creativity.
Without memory, there is no decency.
Without love, there is no true artist. Especially Jewish one.
More themes in Michael Rogatchi’s art can be seen at the artist’s site.
I am thinking sometime on what Marc Chagall was thinking while working on his illustrations for the Bible, both in the 1930s and 1950s? With the first series known as The Bible series ( 1931-1939) it is more clear, as it was clearly inspired and ignited by his visit to then Palestine, and intensified in the later part of the series by the clouds that were gathering into the storm against Jews on the European horizon, being very palpable in Paris and France from 1935 onward.
When the most soulful Jewish master has returned to his big song to the Torah twenty five years later, being 65, after the Holocaust that was a devastation for him, and losing the love and sense of his love with premature and avoidable death of Bella, he was working on it the same eight years as he did on his first series from the 1930s. 105 works of the Drawings for the Bible were created by lost and grieving Chagall from 1952 to 1960.
Was he thinking on his home, his family, his heder, his synagogue which he stopped to visit immediately after his Bar Mitzva? Was he thinking on the places where they were spending hours and days with Bella, walking and talking, and dreaming and being as one, in that blessed wholesomeness? Was he lamenting the giant loss of Jewish lives because of the Shoah, as he let it go in his heart-wrenching poem on Our Jewish Martyrs that he created in 1955 in Yiddish, at the same time when he was working on the Drawings for the Bible?
Probably, there was a bit of all of it, longing, suffering, dreaming, and also seeking a consolation for his own tormented by the Catastrophe soul. Each of those works is soothed in melancholy, and it makes them so magnetic. The lithograph of one of the works which we have a huge privilege to see every morning, a special gift of special friend, is one of them, and it is on the most assuring episode narrated in the Torah, on the Angels visiting Abraham to tell him on future birth of Isaac.
As it is known, there are not many Jewish artists, as modern, as contemporary ones who are continuing Chagall’s line of reflecting on the Torah. I always wondered why, as the Torah is the most powerful source of the pot of creativity: of knowledge, inspiration, plots, characters, symbols, you name it.
Being lucky to live with the artist who have had a serious input in contemporary art on visual perception of the Torah, I can think on such reason as a huge degree of responsibility for an artist who deals with such fundamental material.
To paint the Torah and its characters is a very demanding task. It requires a lot of knowledge which is a prerequisite for understanding which is a pre-condition of creating new images on the eternal themes and subjects. To reach the harmony between the limitations of strict observance and accepted by the modern Rabbinic authorities possibilities to express the love and understanding of people living today to the Torah and our heritage is not an easy task to accomplish. And as it was the case with Chagall in his reflecting on the Torah in different age and at different periods of his life, Michael also was approaching it twice by now, with a decade gap in between his first Biblical series, known as Forefathers ( 1995-2010), and the second one, Zion Waltz ( 2016-2017) which combines the theme of the Land of Israel with new imaginary regarding our spiritual domain and tradition.
Forefathers with its core part of 18 paintings won the hearts and minds of many people in many countries, and from different walks of life, from curators and art historians to many Rabbis, including the luminaries among them, and wide general public all over Europe, in Israel and in the USA. Inspiringly, many young people are attached and interested on the series, asking many questions on it. To our joy, very many non-Jews are keen on it, too.
The core collection of the Forefathers focuses on the Biblical personalities. Being prompted by the powerful image of Moses ( 1999) with flying letters from the Tablets getting off the Tablets in the moment just before its crushing, the image that has been seen by Michael in his dream with incredible precision, the series in the beginning was centred on the Uspitzim, the seven key-figures of our nation, the ones who are visiting us every day, one per one, during the week of Sukkoth.
In that series, Michael’s King David ( 2003) grabbed the attention of many art historians, many of whom have noticed that it is ‘the most unusual image of King David among his depictions’, according to Dr. Elena Bergman, former director of the art collection of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and many others. Michael was giving many lectures on his Forefathers, with specific master-class on his King David whom he decided to depict at the moment of his father sorrow, at the instance when King David was heard on his son’s Absalom’s death. “King David is my favourite personage from the Jewish history. For me, he epitomises Jewishness and Judaism. And I was willing to portray him in a rare for such strong personality moment as when he had heard on the death of his beloved son, and wanted to be alone. I wanted to examine the most dramatic moment of a great man” – said Michael on his truly unusual work ( Forefathers exhibition catalogue, 2010).
Being added to the gallery of Ushpitsim, Michael’s Samson ( 1999) has clearly become a winner among the art curators with inviting the work to many exhibitions world-wide. Michael says that ‘the second part of the work’s title is important. It is Samson. The Last Smile. In this work, I wanted to capture the precise moment when the exhausted and blind Samson begs the Creator for the only means that would enable him to crush his and our people’s enemies, even at the price of his own life. As he departs this world, the Samson’s smile shows his gratitude to the Creator for answering his prayer and allowing him the opportunity to return to his people” ( Forefather exhibition catalogue, 2010).
On each of those work, there could be written an essay of its own. People are always gleaned at the exhibition to the beautiful portraits of Aaron ( 2009) and Jacob (2004) , and are mesmerised by filled by fine symbolism works depicting Joseph ( 2009) and the first double-portrait of Abraham and Sarah ( 1999), the reproduction of which is said to be one of the best possible Jewish wedding gifts. But the one work stands out of this mighty series, and it is Akeida (2001). In this masterly work with its beautiful and original image, the Biblical definition of Abraham as the ‘Rock of the Nation” gets its artistic dimension.
It is re-assuring to connect this title work of Michael’s Forefathers with Chagall’s lithograph on our wall which as if gives its special authentic key to our both’ artistic reflections on the Torah in the way in which the art work on one’s wall provides to those who are living with it – sub-consciously.
In interesting development, ten years after completion of a male part of the Forefathers, Michael was prompted to continue the series, this time with adding the female component to it, the other part of the wholesome picture of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. And although there are four Matriarchs, he decided to add three more Biblical heroines to the series, Miriam, Deborah and Esther.
In his portrait of Sarah (2009) which effectively is the second double-portrait of her with Abraham, as Michael insists that they are the embodiment of a wholesomeness in Jewish tradition, he added also some symbols with extra-meaning that deepens the message of the work. His portrait of Miriam ( 2010) is energetic and symbolises the vital strength of the female part in any Jewish family, all originated from the sister of Moses and Aaron. His Rachel ( 2009) is as if speaking to us from the place of her burial, which effectively is the place of where her spirit is waiting for her Jewish brethren in generations to embrace them. His Deborah ( 2010) is ultra-modern, and the point of it is to convey the message that her wisdom is travelling in time to add strength to every next generation.
Three works from that series have a special effect on audiences at every place, Esther, Rebecca and Leah. Esther ( 2009) which symbolises a rose in Jewish tradition – and rose symbolises Esther and many other things – is portrayed in an intricate and original image which succeeded in showing her determination, her thoughtfulness, her facing a super-challenge, and her vulnerability and beauty at the same time.
Rebecca ( 2009) from Forefathers is praised widely. It is an outstanding work, fine, impressive, deep and magical. The kind of image which once had been seen stays with a viewer for good.
And then, Leah, probably, the most difficult personage from the Matriarchs to be portrayed – not that beautiful as the Torah says to us, suffering, vulnerable, a very difficult subject for a painter to do justice to her. In Michael’s painting, we see a very enlightening Matriarch, the mother of the six Tribes, the devoted wife of Jacob, a very determined woman who in the artist’s understanding deserves deep respect. What is amazing about this very art work is that it has a very special effect being put on a wall. It illuminates the space around it unmistakably, it produces quite palpable effect of illuminating good and enlightening the space around it, it is as if charges it with goodness. Very rare paintings does have such palpable effect, and this is the one of them.
Three more paintings from this 18-pieces series are depicting the artist’s very personal connection with the spiritual domain of Jewish tradition, a fragments of very rare for Michael’s self-portrait in Heeding the Book ( 1995) in which a hand is more important part of the artist’s self-portrait than a face and an eye which are also presented there; and the key for that is a statement: the hand is on the top of the Torah; metaphorical Shema, Israel!.. ( 2004) with its transcendent reality of a prayer; and The Next Year in Jerusalem ( 1995) which is a very emotional and dynamic portrait of Jewish mother and a child in its all-embracing continuity of our tradition.
As it had been established by prof. Julia Weiner who co-curated the Forefathers project, “the series is unprecedented in the history of art, as in its comprising images of all Patriarchs and Matriarchs as such had never been done before”. I know that Michael was not thinking on this pioneering element in his work while creating the Forefathers for fifteen years. It is impossible to say anything with certainty on what an artist was thinking about while working on certain works unless we are hearing it from an artist himself, and I am not sure that many of them are eager to uncover that very intimate part of their work and existence.
Michael can comment on his works, and he does speak on his Forefathers and other works on spiritual theme extremely interestingly and every time anew, but it is about the works, not about his sources for it. This part of his lab is private.
For Marc Chagall, the Torah, the Bible in his famous phrase, was ‘the greatest source of poetry of all time”. It also was for him “like an echo of nature, and this secret I have tried to transmit” ( Drawings For the Bible, 1960).
For Michael, the Torah is a living source of life, and its heroes and heroines are the people, the individuals who defined the moral strength and qualities of our people. He says: “I wish to capture the movements of the soul on canvas” ( Approximation of White essay, 2003).
Several years after completing Forefathers, Michael has returned to his artistic portraying of Jewish spirituality, heritage and tradition in his Zion Waltz series.
Every High Holidays, we are coming back to Forefathers, would it be exhibitions, lectures, master-classes, or private shows of the series which brings us back to our roots and at the same time connects the corn-stone of our spiritual foundation with our modern-day life today, millennia after the Torah’s personalities portrayed by Michael lived. This very connection feels as a miracle to me. A miracle of our spiritual foundation being living and breathing today, as it was in the beginning of our history, 5780 years ago.