Fol­low­ing King David’s lead: The artist Baruch Nachshon

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - ART - • LIANE GRUNBERG

When Baruch Nachshon speaks about the heav­ens open­ing up and re­ceiv­ing vi­sions and glimpses of the world to come, the world-fa­mous artist sounds a lot like King David – and for good rea­son.

As one of the orig­i­nal Jewish set­tlers in He­bron fol­low­ing the Six Day War in 1967, Nachshon took an el­derly Breslov rabbi’s ad­vice and re­cited Psalms for 40 days, pray­ing for a liveli­hood to feed his grow­ing fam­ily of seven. Nachshon had es­tab­lished an art gallery in front of the Cave of Mach­pela, but few were com­ing in­side to buy his art.

Recit­ing King David’s Psalms, Nachshon got more than he asked for. The pain­ter ex­pe­ri­enced an ec­static state, a glimpse of what he de­scribes as the per­fec­tion of the uni­verse, none other than the Mes­sianic Age.

“When I be­gan 40 days of recit­ing Te­hillim, I be­gan to see vi­sions that came through the mean­ing of the psalms. All of this was only in black and white. The sec­ond round of read­ing Te­hillim daily, I de­cided to try color and, Baruch Hashem, from that time till now, most of my art­work is in col­ors,” Nachshon ex­plains, as he claps his hands to­gether and his eyes look sky­ward. His long griz­zled beard comes to a point. He’s wear­ing has­sidic garb: black trousers, a white but­ton-down shirt, and a black cardi­gan, and for head cov­er­ing a jaunty, over­sized black beret.

I’m stand­ing in the liv­ing room of the home that Nachshon has shared with his wife of nearly 60 years, Sarah, in Kiryat Arba, a neigh­bor­hood that like so many mod­ern en­claves in Is­rael wraps around a hill cov­ered with trees and small apart­ment build­ings. Kiryat Arba’s lo­ca­tion makes it unique, with the Cave of Mach­pela – con­tain­ing the tombs of the pa­tri­archs Abra­ham, Isaac and Ja­cob and their wives Sarah, Re­bekah and Leah 15 min­utes away – a heav­ily for­ti­fied stroll through a hos­tile Arab neigh­bor­hood.

Nachshon’s liv­ing room is both imag­i­na­tive and ver­sa­tile. It’s his art gallery, his din­ing room and on Shab­bat, his syn­a­gogue. The To­rah is hid­den be­hind a black vel­vet cur­tain. A podium stands in front of the ark. The walls are cov­ered with the eye-pop­ping col­ors of peace­ful and pic­turesque He­bron land­scapes. A red vel­vet hup­pah Nachshon res­cued from an aban­doned syn­a­gogue in Amer­ica shares the ceil­ing with mo­biles made from frag­ile shells and bells that rus­tle in a faint breeze.

To see so many Nachshon orig­i­nals at one go, I’m in sev­enth heaven. His lith­o­graphs, prints, dig­i­tal art can­vas are ubiq­ui­tous in Jewish homes world­wide, where stroke by in­di­vid­ual stroke, Nachshon con­veys a feel­ing that all is well in a joy­ful rain­bow palette. Wild flow­ers and small homes with domed rooftops dot an imag­i­nary He­bron that isn’t quite an­cient, isn’t quite mod­ern, but ac­cord­ing to the artist ex­presses the world to come, where grav­ity-de­fy­ing tefillin fly above the hills and danc­ing rab­bis soar.

“All my imag­i­na­tion comes from Shab­bat. Af­ter my wife lights the can­dles in front of my eyes, I be­gin to see some­thing when we sing “Lecha Dodi,” the song that wel­comes Shab­bat. That image stays with me, and af­ter Shab­bat I sketch what I saw,” Nachshon says, as he pauses in front of a paint­ing of what looks to me like the Gar­den of Eden il­lu­mi­nated with large He­brew let­ters. Nachshon ex­plains that it’s Psalm 29, an­other joy­ous Kab­balat Shab­bat song and I have to smile. By il­lus­trat­ing the psalms in this way, Nachshon puts im­ages to the words to help peo­ple like me, who tend to be per­plexed how to ac­cess the deeper mean­ing of King David’s psalms.

The artist nods with a sense of com­pas­sion and hu­mor. “You’re not alone. When I said Te­hillim in yeshiva, most of what I read I didn’t un­der­stand. It was very dif­fi­cult for me to re­peat the an­cient ways of ex­pres­sion. Later, while I read and reread, I be­gan to see vi­sions con­nected to the ex­pe­ri­ences of King David, and I found my­self be­com­ing part of the con­tents.”

In 2015, Koren pub­lished a col­lec­tor-qual­ity He­brew edi­tion of Te­hillim that fea­tures all 150 psalms il­lus­trated by Nachshon and Rabbi Adin Stein­saltz’s il­lu­mi­nat­ing com­men­tary.

In Nachshon’s home gallery, the orig­i­nals he cre­ated for the Koren Te­hillim dec­o­rate the walls all the way down to his art stu­dio, a large con­verted bed­room where a slop­ing ta­ble sits squarely in the mid­dle, or­ga­nized with his brushes and paints. This in­ner sanc­tum is as much li­brary as it is a stu­dio, sur­rounded by books and mem­o­ra­bilia, news­pa­per clip­pings, a Chi­nese poem, and Yosef Trumpel­dor’s like­ness. Like the artist’s paint­ings them­selves, not an inch of space re­mains un­cov­ered from ceil­ing to floor. Along­side his desk sits

a swing­ing cra­dle that he used to rock as his Sarah birthed one baby af­ter the other. From 10 chil­dren, the Nachshon tribe has grown to more than a hun­dred grand­chil­dren and 30 great-grand­chil­dren.

BARUCH NACHSHON was born in Haifa, in what was then Bri­tish Pales­tine, 80 years ago to par­ents who had fled the Holo­caust from Poland. When Nachshon was 11, his fa­ther rec­og­nized his tal­ent for draw­ing and Baruch be­gan learn­ing with Solomon Narin­ski Na­roni, one of the first pho­tog­ra­phers known in the Holy Land and a close friend of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the sec­ond pres­i­dent. Na­roni is said to have met and be­come the only stu­dent of Paul Cézanne in the French­man’s home stu­dio.

“From Na­roni, I learned a holy at­ti­tude to cre­ation of art. It’s not a joke. Not amuse­ment. It’s an ex­pres­sion of di­vine prov­i­dence, see­ing things from the soul,” Nachshon said.

While his par­ents rec­og­nized his artis­tic gifts, they kept such a close eye on him that he re­gards the first 16 years as be­ing a life in a prison.

“I never went to Tel Aviv or the Kin­neret,” he lamented. “If you are walk­ing along the moun­tains and see all the flora, if you see the be­hav­ior of an­i­mals, if you lis­ten to na­ture, you re­ceive a lot.”

At 16, Nachshon be­gan his mil­i­tary ser­vice. Af­ter fin­ish­ing army duty, he went to yeshiva and started learn­ing.

“I was not the ideal can­di­date for yeshiva sys­tem­atic tal­mu­dic study. It frus­trated me. I had a re­bel­lious spirit. But ev­ery­thing changed af­ter I was in­vited to a Yud-Tes-Kislev cel­e­bra­tion at Kfar Chabad, com­mem­o­rat­ing the lib­er­a­tion of Rabbi Sch­neur Zal­man of Liadi, founder of Chabad Has­sidism, from im­pris­on­ment in Rus­sia. The nig­gun, the sweet melodies, were like noth­ing I’d heard be­fore. This led to me writ­ing to the Lubav­itcher Rebbe, who lived in Brook­lyn, in hopes that he could an­swer my ques­tions about art.

“I wanted to give life to dif­fer­ent verses from the To­rah and prophets, to themes of galut [ex­ile] and geula [redemp­tion]. But I was also feel­ing frus­tra­tion, lack­ing tech­nique and craft to ac­com­plish my goals. The Rebbe wrote back a lengthy re­ply. In his let­ter, he an­swered my ques­tions.”

Nachshon won­dered how a rabbi thou­sands of miles away who never saw him could give proper ad­vice. So drawn was he to find­ing out, the new­ly­wed Nachshons scraped to­gether funds to travel to New York City, not know­ing what they’d find or do there. Nachshon re­quested an au­di­ence with the Rebbe and on the same day as his ar­rival, a three-hour life-trans­form­ing meet­ing be­gan at mid­night in the Rebbe’s of­fice at Lubav­itcher head­quar­ters, the 770 Syn­a­gogue on East­ern Park­way.

“Wher­ever I go, I was to bring my paints, the Rebbe had told me. The Rebbe gave me a schol­ar­ship and told me to find an art school to study – but with strict con­di­tions to el­e­vate art in a kosher man­ner. Most art schools re­quired draw­ing from mod­els in the nude and sculpt­ing the hu­man form, and this was not ac­cept­able. So I had to turn down sev­eral of­fers un­til I fi­nally found a place at the School of Vis­ual Arts.”

The art cre­ated over Baruch Nachshon’s two years in New York City, 1963 to 1965, be­came the first and only ex­hi­bi­tion the Rebbe al­lowed to be held at 770, Chabad Lubav­itcher world head­quar­ters, where the open­ing was at­tended by the Rebbe him­self.

SARAH NACHSHON, the artist’s wife, ap­pears in the door­way, her hair wrapped in a bright blue scarf. There’s an in­ner warmth, a ra­di­ance, as if she could have walked right out of one of her hus­band’s can­vases – ex­cept he fol­lows haredi ob­ser­vances and never paints women. In­stead, there’s the whiff of the fe­male in roses, in but­ter­flies, in the sen­sual string in­stru­ments that grace his can­vases.

Sarah was in­tro­duced to Nachshon by shid­duch around 1960 and made her own mark on the his­tory as He­bron as its mod­ern-day ma­tri­arch. She, to­gether with her four young chil­dren and a small group of other women, bar­ri­caded them­selves in­side Beit Hadas­sah, a clinic in He­bron dat­ing back to the 1860s, and epi­cen­ter for the Jewish mas­sacre in He­bron in 1929, when Pales­tinian civil­ians and po­lice­men staged a sur­prise at­tack on the Jews liv­ing in the an­cient city, killing 67 and maim­ing many oth­ers.

“One of my best friends, Dov Op­pen­heimer, fell in

the Six Day War,” Nachshon re­lates. “His pass­ing made Sarah and me feel that we wanted to do some­thing for Is­rael. But things weren’t easy. The govern­ment didn’t want us to be here.

“We came with a mis­sion. No­body could say that He­bron doesn’t be­long to us. The Cave of Mach­pela was pur­chased by Avra­ham Av­inu. The Nachshons ar­rived in a group of four fam­i­lies and three sin­gles, dubbed the Set­tlers of He­bron. We came to re­build He­bron.”

He­bron is an idyl­lic place – a peace­ful place to linger in – with­out even leav­ing Nachshon’s home. It has been di­vided since the Oslo Ac­cords of 1995, but when there were no bar­ri­ers to speak­ing and re­lat­ing to Arab neigh­bors, he would climb to their rooftops, then re­turn home to paint from his mem­ory and his imag­i­na­tion. To this day, he il­lus­trates the land­scape but leaves the po­lit­i­cal strug­gle out. Flu­ent in Ara­bic, Nachshon was on cor­dial terms with his Arab neigh­bors un­til the mid 1990s. Af­ter pre­sent­ing two of his paint­ings to He­bron’s mayor, a large land­scape cel­e­brat­ing mes­sianic He­bron in all its glory turned up in Yasser Arafat’s of­fice. The Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion chair­man dis­played it promi­nently be­hind his desk.

“This was in the days be­fore the ‘peace,’” the artist says with irony, rolling his eyes to­ward the ceil­ing.

IT’S NO easy mat­ter get­ting to He­bron. My first at­tempt to fol­low Google Maps from Jerusalem had to be aborted as soon as I got on the bus and re­al­ized that the short­cut to Beth­le­hem was go­ing to bring me to the Arab side of He­bron. On an­other at­tempt, I ar­rived on the very day when the Is­raeli govern­ment an­nounced plans to build 31 new units in Jewish He­bron – mak­ing travel even more volatile than usual.

Yet, a con­stant stream of vis­i­tors con­quer their own fears to ar­rive in the Nachshon home gallery. Wel­com­ing them is of­ten the artist him­self, Sarah who gives pre­sen­ta­tions, or Isaac Nachshon, the youngest son, who man­ages his fa­ther’s prodi­gious out­put and even com­forts those who have spon­ta­neous emo­tions when view­ing his fa­ther’s orig­i­nals.

“One time, a woman started shak­ing. I brought her some wa­ter and asked her what was hap­pen­ing. She said that many years ear­lier she had been car­ry­ing her baby to term and just be­fore the due date the baby had stopped breath­ing. She be­came vi­o­lently ill, was rushed to hospi­tal and left her body dur­ing emer­gency surgery. She re­called see­ing clear vi­sions. When she saw my fa­ther’s Psalm 29 paint­ing, it put her into that al­tered state again.”

That Nachshon’s paint­ings could trig­ger such crisp and eu­phoric vi­sions doesn’t sur­prise the artist. He’s ex­pe­ri­enced it him­self, a fiery heaven that opens to re­veal layer upon layer of the world to come.

Be­yond He­bron, the next chance to glimpse Baruch Nachshon’s art for all ages will take place at the Tzamah Fes­ti­val, which drew 60,000 mostly – but not ex­clu­sively – has­sidic vis­i­tors last year. This year, four days of lec­tures, mu­sic per­for­mances, book sales and art ex­hi­bi­tions are open to the pub­lic. The fes­ti­val will also fea­ture Isaac Nachshon’s in­ter­ac­tive and an­i­mated pre­sen­ta­tion of his fa­ther’s paint­ings, en­larged to more than three me­ters so that view­ers can ex­pe­ri­ence such trippy phe­nom­ena as “cross­ing the sky” and “fly­ing rab­bis.” Sure to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of a new gen­er­a­tion of King David Psalm read­ers.

ARTIST BARUCH NACHSHON paint­ing in his stu­dio.

(Pho­tos: Baruch Nachshon)

STROKE BY in­di­vid­ual stroke: ‘Vi­sion­ary in the Judean Moun­tains.’

‘DEVOTION’ (ABOVE) and ‘Al­le­giance,’ al­le­gor­i­cal paint­ings fea­tur­ing Lubav­itcher Rebbe Me­nachem Men­del Sch­neer­son.

‘BIRKAT SHAMAYIM, Bless­ing of the Heav­ens.’

(FROM LEFT) ‘Prayer in the For­est’ and ‘Yud.’

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