Following King David’s lead: The artist Baruch Nachshon
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.
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.’