There was a small bridge, just a slippery log that I walked across each summer when I went to Vermont. More than once I’d fallen to the round-pebbled bottom of the shallow, rushing stream. That summer, every morning I brought my things with me in a large, canvas case to the field that bordered on the stream. First I put on a cap, then my new tefillin - checking a book with photographs to see if I had got it right - and laboriously worked through the morning prayer. I took off the tefillin, put them back in their dark blue bag, and had some granola and a banana for breakfast. I fished in my case for my books - the Bible and books on Jewish law, Hasidism, Kabbalah, Jewish history, and basic Hebrew. I sat on a boulder in the buzzing and chirping field, as rabbits bounded by and the tree leaves soughed in the breeze.
At one o’clock, I went for a walk; I ate some lunch, recited grace slowly, and said the afternoon prayer. Afterwards I set up my easel, glorying in the field that was bursting with warmth and colors, and I painted the grasses, the birds, the blue heavens, the insects crawling over plant stems, the orange burst of a cluster of spider eggs opening and the tiny spiders swarming over each other like a liquid, flowing flower. After the first few weeks of summer, the visions of my morning studies invaded my canvases. Tefillin nested in trees, tzitzit dangled amid the milkweeds, a bird returned to feed its new-born brood and in its nest a Jew sang joyfully.
Then the summer was over. I returned to New York with my treasure of canvases and with my new love for tefillin and books and Jewish ritual. One evening in September, I met with my friend, Max, who was studying the classical guitar. We went together to the Jewish Arts Center. Max played his transcription of a piece by Maurice Ravel, and then Herb, a sculptor with a graying goatee, showed us his work. The first piece was a representation of a naked woman.
“I call this ‘The Influence of Eve,’” said Herb.
The second sculpture depicted a naked woman giving birth. “This one’s called ‘The Creation of the Universe,’” Herb explained. The next piece was a naked woman holding a bucket. “This is “Rachel at the Well,’” Herb told us.
A young woman recited a section from a play-in-progress. The play encapsulated Jewish history. In it, the three main forces of traditional Jewish consciousness - Holocaust, Male-Dominated Ritual, and Dionysian Ecstasy – were represented by three characters who couldn’t get along but who, the playwright explained, would be reconciled to each other by a new force, “The Feminine Soul-Power.”
Then there was a discussion whether Woody Allen was a Jewish artist speaking for all mankind or a general artist who also dealt with Jewish concerns. Over the next few months, Max and I shared many talks on my new-found discovery of traditional Judaism. Max began to join me, and we started to keep Shabbat together, alone among our friends, at first in embarrassed secret.
I became dissatisfied with my milieu. With whom could I communicate? To whom could I talk? Even Max was sometimes critical. One day he told me, “Dan, this Jewish thing is having a bad influence on your painting. You used to have a natural, delicate touch, and now you’re making Jewish billboards.”
Max was right - while I was exploring my new world, my painting suffered from a didactic streak. Was I narrowing my own perspective in order to plunge into the breadth of meaning in the Torah? And even if I were, perhaps the price was necessary, and even fair.
Max and I began exploring the Jewish community, and Max soon found people with whom he was comfortable. He grew closer to them much more quickly than I did, and acquired a network of families with whom he stayed on Shabbat, and of men with whom he studied during the week. I envied Max’s easy adaptation to these people’s lives.
One evening, Max took me to the home of the editor of a major Orthodox magazine. I brought some of the canvases I had painted. It was winter in New York, but glancing at the paintings brought me back to that warm, beautiful summer of discovery I had spent in Vermont, absorbing the sweetness of the hills and of Jewish books and prayer.
Rabbi Mittelman had short, wavy, gray-shot hair, large-rimmed silver glasses, and a handsome, trimmed beard. He had earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University and was known as a well-spoken advocate of Orthodox themes who could communicate with secular, professional audiences.
“Daniel,” Rabbi Mittelman turned to me after looking through my paintings, “I appreciate your enthusiasm and sincerity. The Orthodox community can utilize talent to present our point of view.” He smiled, folded his hands, and looked at me gravely. “But before you can express matters that involve sensitivity and knowledge - knowledge, Daniel - you must know much more Torah; you must have the gut feel of Jewish rhythms that only a lifetime of Jewish living can give. I don’t mean to insult you, Daniel - not at all - but in a sense my seven-year-old son has a more authentic appreciation of Torah Judaism than you - it’s in his bones! You know I don’t mean to discourage you. You have to learn; you have to consult Torah leaders; you have to realize that thinking that your vision is important is not a Jewish idea. No - that is the pagan aesthetic - it’s the Hellenist viewpoint, which we deny every Hanukkah, Daniel. You have to mold your talents for the good of the Orthodox community. These paintings show promise, Daniel, but they also show your secular past. They show idiosyncrasy. Remember, Daniel, we’re Orthodox Jews - with a small as well as a capital O.”
When we left, Rabbi Mittleman shook my hand in his large, dry hand, and smiled at me warmly. He said that I was a talented young man who was always welcome whenever I wanted to drop by and discuss anything on my mind. For a while, I tried to do work that would be accepted by the community of Jews
I was attempting to join. But people were indifferent to my painting; more than that, they were suspicious of my enthusiasm for art. I felt condemned to exile from my own heritage, from my own people, because I possessed a love for the beautiful. I became depressed. Finally, I started painting portraits of Torah leaders from photographs. These gained me acceptance and some money, but I quickly despised my role - this was the sort of hackwork I had always scoffed at.
Meanwhile, Max molded himself to the ways of the community. He bought a black, snap-brim hat and began to eat chicken and greasy kugel on Shabbat even though he’d always been strict about eating natural, healthy foods. “We have to accept Torah even when it doesn’t make sense to us,” he explained to me.
Max sprinkled his talk with phrases like “mammesh” and “Boruch Hashem.” And he gave up playing the guitar. He didn’t have time for it, he told me; he had to learn Torah. I understood that, because the time I was giving to my Jewish studies also impinged on my other interests. But more important, Max told me, musical beauty was for “them”, for the gentiles; Jews were meant to learn Talmud.
“Look, Daniel,” Max told me on a warm day in May as we walked together down an almost treeless street and the sky was framed by rows of brownstone buildings, “what are you trying to do with your art? Don’t you see that in the Orthodox community you have people who have been mammesh living Torah their whole lives!
They don’t need a baal teshuvah to give them lessons about Yiddishkeit. And if you want to use art to make secular Jews frum, you can’t make a decision like that on your own - you need a rabbi to guide you.”
“Max, you don’t seem to understand. I’m not trying to make propaganda – to make Jewish billboards. I paint because I love to paint. I paint because - because I want to serve God with my painting.”
Max thought a moment. “When I spoke with my rabbi about whether or not I
should continue to play guitar, he said something that mammesh moved me, and I want to share it with you.”
“He said that if a person can appreciate the beauty of the Talmud, of a Tosafos, then he doesn’t need anything else - he doesn’t need music, or art, or any other gentile entertainment. But if he still feels he needs that type of stimulation, then it means...do you see what I’m getting at, Daniel? Why are you separating yourself from the community? Do you think you know better than everyone else? You’re going on a very dangerous path. Come and talk with my rabbi. He’s very good with baalei teshuvah.”
A verse from Genesis went through my mind, and I quoted it aloud. “‘Naphtali is a deer running free, who speaks graceful words.’ Max, listen what that verse is saying. It’s talking about spontaneity, about beauty, about serving God with creativity.”
“I don’t know, Daniel. That sounds like a pretty off-beat interpretation to me. Who says that?”
“I say it!”
“You say it. That’s your trouble, Daniel, that’s exactly what your problem is. Look, let’s check what the Artscroll commentary says.” Max reached into his briefcase.
“Thanks, Max, but I don’t want to hear it right now. I’ll see you around.” I walked off before Max could protest. I walked down half the block, and turned back. Max was still standing in the middle of the block, looking after me. With his wide-rimmed hat pushed high up on his head, his navy suit, his white shirt open at the collar, he looked like any yeshiva student. But there he was, holding an English-language Bible - caught between two worlds, denying one to gain the other.
Summer came. I went up for a week to the same rooming house in Vermont. I went out to paint in the field, to pray and learn in the field. But the joy, the energy of a clear beginning, was gone. I felt stymied, as though I were walking through a thick and thorny underbrush. I doggedly learned there and painted anyway. Something had to burst, sometime. But the joy of the grasses, the peeping of the frogs, the soaring of hawks, touched me only on the outside. One afternoon, I ducked under the trees and walked to the stream. The water was clean and quick, and its rushing sound over the pebble-covered bed quickened me. There was the bridge, narrow and slippery as ever. I stepped onto the log and carefully began to cross. I’d fallen off before; I would probably fall again. I felt that I must always return to this stream canopied by the cool shadow-throwing leaves of the tall boxwood trees, and step carefully across that narrow bridge.
Yaacov David Shulman