Friday, September 20, 2019

Meeting Rembrandt in Amsterdam and New York

See my Times of Israel article Meeting Rembrandt in Amsterdam and New York.  Below are excerpts from my article.


Meeting Rembrandt in Amsterdam

I walked across Amsterdam along the canals from the house on Joodenbreestraat (Jewish Broadway) where Rembrandt had lived to Westerkerk (West Church) where he was buried.  There was no tombstone in the church courtyard marking his grave.  No sign in or around the church indicated that it was the final resting place of the great master.  On the sidewalk in front of the church, however, a bronze life-size statue of Anne Frank stood watch.  She had been hiding in a room overlooking the church courtyard until the Nazis discovered her and carted her off to Bergen-Belsen to die.  A postcard reproduction of a Rembrandt painting of an old Jewish man that she had tacked to the wall remained behind.

From Westerkerk, I took a tram back to my mother-in-law’s apartment.  I had traveled with my wife, Miriam, to Holland to be with her family during the shiva, the seven-day period of mourning for her father.  He had suddenly died of a heart attack in Suriname, the former Dutch colony in South America where Miriam was born.  It was the first time I had been outside of the United States.  People who came to pay their respects told Miriam how lucky she was that her father had died a natural death, unlike her grandfather and her grandmother and her aunts and her uncles and her cousins.  The Nazis murdered them all.  Not one family member that stayed in Holland survived.

Meeting in New York

I was seated at a large oak table in the printroom of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  In a quiet ritual, one Rembrandt at a time was placed on a delicate easel in front of me as the tissue paper protecting the picture was slowly removed.  As his etching Abraham Entertaining the Angels was uncovered, I saw that only two of the angels had wings.  The figure facing Abraham had no wings.  Perhaps Rembrandt wanted to show that although they looked like men to Abraham, they were really angels in disguise. 

The Torah (Genesis 18:1-8) relates how three angels disguised as men appeared to the Abraham while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.  When he looked up and saw them a short distance from him, he ran to greet them and invited them to stay to eat with him.  He rushed to his wife, Sarah, and asked her to bake cakes for their guests. 

Then Abraham ran to the cattle to choose a tender, choice calf.  The Midrash questions why Abraham ran after the calf. The calf ran away from him into a cave.  When inside, he discovered that he had entered the burial place of Adam and Eve.  He saw intense light emanating from an opening at the end of the cave.  He was drawn to the light.  As he approached, he saw the Garden of Eden through the opening.  This deeply spiritual person, the patriarch Abraham, found himself standing at the entrance to Paradise.  About to cross over the threshold into the pristine garden, he remembered that his wife and three guests were waiting for lunch back at the tent.  What should he do?  Should he trade Paradise for a barbeque?  

The Torah tells us that he chose to return to the tent and join his wife in making a lunch for the three strangers.  They sat together in the shade of a tree and enjoyed the barbeque.  We learn from this legend that we ourselves create heaven or hell in our relationships with our spouses, children, friends, neighbors, and strangers.  Visions of Paradise far off at the end of a cave or in some heavenly realm above are mere mirages or fraudulent lies.  Abraham knew that he and Sarah had the power to create heaven together in their tent.

Art is a Computer Angel

It was a few weeks later, while listening to the Torah reading in a small synagogue, translating the Hebrew words into English in my mind, that a flash of insight revealed to me that “computer angel” MaLAkH MaHSheV was the masculine form of the biblical term for “art” literally “thoughtful craft” MeLAekHeT MaHSheVeT.  I immediately knew what was missing in my paintings of food store facades – angels! 

I pulled my paintings of Brooklyn storefronts out of storage.  I understood that bringing computer angels into these paintings would raise them to a new level of significance.  They would express Hebrew linguistic connections between food and angel, between artist and angel, and between the material and spiritual realms.  The Hebrew words for food and angel are spelled with the same four letters to teach us that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life.  Since each of the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical equivalent, both the word for angel and artist equal 91.   

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