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.
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.
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.