Gam zu l’tova

The Burnt Offerings of a Master Painter

After his studio goes up in flames, artist Yoram Raanan reflects on the loss of 40 years of work

Acclaimed artist Yoram Raanan surveys the remains of his studio and 40 years of artwork that were destroyed in one of many arsonist blazes that swept through Israel. (Photo: Netanel Sharvit)
Acclaimed artist Yoram Raanan surveys the remains of his studio and 40 years of artwork that were destroyed in one of many arsonist blazes that swept through Israel. (Photo: Netanel Sharvit)

It was only last Monday that I took the bus to Beit Meir, the graceful little mountain-top village twenty kilometers west of Jerusalem, in order to visit Yoram Raanan. Yoram is a new friend, though the kind you feel you have known and cherished for years. When I first chanced upon a print by the artist a number of years ago—it was his masterpiece, “Mount Sinai”—it took my breath away, quite literally. And when I saw his work featured on Chabad.org, I took the first opportunity to meet him in person.

Yoram and I paced up and down his lush studio, which was overgrown with exquisite paintings of biblical scenes and waterscapes and phosphorescent menorahs and glowing human souls—a veritable small Garden of Eden burgeoning with canvases, paint, and the uncanny ambience of something holy going on.

“I have no intention of flattering you,” I had announced to him on our first meeting a few months back. “Good!” he snapped back instinctively, unafraid of insult. “I will not flatter you,” I said, “because I sincerely believe that your work is nothing less than an event in the history of painting.”

He accepted my words with a smile free of both vanity and false modesty. And I, for my part, followed through by writing a long articlein which I have attempted to articulate why the oeuvre of YoramRaanan marks an event in art history, certainly in the history of Jewish art, if not beyond.

Then the Fires Came. . .

In the middle of the night last Thursday, on the 24th of Cheshvan and just three days after my initial visit, the village of Beit Meir fell victim to fires suspected to have been started by Palestinian arsonists. Yoram’s studio was entirely burnt down.

When I heard the next morning what had happened from the artist’s wife, Meira Raanan, the news hit me hard. All those masterpieces! The luminescent “Shir Hamaalot” which took one into the Beit HaMikdash! The awesome convulsion of the Sea of Reeds in “Beshalach” (behind Yoram)!

The haunting emerald “Esther” that had once been a painting of an eagle hanging in the Sheraton Plaza! The blazing menorah of “Vayakhel” in which gold of the candelabra had been alchemically transformed into pigmented fire!

Yoram Raanan with some of the art destroyed in the fire.
Yoram Raanan with some of the art destroyed in the fire.

The loss of so much beauty—all of it dedicated to G‑d, all of it reflecting subjects from Jewish life and Jewish history—constitutes an inestimable loss for Jewish culture. It goes without saying that Yoram has sold many paintings over the years. But there were certain landmark pieces, including all but one of the pieces I mention in my article that still patiently awaited appreciative buyers. Besides the hundreds of paintings stacked against the walls of the studio, there were hundreds upon hundreds of sketches and half-finished works in drawers that had slowly accumulated over four decades of prolific labors.

The prospect of speaking to Yoram himself after this cataclysmic loss, I must confess, made me quite nervous. Finding words to comfort someone who has lost an enormous amount of personal property is difficult enough. Lost property is labor lost. But how do you comfort an artist who has lost an enormous amount of expressions of his very heart and soul? How is one consoled for the loss of deeply personal, spiritual labor? Before we had a chance to speak, we exchanged a few furtive emails before Shabbat.

The artist in his studio a week before the fire.
The artist in his studio a week before the fire.

‘This Too Is For the Good’

Yoram wrote: “Studio total total loss.”

I wrote back: “Can you talk? I can’t imagine what you are going through.”

Yoram: “I know you can understand and appreciate your concern. House and kids ok. Everything in and of my studio and surrounding area are completely finished. Gam zu l’tova. Shabbat shalom.”

Gam zu l’tova, “This too is for the good.” The phrase is a wonderful profession of faith in the face of despair. But to my mind, a hundredfold more astonishing and wonderful is the expression, jotted under such dark circumstances: “Shabbat shalom.”

When I finally spoke to Yoram after Shabbat, he explained his feelings with the same characteristic force of simplicity: “With emunah, there are no half-measures. You either trust Hashem or you don’t.” He described to me how, during the frantic evacuation of Beit Meir, he looked back toward the trees under which his studio lay and saw the conflagration rise into the black sky. “I resigned myself there and then,” he said. “Everything is in the hands of G‑d. G‑d knows what He’s doing. You know, it made me think of a korban[‘offering’].”

“Like an olah [burnt offering]?” I asked, immediately regretting my two cents.

Shir HaMaalot (Artist: Yoram Raanan)
Shir HaMaalot (Artist: Yoram Raanan)

“Yup,” he said, with an almost melancholy smile. And he went on to joke about how often fire appears in his paintings—the flames of the menorah, the fire on the altar in the Temple, the fire of Torah.

Then, without batting an eyelash, Yoram immediately goes on to elaborate on how much good has already come of the destruction. “I can’t believe how many emails I’ve received! So many people are writing and calling and want to help out! People are coming to my website and discovering my art for the first time! It’s amazing!” His eyes are full of wonder and gratitude as he enumerates the acts of kindness and appreciation streaming in from all corners. He insists on seeing the destruction as an opportunity.

We talk about the various mundane issues that will now require his attention in the next months: the damage assessment, the police investigation, the plans to rebuild the studio (“It’ll be better than the last one, taller! More mental space to think higher! To paint bigger!”), the need to publish a book of his paintings and the prospects of finding a patron to fund the book.

“What about getting back to painting?” I ask.

“Yes!” his eyes light up and his mind begins to race, “Absolutely! As soon as I have a space to lay down some canvasses and start pouring out the paint! Let the phoenix rise from the ashes!” Yoram evidently intends to fight fire with fire—the profane fire of destruction with the holy fire in the Jewish soul.

I doubt many readers have the patience to plod through my “highbrow” analysis of Yoram’s work. I wish there were some simple way for me to communicate why supporting his work is, from the standpoint of Jewish culture, less like a luxury and more like a necessity. A number of very welcome initiatives have been set up to raise money to rebuild the studio.

Yoram himself muses: “Better than sending money, why not buy a print? It’s a ‘win-win’ that way.” As a very biased fan of Yoram’s work and someone concerned with spreading the hallowed beauty of his art, no less than with seeing him resume his labors of love, I cordially invite the reader to check out his website: www.yoramraanan.com.

Browse through the art. Order a print. Send Yoram and Meira a word. But above all: Feast your eyes!…and then keep an eye out for more to come from Beit Meir …

More of the artist's work that went up in flames.
More of the artist’s work that went up in flames.
(Artist: Yoram Raanan)
(Artist: Yoram Raanan)
(Photo: Netanel Sharvit)
(Photo: Netanel Sharvit)

The Frivolity of Beauty?

Aesthetics Research Lab

We often think of beauty in terms of ‘nice’, like it’s something nice to have. But, we continue, it isn’t really necessary. It’s something that we add to our lives, if and only if everything else is in order. We have occasion to experience beauty during times of stress, but this is surely only accidental. While it’s true that beauty won’t fill a starving belly or cure diseases, it is necessary for a life to flourish. There is an interesting example from less than 100 years ago that shows the power of beauty in a dire situation.

Primo Levi was a prisoner in Auschwitz. He barely had his basic needs met—food, water, and shelter. In his book, If This is a Man, Levi recalls that he and a fellow prisoner were walking to carry the soup for lunch. It was a pretty far walk that would take about…

View original post 305 more words

The little stuff of wonder

On Hummingbird Feet, Wonder, and Changing Your World a Gram at a Time

“It’s like trying to shape a piece of sculpture by wishing”

hummingbird-1056383_1280

Pixabay

By Kathryn M. Cunningham, republished from the Catholic Writers’ Guild blog.

__

I think we sometimes become blasé at the idea of wonder.  You know, the things that so astound us that we just shake our heads and say or think things like:  “Wow, God did that,”  “That beauty is amazing, only God’s hand could have done that,” “How astounding, we can’t even measure the universe,” and on.  Fill in your own blank.   This is  one of those dilemmas of the internet.  We have access to so many images that nothing really impresses us, and we also can view images which would have been impossible before modern technology.  We scroll, we shoot past things that dazzle our eyes. We often stop  for something that is grandiose; an amazing mountain, a dazzling view, that stunningly beautiful herd of horses,  an  ethereal underwater shot.

The big stuff gets our attention.  These are the things that would overwhelm us if we were present in the real place and time.  In my retirement, though, I have had to scale down what I do, how I do it, how I think and how I pray. The scale of God’s wonder in the world is both large as well as small and unnoticeable. Wonder is a good thing. It spurs our thinking and reinvigorates our faith and changes the way we consider belief.

All we have to do to be impressed by God is just look around us and not bother to seek or pay attention to the grandiose.  In order to be surrounded by things that inspire  and get our attention, we do not need to go far or live large. As a retirement activity I have become fascinated by birding.  I have progressively advanced my camera skills and regularly upgraded equipment just for the sake of that rare shot. You get pulled in when you find out that rare bird from the Arctic Circle has suddenly taken up summer residence a few miles from your door. And then there’s beauty.  Even in the Midwest, the colors and forms of birds will take your breath away.  You wonder how that behavior, form, or color is even possible.  But I got a shot of it, didn’t I?

In my opinion, more stunning than all of the other species is the unbelievably teeny humming bird.  This bird is only present in the Americas and numbers 338 species. Many hummingbirds are so small you might think you’re being accosted by a large bumble bee.  Most are not as big as your thumb.  An average hummingbird weighs 4 grams or 1.41 ounces, less than an American nickel.  When it comes to wonder and the genius of God, though, these little, hardly visible beauties take the prize.  Hummingbirds have feathers of every luminescent color you can imagine and some you can’t believe even when you see it.  They literally gleam in the sun and have feathers that are almost neon for purposes of attracting a mate. A hummingbird tummy must be filled every twenty minutes or the bird will die.  They have the highest metabolism of any vertebrate, and while hovering, their wings beat at eighty times a second! Each species of hummer feeds on one particular species of flower, and the length of their beaks match, to the millimeter,  the distance to their particular flower’s nectar chamber.  A hummingbird tongue is thinner than the thinnest fishing line.

The fact, though, that got most of my attention is a bit of information about hummingbird Moms.  Like all female birds, hummingbird Mom’s build the nest.  Hummingbird nests, though, are engineering perfection.  They are cone shaped with a perfectly rounded bowl like interior and precariously hung on the underside of a banana or other large leaf in such a way that water skips right over the nest. Mom constructs with blades of grass carried one stalk at a time and spider silk she “borrows” from a close by arachnid.   The interior is lined with down and shaped by, you guessed it; hummingbird feet.  Mom gets her construction materials together and then literally stomps and dances the interior until it is a perfect shape. Now, think of hummingbird feet.  Thinner than the thinnest hummer toothpicks, weighing not much more than air itself.  How is that possible?  It’s like trying to shape a piece of sculpture by wishing.  Yet Mom does the dance with her humming bird, teeny, tiny, almost non-existent feet along with her “considerable”  bulk of 4 grams!

God made these, right?  Wonder tucked away in a package so small that it’s easy to ignore.  Wonder is everywhere and things like hummingbird feet challenge us and remind us that we have gifts too.  When was the last time you were sure you couldn’t do something God asked of you because you didn’t have the right tools or ability or courage or insight or presence?  Next time that thought comes over you, think of hummingbird feet.  You have a greater manifestation than 4 grams, right?  Are there small actions that you could do that might change the shape of your own or someone else’s life?