The members of Jewish Artists Collective Chicago write about our stories, struggles, experiences, and musings, and how they inspire us to create contemporary Jewish art.

Humanity of Art

by Ellen Holtzblatt

I dedicate this to the memory of my father, David Holtzblatt z’’l, who would be 104 years old if still living.

How many of you have thought about something that you want to do, a place you would like to see, or a task or dream that you would like to fulfill before you die? Personally, I have thought about this at several different junctures in my life. When I was young, I viewed myself as a moderately brave and daring person. However, I have learned over the years that in truth I was often merely foolish, and a coward when it came to making real decisions about what was most important to me. As a result of sometimes living my life in reaction to events and people and not being mindful of my choices, I am left with a sense of incompleteness, a feeling that there is still much work to be done.

In Torah portion Va'etchanan, Moshe also feels that he needs to come full circle with his mission. He pleads with God to allow him to enter Israel before he dies. It is a poignant moment, as he relates to his nation, (Dvarim 3:23-28) "I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, 24 "O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!25 Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon." 26 But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, "Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! 27 Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan. 28 Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage, for he shall go across at the head of this people, and he shall allot to them the land that you may only see."

Unlike Hollywood movies, we do not live plots with clear beginnings and endings, although it would be much easier to find meaning and make sense of it all with a predetermined timeline. Moshe tragically was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel, but he was permitted a vision of what he would be missing. He knew when his life would end and had time to prepare and guide the next generation. Mere humans are not so lucky. Sometimes it feels as though someone has died too soon, with unfinished work, before their time (Whatever that means. Who of us really knows when it is our time?) Although my father was 89 when he died and had lived a full life with relationships and work, he also felt that he was dying too soon. Is there an age when a person can say, "I have fulfilled my vision of my destiny, lived my dream and feel completely at peace with what is to come?"

In the year before my father died, he often talked about a short story he remembered that was written by O. Henry. The story, called The Last Leaf, is about two girls, Sue and Johnsy, both artists, who share a studio. Johnsy becomes very ill with pneumonia. She loses all hope and believes that she will die when the last leaf falls from the ivy vine on the wall outside her window. At first there are 100 leaves, then after 3 days there are six leaves, then five. Finally there is only one leaf left, and anticipating a very cold and windy night, Johnsy prepares to die. Her friend Sue fearfully tells the upstairs neighbor about this. His name is Mr. Behrman and he is an older man who is also an artist, but he has never painted a masterpiece. The next morning the leaf is still on the vine. Johnsy decides that this is a sign that she needs to choose life and she begins to get well. A couple of days later Sue tells Johnsy about the fate of Mr. Behrman.

"I have something to tell you, white mouse," she said. "Mr. Behrman died of pneumonia to-day in the hospital. He was ill only two days. The janitor found him the morning of the first day in his room downstairs helpless with pain. His shoes and clothing were wet through and icy cold. They couldn't imagine where he had been on such a dreadful night. And then they found a lantern, still lighted, and a ladder that had been dragged from its place, and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colors mixed on it, and - look out the window, dear, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. Didn't you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it's Behrman's masterpiece - he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell."

I think that my dad empathized with Johnsy, the poor dying girl, whose only chance for survival was the thin thread of hope symbolized by the leaf on the wall. He was an intelligent and practical man – not a believer in false promises and pipe dreams. He knew he was very sick and that he did not have long to live.

In rereading the story, I am drawn to the character of the older artist. His last act becomes the sum of his life. It is this final sacrifice, guiding the young artist to her future and giving her the will to live, that focuses his lifelong pursuit of artistic endeavors.

Having said this, I admit that I believe in the randomness of life. I do not believe that God, the universe, a higher power, is directing people and events and that there is a purpose, message or meaning in all things. Both bad and good happen to people without rhyme or reason. I was once in a class with a student who related a story about when she was on an airplane that suffered a malfunction. She was, of course, very afraid and prayed to God for intervention. The plane landed safely and the student attributed her survival to God listening to her prayers. It sounds good - God answering prayers, but I am troubled by the extension from this that other people do not have their prayers answered. People - good people who are innocent of malice, who work in society, who love and are loved - suffer every day. My cousin was killed when a random tree branch fell on him on a clear summer day. A member of my synagogue with 2 small children and a pregnant wife was killed in a plane crash. One of my former students was killed when he was only 14 years old and his school bus was hit by a train. I do not believe that God would save the people on one plane and then abandon another busload and planeload of souls. I do not understand a higher purpose for suffering. Lessons to be learned - yes, character to be built - yes, but not intent or meaning.

What I do believe in is the power of art - painting, music, sculpture, writing, poetry, reading, dance, film, gardening, sewing, cooking, healing, learning and teaching - to attempt to make sense of the many arbitrary events we experience on a daily basis.

In Va'etchanan, Moshe is an artist, a story teller, recounting events from the previous generation. The Israelites do not stand as first account witnesses to his pleading with God to be allowed to enter Israel, the revelation at Sinai, nor the hardships that preceded their lengthy journey. What draws them in and connects them is the artistry of Moshe's language. And what consoles Moshe at the end of his life and work, if not the ability to create significance for others with his words? He imbues them with emotion and verbally paints a picture that is transmitted into our imaginations. What is more real, the objective reality or our memories of it which are filtered experientially through passion and sensation? I argue for the filtered memories. In the short story, The Last Leaf, I believe more in the reality of the painted leaf than the hundred actual leaves that fall from the vine. It is the painted leaf that saves Johnsy's life. And it is the painted leaf that elevates the elderly painter, Mr. Behrman, from mere artist, human and flawed, to master of his craft, creator of perception and enhancer of life.

I would like to end with some advice from the late and esteemed author, Kurt Vonnegut. “Go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”