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A Sliver of Jewish Art History

Thursday, 25 July, 2019 - 4:36 pm

Some of you may have noticed the recent addition of a lovely piece of artwork at Chabad House. It is a large painting by the late Chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman that was given to Chabad House by my grandmother, Mrs. Dusia Rivkin, may she live and be well.

Today there are a number of Chassidic artists who are well known. Following WWII, there were two Chassidim who ventured into the world of painting. The older one was Hendel (Chenoch) Lieberman, and Zalman Kleinman, who was a generation younger than him.  

My grandmother has an appreciation of art. Over the years she commissioned several paintings by these two artists. Hendel Lieberman was her first cousin and was very close to the family. Last week, in a conversation with me about this Kiddush Levana by Zalman Kleinman, she shared some interesting history into some of the artwork that she had.

In anticipation of my grandfather’s 70th birthday, she called Zalman Kleinman with the idea of painting a large scale Kiddush Levana scene. (Kiddush Levana is the monthly blessing that is recited under the moonlight as it nearly completes its waxing.) At first he was hesitant; but after stating a few stipulations he agreed to undertake the work. When it was finally complete, it was a true masterpiece. I was living with grandparents at the time, and the new painting transformed the living room. Following the completion of Kiddush Levana piece, Kleinman went on the do several more of that scene modeled after my grandmother’s original idea.

Moving back in history to the late 50s, Hendel Lieberman was a middle-aged, struggling artist who had lost his wife and children to the Nazis. The Rebbe uplifted him and encouraged him to rediscover himself through his artistic talent. (For more on that see My grandparents too were struggling to provide for their family on the shores of the USA to which they had arrived in 1947. But to support their cousin Hendel, they bought a few of his works. (I still remember the painting of a rooster staring down at me from the top of the stairs of their third floor.) For my grandfather’s 40th birthday, my grandmother decided that she wanted Hendel to create a painting of the Rebbe for their house. Hendel was very reluctant. As a chasid he was concerned that he wouldn’t get it right and it would be disrespectful to the Rebbe. My grandmother described a concept to him to which he latched on. It was a full length picture of the Rebbe walking while holding his siddur, with light emanating from all around him. Following that commission, several others wanted similar works and it became a concept that people found intriguing.

What I found moving was, that my grandmother does not regard herself as a deep thinking chasid, yet this concept of wherever the Rebbe walks light emanates from him, was something that resonated with her clearly and she was able to translate that into an art concept.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


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