Updated: Dec 24, 2019
"Unless a person knows how to pray alone, he is incapable of praying within the congregation. The future of congregational prayer depends on whether the Jews will learn how to pray when they are alone." - Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Something I am often asked about is the meaning behind a common visual in my “Jewish Magical Realism” artworks – what I call “The Lone Jew”: a Jewish man with his back to the viewer, looking out into the scene before him.
I’m at odds as to whether to explain my thoughts behind my pieces. Some of the symbolism I use is deeply personal, which I cathartically create for myself. Just as in life, my inner-most thoughts are laid bare for the viewer to see, but will only be noticed by those that share the same feelings. So in a way it is hidden symbolism that is there to be discovered by those that will connect. Sometimes I like to think of it as akin to the radio signals sent out by SETI in the hope of something being picked up by extra-terrestrial life. In the case of “The Lone Jew”, I thought I would give some of my ideas behind it (not all, but some!)
The figure of The Lone Jew is a self-portrait. Not in the literal sense, I am behind the lens, but in concept. At the heart of this self-portrait is my very personal philosophy on Judaism and connecting to G-d. Well, “philosophy” may not be the correct word because it suggests the forming of an idea through rational thought. Perhaps more correctly I will say “just the way I always have been”.
Something I have always loved about Judaism is the togetherness - the shared life of a beautiful, passionate community. Whether it be around a simcha or a death, a spiritual discussion or a shared joke, the Jewish community is unlike any other and I believe this togetherness is at the core of our unparalleled longevity as a people. There is so much joy in sharing the year’s chagim with family, friends and strangers. What a delight singing shirim out loud in unison (or not quite in unison, which is in fact the beautiful sound of Judaism!) To share stories, ideas, friendly glances and challah.
This having been said, when it comes to my connection with G-d, my feelings are quite different and always have been. I’m not sure if my “way” is hallachicaly correct at all, perhaps it will be frowned upon. But it is nevertheless my way, so in the spirit of me being vulnerable I will share my views.
The Song of Us
At around Bar Mitzvah age I began to discover music. It was the early 90s, my older brother had just started his first year in college and he shared with me all of his musical finds. I liked rock music but especially that of the “singer-songwriter” genre – delicate music with beautiful, profound lyrics about the many experiences of life. Jewish singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen would be a good example. Everyday I would race home from school and go to my room, close my door, sit on the edge of my bed and put on my headphones. I’d spend hours listening to my favourite albums, focussing closely on the words and taking in all they had to offer me. Some lyrics would explain so beautifully what I was experiencing as a young teenager, some lyrics gave me insights into things I had not yet experienced. There was a song to keep me company when I was sad, a song to share my happiness with when I was excited, a song to silently mouth along to to express my anger, a song to enliven my growing heart when I first fell in love (a young teenage crush can be something underestimatedly profound). I listened to each album hundreds of times, I knew every word, every note. It became a soundtrack for my life, it was my closest friend, confidant and mentor. In a word it was profoundly intimate. Just me and the music, my own private world of safety.
My musical journey was slightly ahead of my peers, thanks to a cool older brother. But soon, the other kids in my class were discovering the same albums. Suddenly everyone was talking about my favourite singers – facts, shared thoughts on meanings, and fantastical stories (as this was pre-internet the stories were the Chinese-whisper types that became deliciously far-fetched). While it would be expected for me to join in the excitement, I became very troubled by it. I had my own deeply personal connection to something. I didn’t want to know what the songs’ meanings were for other kids, it was irrelevant to me and in some ways threatening as suddenly it felt that my interpretation could be “wrong”. I felt that I deeply knew the soul of the singer because it was all laid out bare in their lyrics and in their voice and with each little detail. For the kids that relished in the facts and figures and stories, I felt sad that they didn’t seem to actually connect and get the same intimacy that I was getting – something far beyond “teenage coolness”. So I chose to keep quiet and nod politely when someone spoke of these things. I did all I could to safeguard my special world.
During the 90s in South Africa, because of the legacy of apartheid, we didn’t really have concerts of international musicians. But in time they began to come. Now older, I decided to go to a concert of one of my favourite singers, Tori Amos. It was against my better judgement and the whole experience was very upsetting for me. This human, with whom I had shared so many emotions with, learnt so much from and had such an intimate relationship with, was now up on a stage in bright lights and surrounded by swirling stage smoke. I was in the middle of a bustling crowd, some people shouted, some clapped, some laughed, some sang along. Some must have also had a similar connection, while others (probably most) only knew her one hit song. Up on stage, her job was to perform, so she sang her songs louder and more high tempo than usual and in-between songs she made rehearsed jokes. It felt like a perversion. To take something so intimate and turn it into a show for all – to reduce everything I held so dear to a “fun night out”. Suddenly, amongst 10 000 partying fans, I didn’t feel special at all.
While this is metaphor is in no way directly related, it (intends) to in part, relay the feeling with my connection to G-d. While man-made songs and lyrics can indeed be profound, there is no comparison to the words of G-d so the above-mentioned feelings are multiplied infinitely when it comes to spirituality. My connection to G-d is deeply personal and intimate. There are times when the camaraderie or support of others is wonderful and needed. However for the most part, I prefer to keep this world private and safe. I prefer to pray alone without distraction. We all suffer from a level of social anxiety, it’s only human, and for me this gets in the way of the gift of intimacy that G-d affords us. For me (and this is purely a personal view) when a group of people congregate, the focus seems to quickly turn to the following of rules. I think this happens because rules are an easy common denominator when trying to find collective ground between a wide range of intimate experiences.
In high school, I was once asked a series of questions to test what facts I knew about my favourite singer. Not knowing all of them I was told I wasn’t a “true fan”. What a crazy concept! Just as with my relationship with G-d – as a Jew that choses to live an outwardly secular life, this has no impact on the level of intimacy I have with G-d. It is perfectly understandable that we have our different natural ways of connecting. Some connect through knowing facts, some connect through following rules, some connect through quiet meditation. Some need guidance to make sense of things, some prefer to feel it. Because of the natural make-up of my soul, I prefer to feel. Many times, if things don’t make sense to me, I believe it is because I’m not at a place where it is meant to make sense for me…I have patience that it will come at the right time. As G-d is the source of everything, these different ways of connecting are all relevant in their way, and each should be true to what is real for them. A connection with G-d is not “one size fits all”.
So this is one of the reasons that I portray (myself as) “The Lone Jew” – a Jew that stands on his own in his quiet, contemplative, intimate world with G-d. His form is humble as he stands in the glow of G-d’s intimacy, and at the same time strong and resolute as he faces the challenges of the world before him.