On the Aleph-Bet

In 2006 I began to use the Hebrew letterforms as the basis for watercolors. I was inspired by the idea in the Zohar that the world was created with letters. Each letter has led me emotionally and visually towards imagery that evokes my cultural heritage. As an artist, I believe that I create a world from my innate experience and, in that way, move closer to God. Absorbing tradition in a home in which both parents were Holocaust survivors, I recognized Hebrew letters as meaningful symbols. Linguistically, they are the fundamental building blocks of Judaism. Symbolically, they are the mystical building blocks of creation. Hebrew letters are as pliable as human figures. The letters provide me with a visual springboard, which is at once verbal, human, archetypal and Jewish. This series, then, expresses my interest in the human condition, as well as my debt to Jewish tradition.

My father visited me when I was living in Israel in 1973—his first time in the country. Ipicked him up from the airport and as we were walking down the street he began to cry. Iasked him why; and he pointed to a sewer cover in the pavement imprinted with Hebrew characters. He said that as a child and young man in the ghetto of Chenstohova, Poland, he could never have imagined seeing this—something as simple as a sewer cover with Hebrew letters on it
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Visual Exegesis
Painting requires a state of intentional open-mindedness that often brings with it doubts and insecurities, similar to what John Keats called “negative capability.” When I started working with the Zohar (mystical commentary on the Torah, written in medieval Aramaic) this experience was amplified. But, despite the discomfort and confusion, I relished it. Reading about the thoughts and adventures of Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose, two companions of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (chief author of the Zohar), I felt I was being repeatedly asked, “Where are you?” In struggling to make sense of and draw orpaint what I felt, I was answering, “I am here.”

Zoharic exegesis can be visually successful, only if it is not mere illustration of the narrative. I experience the Zohar as a conversation about the Scriptures that suggests traces of a hidden, supernal truth—a truth that may be explored with visual exegesis of a non-literal kind. The Zohar describes Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose as “on the way.” Perhaps narratives such as those of the miraculously revealing donkey driver and wandering desert hermits form such an important part of this Jewish book of mysticism because they are metaphors for the soul’s internal journey in search of truth.

A Dialogue with the Unknown
Growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, I remember wondering if my grandparents, uncles and aunts were among the piles of emaciated corpses I saw in photographs. These blurry black and white images seemed abstract because I could not identify individuals. As a result, at the beginning of my career I rejected abstraction as mere decoration, and attempted to reclaim the lost humanity through figurative art, painting the human figureand its emotional universe.

Looking back now, I recognize that my choice to be an artist answered the need to express and heal myself, and by extension, the world. Faith in and devotion to God was not possible for me in the post-Holocaust world, yet it is precisely these ideals that Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) requires. Art offered me a way to practice devotion and faith,not as idolatry, but as a form of prayer—and as a dialogue with the unknown.

It seems that the lessons of the Holocaust have been lost on mankind as evil continues unabated in the world. Perhaps naïvely, I believe art can catalyze change. I hope my paintings facilitate insights into who we are and what in us needs to be healed, protected and strengthened. My paintings are created through fragile feelings and fleeting instincts. I feel my way through doubt towards light and clarity. I like to imagine that what is hidden and fleeting, and yet powerful in its immediacy, allows me to produce images that, however flawed, bear and bare testimony to the light.
Michael Hafftka, Brooklyn, 2009