Interdisciplinary infinity

Although Daniel Shorkend doesn’t believe in Greek gods, the way he describes his life reminds us a lot of the ancient Greek world.

 AT HOME, in front of his painting ‘Letter mem-elephant.’ (photo credit: Courtesy Daniel Shorkend)
AT HOME, in front of his painting ‘Letter mem-elephant.’
(photo credit: Courtesy Daniel Shorkend)

Daniel Shorkend came to Israel for the first time 25 years ago, when he participated in a summer religious program, and as a young student, completely secular at the time, he had a strong desire to “prove the rabbis wrong.”

In contrast, four years ago, when he made aliyah with his wife Nicole and their two young daughters Hannah, 12, and Shira, 6, he moved to Israel for more spiritual reasons: to “grow as a person on a deeper level.” When asked if he believes in God, he answers: “as the infinitive power – yes; as, let’s say Zeus – no.”​And although Daniel doesn’t believe in Greek gods, the way he describes life​ ​​– and how through his work he makes connections between art, philosophy, sport and science – it reminds us a lot of the ancient Greek world.

He holds a doctorate in the history of art; published eight books on kabbalah, art and fictional works; and is an English and writing teacher. In the past, he has taught methodology, and he writes and paints. He is also a judo instructor.

Daniel (sometimes he is called Danny) grew up in a secular Jewish family in Cape Town. Despite not being observant, he was sent to a private Jewish day school, where he learned basic Hebrew. Judaism, however, was not convincing to him. 

 All works mixed media on canvas; 2021.Clockwise from top left:‘PROPHET II,’ 100 by 80 cm., ‘SILENT ALEF,’ 100 by 100 cm., ‘CHINA!’ 60 by 40 cm., ‘REPULSION,’ 120 by 120 cm. (credit: Courtesy Daniel Shorkend) All works mixed media on canvas; 2021.Clockwise from top left:‘PROPHET II,’ 100 by 80 cm., ‘SILENT ALEF,’ 100 by 100 cm., ‘CHINA!’ 60 by 40 cm., ‘REPULSION,’ 120 by 120 cm. (credit: Courtesy Daniel Shorkend)

Already when he was a young boy he wanted to question everything, “I was a philosopher,” he says. “I did not consider religion as an option.” 

More appealing to him was art, and he has been painting since he was 14. “I understood that it is enjoyable and meaningful,” he recalls. At the university, he studied fine arts and philosophy, and later on, history of art. 

One summer, while still a student, then 22-year-old Daniel found a cheap trip to Israel which, although he did not expect it, changed his views on life. “The program looked interesting. I thought I will go prove the rabbis wrong and continue my trip to France and Italy to see art.” 

But listening to the lectures every day, to his surprise, he could not prove anyone wrong. As the result of the two-week program, instead of European galleries, Shorkend stayed for another seven months in Jerusalem, to study at a yeshiva. 

Daniel went back to Cape Town to continue his academic studies, but also found a rabbi at the local Chabad and studied hassidut and kabbalah with him every morning. Since then, Jewish religion became an important part of his work, art and life in general.

NOWADAYS, Daniel Shorkend is very much under the influence of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah. He is fascinated with the meaning of Hebrew letters and the Hebrew language, which is (in his opinion) superior to other languages. 

“Hebrew letters are abstract symbolic forms”, says Shorkend. “But the name of something relates to its spiritual and physical DNA. We should recognize the holiness of the language.” Hebrew letters are strongly represented in his paintings. 

Shorkend tries to unite not only religion and art, but also other fields. A feature of his research and career is the comparison of art and sport, and he dedicated his doctorate in history of art to it (“A new interpretation of sport derived from art-related aesthetics,” he says). And, though he does not mention any Greek philosophers, Daniel, not unlike people of the ancient world, also finds connections between the fields considered in the modern times distant from each other.

“Art is regarded as high culture, and sport as low or a popular culture, but I see an overlap,” he says. He adds that sport has “an aesthetic dimension – there are factors of intellectual appreciation and artistic dimension of sport.”

He is not only a passive and a theoretical observer of sports, but he himself practices and teaches judo. Asked how he sees art in judo, Shorkend says: “Judo is called a martial art for a very good reason. Judo has all this qualification as a beautiful art, as integration of mind, body and spirit.” 

He compares the body movement of a sportsman to a painter who makes a line with a brush, a sculpture that forms something. “It is a physical manual thing, like a sporting act.” Similar to an artist, “when a judo player understands the physics of balance, it is an artistic intuition. It is all connected,” he says.

He firmly believes that the concept of aesthetics is in everything we do in everyday life. “Everything we do with the right awareness can have that aesthetic dimension and attention to beauty, form, order, pattern and sequence. So my thesis was that the artistic theories can be applied to sport.”

Furthermore, extensive knowledge, (“the necessity of knowledge”) as a concept itself, is very inspiring to him. He says that through also being a teacher, he learns from his students. Since making aliyah and living in Haifa, he has been teaching English and writing skills to science students at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. He clearly appreciates the opportunity of entering the world of science, and wishes to make the connection between the liberal arts and science.

Having had all these different professions and jobs during his adult life, the thing Daniel wants to pursue the most is painting​. ​He has taken part in many group exhibitions, and recently, he organized his own solo exhibition: Infinite Energy, at the Chagall Artists’ House in Haifa. ​Visitors could view his 40 paintings – his output over the past 18 months.

Daniel describes his paintings as “metaphysical constructs: the Hebrew letters; image of sage and prophets.” He dedicates it to the Hebrew language and knowledge. He also speaks about his art: “Drawing from Abstract Expressionism, I embrace the flow, gesture, and emotional materiality of paint and the act of painting itself. This expressive potency is then given thematic meaning via basic.”

Daniel has been very active, taking part in group exhibitions in South Africa, and in Israel during the last three years. But he misses the vibrant art life in Cape Town, which he has not found in Haifa. 

“I think there is not much culture in Israel, there is the startup nation, but it feels to me there is not startup in culture here. There are not many private galleries in Haifa, for example. I don’t see much energy here, but maybe I missed it.” 

Daniel doesn’t hide that now he is investing in promoting his art, “unlike in South Africa, I had to rent the place to have my exhibition,” and he is not sure if he will stay in Israel forever.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t. Living in Israel gives time for personal growth, which he emphasizes was one of his goals when his wife encouraged him to move to Israel. 

His life in Haifa also gives him time and space for painting. “A couple of times a week, I teach at the university and at a language school. I have time to pray, to study Torah (being observant is part of my life), to spend time with my kids. Plus, I have time to paint.” 

He also says that COVID-19 did not affect his life. “I don’t mind teaching on Zoom sometimes; it gives me even more time to paint.”

Daniel Shorkend, as with many new immigrants, looks for his path and place in Israel. “Each of us grows in our own way, just like the tree does. Words are limited, by definition. I am trying mostly to communicate ideas through my paintings. To appreciate the abstract notion of God, we have to focus on infinity, energy, so I try to put them together.” 

Connecting art, sport, language, kabbalah and science is his philosophy and message for now. In the very infinitive way. ■

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DANIEL SHORKEND, 47From Cape Town, South Africa to Haifa, 2018