Helen Bar-Lev: 50 years of adventure in Israel

Artist and poet Helen Bar-Lev has reinvented herself in Jerusalem, Safed and the Upper Galilee.

ART BY Helen Bar-Lev: Salant Street as seen from the Ethiopian compound, brown watercolor with brush and pen. (photo credit: Helen Bar-Lev)
ART BY Helen Bar-Lev: Salant Street as seen from the Ethiopian compound, brown watercolor with brush and pen.
(photo credit: Helen Bar-Lev)

Throughout her 50 years in Israel, artist and poet Helen Bar-Lev has reinvented herself in Jerusalem, Safed and the Upper Galilee, guided by intuition and a fearless love for new adventures.

“A lot are shocked that I do that,” said Bar-Lev. “I think one of the most incredible moments was when I was sitting in Jerusalem with my back to the wall of the Nature Museum and sketching the German Colony from afar. A man walked by, he stopped, and we started to talk.”

“I think one of the most incredible moments was when I was sitting in Jerusalem with my back to the wall of the Nature Museum and sketching the German Colony from afar. A man walked by, he stopped, and we started to talk.”

Helen Bar-Lev

That was in 1982. He was a novelist. They started a relationship, and it wasn’t long before they decided to look for a larger place to live. Bar-Lev heard that the Ethiopian monks had an apartment available in back of their historic domed church on Ethiopia Street. The monks moved their schoolroom so that the couple could have a two-room apartment overlooking a street. In one of the many poems she wrote during her four years as tenant of the Ethiopian monks, she remarked: “The nuns were young and beautiful, their voices resonating like delicate bells” when they sang Vespers.

A completely different world

Today, Bar-Lev lives in a completely different world of contentment. Her home is so close to the Lebanon border that she can cross the street and look through the barbed wire fence to where her Lebanese neighbors are cultivating their fields.

She photographs these neighbors, paints them, and dedicates poems to the “Enemy.” But at 80 years old, she insists that she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.

 METULLA WITH Lebanon in background, colored pencils with ink. (credit: Helen Bar-Lev) METULLA WITH Lebanon in background, colored pencils with ink. (credit: Helen Bar-Lev)

“I’m not moving from here; I love it too much,” the artist said, noting her most recent improvement to her sprawling property. “I just painted my house a lovely blue.”

In her heart, what the artist wants is to imagine a world without the need for the fences. She paints a world without borders, connected at the heart, yet she addresses the reality in poems that have won her critical acclaim in Israel, Europe and the United States.

Now, through August 25, the Cultural Center, located in 33 Sderot Nesiei Yisrael street in Karmiel, is presenting a retrospective exhibition of Bar-Lev’s 50 years in Israel, which celebrates both her watershed age and her 50th anniversary since arriving by boat to Israel from America with her two young children.

We’re speaking by Zoom on a muggy day in July, but I’m already visualizing a trip up North that never occurred to me until now – to muster some courage and venture farther north of Safed than I’ve ever yearned to do, and actually see Bar-Lev’s paradise for myself. She assured me it’s totally safe. I admire her guts. But just for the record, I asked if she had ever seen any action.

Yes, indeed. Just after she bought her house in Metulla some 17 years ago, she recalled, three days later, war broke out. “I was living in Jerusalem, but I knew it was the right decision to move up. The war went on and on, and it was horrifying, with fires and sirens.”

She wrote a poem about a Lebanese artist painting Israel, and she painting Lebanon, and together they would have an exhibition. She sighed, knowing it was wishful thinking, but this belief in a brighter future continues to inspire much of what she creates.

“What catches my eye on the other side of the border fence is the different architecture. Metulla is all apple, plum and nectarine orchards, and in Lebanon they have crops on the ground, but they never planted any fruit trees. I just think about them going about, as we do, absolutely normal lives. God forbid there’s another war,” she said.

“I came to visit Metulla about 16 years ago, and I was drawn to the quiet, the way people smile at you, with everything being so small, low buildings built of stone, fruit trees, and wildflowers all over – it’s beautiful. There’s one main street, a couple of mini-markets, one post office, one healthcare provider and one library. This is the way life should be – and it feels so comfortable.”

In 2007, when Bar-Lev made this move up to Metulla, she sold her 42-square-meter apartment in Jerusalem, bought a house on half a dunam of land, and still had spare change in her pocket. As a well-established artist and art instructor in Jerusalem, she was ready to enter a more reclusive phase of life of quiet uninterrupted time to tend to her garden, to create, and enjoy her daughter and grandchildren, who live nearby.

Bar-Lev taught adult art classes for many years at the Popular University located in the Gerard Behar Center, and gives a nod to Betty Edwards, the best-selling author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, who inspired some of her teaching approaches.

“I told my right-handed students to begin the lesson by doing a quick sketch with the left hand without looking at the paper. This activates the right side of the brain, the creative side. They would go home and bring back artworks that took my breath away. Really, anyone can be an artist, at any age. What one needs is an inner drive, perseverance and technical knowledge. The last can be taught; the other two must come from within.

“It’s like these people waited all their lives – a husband died, a wife died, children moved out – and they would come to take art lessons, and just blossomed,” she said.

Bar-Lev has held more than 100 exhibitions, solo and group shows, in Israel, Europe and the US.

“I was always attracted to the figurative, inspired especially by Corot, Van Gogh, Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt.”

Once, while in Holland for an exhibition in The Hague, she went to see the Old Master drawings at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

“I walked into the room at the Rijksmuseum, where Rembrandt’s works had always been exhibited, but to my great disappointment, they had on display only modern photographs. When they knew I was an artist, they let me view Rembrandt’s etchings and his original pen and ink drawings which were kept in their archives under lock and key. Imagine! I held Rembrandt in my hands,” she said, cradling her head between her hands at the very recollection.

‘Any age is good for learning things’

Born in 1942 in New York City, Bar-Lev studied art at the Cooper Union and got her degree in anthropology from California State University in Northridge.

She had stopped painting for 10 years in the 1960s while living in Los Angeles, when the art movements of the era – op art and pop art – had the opposite of effect of speaking to her. She turned her attention to studying anthropology instead.

With antisemitism on the rise in the early 1970s, she became certain that she wanted to live in Israel. She had already seen the country on scholarship as a teenager in 1959.

“The moment I disembarked from the ship, the SS Zion, and my feet touched the ground, something inside me said, ‘You’ve come home,’” she recounted.

She returned to the US in 1961, but that trip sparked a longing to make aliyah.

Finally, in 1973, Helen arrived back in Israel, and soon after she returned to painting. “The beauty of the landscape made my fingers itch. I registered for evening art classes in Rehovot with Rahel Shavit and Eliyahu Gat.” And that is how she began her art career. From 1977-1978, she studied with Prof. Yosef Hirsch privately in Jerusalem, following his example of painting landscapes in brown watercolors to express the full palette of human emotions in monochrome colors.

Life in the artists’ colony in Safed

Bar-Lev moved to Safed in 1989 and ran her own home gallery for 12 years in the artists’ colony. It was there, surrounded by all the blues found on the doors and trims of the ancient city, that Helen left behind her brown monochrome style and began painting with a full color palette.

“Maybe I just needed a change,” she ruminated. “I went up there on holiday, on vacation, and everything fell into place. Safed was much quieter and calmer than Jerusalem. My house was 200 years old. Someone took a hammer and exposed arches that the previous tenants had smoothed up to make flat walls. These arches were so beautiful, and I had no idea they were there. Another surprise came when workers dug in the courtyard and found shards of glass from 2,000 year ago.

“Having a gallery meant that there were always visitors coming through. I was selling, but, don’t forget, it depended on the tourist season. It depended on whether there was a war – which, if there was, nobody comes.”

She eventually sold the house and moved back to Jerusalem in 2001. In 2003, at the age of 61, she began writing poetry.

Drawn to poetry

“I never thought I’d write poetry. I didn’t even like poetry as a child,” she said with a laugh, her hands cupping both sides of her chin in wonder at how life handed her this gift for words when she least expected it.

Her poems led to such distinctions as international senior poet laureate for the Amy Kitchener Foundation, recipient of the HOMER – European Medal for Poetry and Art and Pushcart Prize nominee in poetry.

“I always thought of myself as a nonverbal person. I had been painting from the age of three years old, but I found with poetry a way to put words so beautifully together, express yourself, and see things differently. You can express not only beautiful things, but ugly things beautifully,” she said.

In 2003, in Jerusalem, Bar-Lev joined Voices Israel, a national group of poets who write in the English language. Since then she’s taken on many roles, including editor-in-chief of the Voices Israel anthology. (A range of Helen’s poems, along with a lifetime of paintings and drawings for sale, can be found at www.helenbarlev.com.)

“As far as the art goes, we think we might plan our art, but the way it comes out is the way God, or the cosmos, wants it to come out. I tell my students, don’t brag about your art, because you’re not the only one that’s doing it,” she said, adding what almost goes without saying: “Simply painting in Israel is an act of expressing our Jewish identity.” 

 The summer-long retrospective exhibition of the paintings of Helen Bar-Lev is being held at the America-Israel Culture Foundation, 33 Sderot Nesiei Yisrael, Karmiel. The exhibition continues at the center until August 25.

The writer is a pioneering intuitive art teacher and author of The Wagamama Bride: A Jewish Family Saga Made in Japan. Details: www.goshenbooks.com and www.genesiscards.com.

The Enemy

The muezzin’s voice echoes

across the border, friendless,

calling his compatriots to prayer,

to holiness and to obliterate us

frightening me, the enemy,

a dot in his spectacles,

a two minute’s drive in his vehicle

to my home

He does not know,

the muezzin, who is mostly a recording,

who amasses missiles in hospitals,

that I am happy for him to awaken me

at four each morning,

because I find his chanting oddly comforting,

like the peal of church bells,

the security of ritual

He does not know,

the muezzin,

who despises the existence of my village,

and demands my demise,

that I, the enemy, am so enchanted by his,

that I am sketching it from various angles,

detailing the different windows,

the mosque from whence his voice goes forth,

the incongruous high-rise with its terraces,

the flat roofs, some structures ochre, some white,

and the one building painted an audacious orange,

perhaps by an artist like me?

I do not know, cannot throw my questions

over the border fence like packets of opium

on a moonless night

But I, the optimist,

continue to visualize, try to manifest,

that I and the artist in the orange house

will exhibit our paintings

of each other’s village

in each other’s village

when at last

there will be

no more enemies

– Helen Bar-Lev (© 10.2009)