Arrivals: Square peg

Zak Yitro, 22. Manchester to Jerusalem, 2005.

Zak Yitro 311 (photo credit: Azri Samin)
Zak Yitro 311
(photo credit: Azri Samin)
Zak Yitro brings to mind the struggling Impressionist artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But instead of Paris, the 22-year-old artist creates in Jerusalem. Instead of paints he uses fine line pens and markers. And rather than soft landscapes he creates intricate geometric patterns that represent concepts in Judaism.
Born in Dublin, the oldest of four siblings, Zak moved to England with his family when he was 10, and by the time he had his bar mitzva at the Western Wall, he knew that Israel would be his home. He made aliya at 18 and has been living on his own since, putting his energy into supporting himself and developing his unique art style.
Yitro’s father, a psychotherapist, grew up in Paris, although his paternal grandparents were originally from Dublin. His mother, a nurse, grew up in Ireland, but his maternal grandparents were English. His parents met when his father was doing his medical training in Dublin and was singing at a progressive synagogue and his mother was in the audience.
He believes that his parents’ religious convictions were strengthened by his mother being diagnosed as terminally ill, then miraculously recovering. They moved to Manchester so they could live a more religious lifestyle. “Dublin isn't exactly an ultra-Orthodox hub,” he laughs.
His 20-year-old brother is married with one child, his 19-year-old sister is married and his 17-year-old sister hopes to come to Israel next year. He parents plan to eventually make aliya.
His traditional family became haredi when they lived in England. But when he was in high school, he took a different path and went to a religious Zionist school. He spent his junior year here, returned to England and finished his matriculation exams in record time, then decided to follow his dream and make aliya. “From the time I was 12, I dreamed of aliya,” he says. “Although I went through a spiritual crisis and had major issues with religion, Judaism has always been an important part of my identity.”
He spent his first year here at the Otniel Yeshiva in the southern Hebron Hills. He describes it as an open place of learning where he studied Jewish philosophy and theology. It was here that he explored his connection to Judaism’s ideology and values and his spirituality.
“I had always tried to experience everything intellectually,” he explains. “At Otniel I found a balance between spirituality and intellectuality, and although I was in the West Bank, it was the first time that I found peace.”
He spent a lot of time working on his art form, which also connects the intellect with the spiritual.
At the end of the year he was drafted into the army as a lone soldier and trained in an elite combat unit. “This was a very intense time for me, almost surreal. It was so different from anything I had ever known,” he recalls. The army taught him how far he could stretch his personal limits. “If you want something enough you can get it,” he says. “All of our limits are just in our minds.”
Yitro’s accent is hard to distinguish – not Irish or English. He feels it changes according to where he is at any given time. “Hebrew is the language I use to express myself,” he says. “You can take the root of each word and deepen your understanding of the meaning. It’s incredible.”
He understands French and is studying Arabic through listening to a genre of Arabic music called Rai. “We live in the Middle East and it’s important to communicate with our neighbors. Also, in art, it’s important to communicate in different languages.” 
To make ends meet he worked as a waiter, and has just been accepted as a counselor for groups of young people that come here with Israel Experience. He recently applied to Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan and is waiting to hear from them.
During this interim he works on his art. It takes months for him to crystallize a concept and then create it through geometric form. Presently, he is studying Shabbat and finding forms to represent this.
“I use geometric shapes because math is a way of expressing universal truths,” he says. “Through these forms you can show the relationship between different forces in nature and in our lives. It shows how everything is connected and that all of reality is united. Connectedness is also a central theme in Judaism.”
He recently put up a Web site and is selling his prints on-line as well as at the Arta gallery.
“Faith is a complex issue in my family,” he says. “Most of my extended family has intermarried and are spread all over the world, from Thailand to France to Canada. We are very multicultural.
“I identity first as a human being. I am also a Jew and an Israeli. This is where my loyalties lie, but this doesn't define me. The minute I define myself by my faith I limit myself,” he says.
He has friends from every stage of his life here. He is still in touch with his high school buddies from his junior year. He has great friends from Otniel and the army and from his work as a waiter. On Shabbat he usually goes to the home of a family he has become close with in Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood. 
He lives in an apartment in the East Talpiot with two roommates – a lone soldier and a new immigrant from South Africa. His living room window overlooks Jebl Mukaber and the sound of the muezzin calling is heard throughout the day. “It doesn’t bother me. It is a part of life here,” he says.
“I want to study visual communications or industrial design. I want to use my art to influence people to think in a deeper, more positive way,” he says.
While working last summer as a Jewish Agency counselor at a day camp in New York, he taught his teenage campers about Jewish values visually. “Some kids can't connect to lots of text,” he says. “Image has an instant impact. I would like to develop an educational program that Jewish educators can use to visually bring teenagers in the Diaspora closer to their Jewish identity.”