In the blink of an eye

75-year-old Rahamim Melamed-Cohen uses an eye-operated computer keyboard to write books, correspond with people around the globe and paint.

Rahamim- on the ganges 521 (photo credit: Rahamim Melamed-Cohen)
Rahamim- on the ganges 521
(photo credit: Rahamim Melamed-Cohen)
The cliché has it that artists have to suffer for their art and that they generally produce their works in the most trying of conditions. But it is unlikely that many artists have created art in as difficult circumstances as Dr. Rahamim Melamed-Cohen.
Some of the 75-year-old Jerusalemite’s many creations are currently on display at the Jerusalem Theater. These include a series of paintings based on the theme of biblical references to colors and a collection of striking color photographs that he took in India between 1963 and 1967, which comprise the “Blink of an Eye” exhibition.
Up to around 20 years ago, Melamed-Cohen was a highly active and highly respected senior educator. His talents in the field had led to his being sent to India in the mid-1960s as an emissary of the Jewish Agency. In 1993, while he was visiting his sister in Beit El, Melamed-Cohen slipped and fell. He attached no importance to the incident, but other increasingly worrying symptoms began to appear, and he was eventually diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neuron disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Well-known British scientist and writer Dr. Stephen Hawking has lived with ALS for more than 50 years. However, he is an exception. The average life expectancy of sufferers is between three and five years. Melamed-Cohen passed that medical milestone long ago.
Rather than putting an end to his creativity, since he was diagnosed Melamed-Cohen has published a dozen books on such topics as child education, the weekly Torah portion, anecdotal vignettes from his own experiences and his observations on life, and an illuminating tome entitled Therefore Choose Life, in which he offers his insights on how to improve the quality of life of ailment sufferers and healthy people alike. He has also put on eight exhibitions of paintings and photographs in Israel and abroad.
Today Melamed-Cohen is almost completely paralyzed and is able to move only his eyes, which he uses to paint, correspond with people all over the world, and even to present lectures by means of an eye-operated computer keyboard.
Despite his inability to function on the most basic of physical levels, Melamed-Cohen remains a font of ideas and inspiring thought which he endeavors to share with the world.
“Before the disease, I was healthy, athletic and dynamic. I ran around, I lectured at colleges, I visited my family and helped my wife and others. I was handsome and popular and successful.” he says. “Today, only my eyes move, but my spiritand spiritual powers only go from strength to strength. I feel as if I am buried up to my head in sand, and I look around me and see a beautiful world. People don’t believe me when I say these are the best years of my life.”
In addition to his artistic efforts, Melamed-Cohen is an enthused lyricist, and some of his poems have been set to music and recorded by Ehud Banai, Aharon Razel and bandleader Akiva Margaliot.
The septuagenarian believes he has gained a lot from his debilitating condition. “A crisis can spur people on to a new life or push them into depression and despair. The choice is ours, as it says in the Torah: ‘therefore choose life.’ I am amazed at myself that I am still alive. In addition to the joy I get from painting, I get a lot of satisfaction from the thousands of e-mails I receive from Israel and the world, from people who say that my work inspires them to live. They include priests, youngsters with suicidal tendencies and terminal patients from all over the world. ALS sufferers also ask me for advice,” he says.
When Melamed-Cohen and his wife, Elisheva, went to India, it was a part of the globe that was largely unknown to the Western world and it was some time before the Beatles made it over there and sitar player Ravi Shankar and tabla player Allah Rakha brought Indian music to the West. Melamed- Cohen was always a keen observer and says he learned a lot from his time in the subcontinent.
“In contrast with the Western world, the passion for material possessions is not the focus of life in India. I learned about making do with less, the enjoyment of folkloric, as well as artistic activity. That leads to a different take on the dimension of time,” he says, The latter, he says, left its mark on him for the rest of his life. “I acquired Indian patience and tolerance.”
He also says that, for the first time, he learned about a Jewish way of life in the Diaspora. “I was only 26, and my wife and I got to know the [Jewish] community in India, its people, institutions, leaders and customs.”
But it wasn’t just the Jews who interested Melamed-Cohen. “As geographer, I took a keen interest in the landscapes of India and in the anthropological elements. I traveled a lot and took photographs.”
Besides the aesthetic impact of his works, Melamed-Cohen says he aims to convey a message of hope and positive intent to the public. “I want to tell people that it is good to live and that they should look at the beauty of the world – the things that you don’t see on TV or the electronic media.  Love, hope, willingness and belief give life purpose and meaning.”
He says however desperate his condition, he would never consider euthanasia. “Mercy killing is an immoral act. Today, there are medical and technological solutions for almost every ailment and injury. The sages have said about extreme cases: ‘even if a sharp sword is placed on a man’s neck, he must not give up hope.’” On Monday, the public will have an opportunity to gain greater insight into Melamed-Cohen’s artistic and spiritual ethos. There will be a guided tour of the exhibition at 7 p.m., followed an hour later by a concert by Ehud Banai based on the works.
For more information about Dr. Rahamim Melamed-Cohen: and www.