Ethan Dor-Shav’s soul is on fire

Large-scale paintings, by painter and biblical scholar, bridge gap between lives of the mind and body.

ETHAN DOR-SHAV’S painting ‘I Sleep and My Heart is Awake.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
ETHAN DOR-SHAV’S painting ‘I Sleep and My Heart is Awake.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
University libraries are not often places where the gates of heaven and hell open to offer divine revelations, at least outside of a Roman Polanski or Dan Brown film. Yet the Sourasky Central Library at Tel Aviv University intends to open a unique exhibition early next month that will lift the souls of those who pause as they struggle to submit papers and finish their reading on time. We’re talking literal lifting, as in a litter.
Curators Kfir Galatia and Vera Pilpoul worked with Ethan Dor-Shav to create four breath-taking palanquins that offer – to those who are brave enough to lay down in them – an encounter with the large-scale soft-pastel paintings of the painter and biblical scholar. Inspired by Dor-Shav’s unique reading of Song of Songs as a dream world in which the king is waiting for his beloved in a palanquin, the exhibition will bring bold color and movement to the hall of learning, bridging the gap between the life of the mind and that of the body.
Leaping between gaps is something Dor-Shav is skilled at, combining a long-lasting scholarly passion for biblical studies, a career in advertising, and his own unique artistic path. Dor-Shav merged paintings, music and dance in his previous five solo exhibitions. This upcoming one will also include a performance titled Hevel. The name brings to mind the original Hebrew name of Abel, the vapor of breath as it leaves the body in exhaustion, and the famous warning in Ecclesiastes: “Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.”
Or is it?
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post days after his return from India, where he worked alongside aerial acrobat Danny Tavori, Dor-Shav suggested that at least in some ways Western Christianity misread the Bible, and we’re all poorer for it.
What if the fleeting moment, the vapor the dancer exhales in his fiery effort, was one way to reach the eternal delight which is God?
In this reading, the familiar brooding sentiment that nothing is worthwhile because it’s all vanity anyway, and even mighty kings eventually must die, becomes something quite different: a series of living moments that are at times painful and sad, yet give us the great gift of striving and experiencing pleasure, even revelation. 
“Paradise [the Garden of Eden] and heaven are two different things,” Dor-Shav says. “In Jewish culture, we want to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go back to paradise. And there’s a reason for that.”
In his reading of Genesis, paradise is a lush swamp in which all human needs are looked after. This, the Bible tells us, is not good in the eyes of the Lord – who swiftly plants a tree of knowledge containing both good and evil – and creates Eve, allowing humanity the sinful blessing of dialectics, knowing others and itself for the first time. Paradise is the place that allows the water of the underworld to siphon into individual rivers with names and identities as they flow through it to Earth. It’s also the place humanity had to leave in order to discover what it is and might be. According to this reading, the biblical snake was a water serpent, and when he was cursed to crawl and eat dirt, he was expelled from his element where he was ruler and master.
“Water is a collective element,” Dor-Shav explains. “When three drops of water touch, they fuse together and lose individuation. You get more water, you don’t name the drops. This,” he says, “is the meaning of hell.” 
“FIRE, ON the other hand, is different,” Dor-Shav reasons. “You can name the stars, for example, because they are both individuals and in relation to each other, which gives you constellations.” 
The struggle between water that always seek to flow to the dark center of the Earth, and light, which always wishes to expand and create more of itself, necessitated an in-between point – paradise – the location from which the human mind emerged.
In a 2005 essay, “Soul on Fire,” which can be read on his website, Dor-Shav suggests that ancient Hebrew thought indeed contains the concept of an afterlife, one in which God – who self-describes as “I shall become what I shall become” – is already in all times, including the future. Our souls then, created by Him and taken by Him, are in that very real sense already with Him in majesty, and are almost like a phone call from the messianic future. 
If you’re wondering how all this theology becomes art, you needn’t worry. Just as one doesn’t need a divinity degree to enjoy the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or William Blake – an artist Dor-Shav deeply admires as a great learner of the Bible – one can skip the advanced theology and simply enjoy the paintings.
In fact, when dancer and choreographer Rina Scheinfeld saw Dor-Shav’s paintings, she began to dance. While speaking of the iconic Israeli dance legend, lauded around the world as a visionary in her field, he beams with affection.
“She was so generous. She called me,” Dor-Shav shares, offering him the assurance that yes, other people are able to feel the works and that they function in the manner he hoped they would. “My paintings are like little candles of my being that light other rooms,” he points out, “not my own. They are agents of creation, not the creation.” 
At the center of the exhibition, a six-meter high 2018 painting called Movement Portrait will be hung and take on a special role in the performance of Hevel. Always looking for new artistic growth, Dor-Shav works alongside models dancers and musicians to infuse his paintings with the vibrancy of movement and the human body. If in Western theology the individual body must be held under the weight of morality to ensure the pure soul might enjoy heaven without its meaty luggage, Dor-Shav’s art is a celebration of the actual flesh in the here and now.
When discussing the aging process, he says honoring your mother and father can be seen as honoring their presence and habits inside our individual bodies as we get older and begin to resemble them more and more. “Rather than fighting it all our lives,” he says, we can accept our uniqueness and imperfectness. “I don’t need to know my name before my parents were born, like in the Zen koan,” he says. “I just want to know my name today. It’s OK to have a particular name and a spiritual tradition.”
Born in New York and brought up as a practicing Orthodox Jew, Dor-Shav, in deciding to paint, brings to mind the classical 1972 novel My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. In the novel, the protagonist confronts bullying schoolmates by depicting them in hell and passing it along to them, which ends their tormenting of the hassidic painter. In another scene, a crowd gathers around the boy with peyos [side-curls of hair] as he draws in Rome. Like the fictional character, Dor-Shav moves seamlessly between Torah concepts, English and Hebrew, to art history, while accepting that not everything has to perfectly fit for it to be yofi – both beautiful and very good.  
Art, he says, is about “accepting that my broken pieces don’t need to be fixed in order to be together. They’re my personal broken pieces, and that’s enough.”
“After all,” he says, “you can only join the party as yourself.”  
‘Palanquins’ by Ethan Dor-Shav
Sourasky Central Library, Tel-Aviv University
March 6-28