What if Vincent van Gogh had been Jewish?

First the Rijksmuseum. Progressing along a wide boulevard toward the magnificent building I realized that historically it too, as I myself a survivor from Nazi terror, had made many journeys.

Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Self-Portrait,’ 1887, at the Art Institute of Chicago (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Self-Portrait,’ 1887, at the Art Institute of Chicago
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Flying through sun drenched early morning skies from Israel, a feeling of eager anticipation knotted my stomach – even though I did manage the meal and some rest – before zooming through the clouds earthbound to the Netherlands. Taxi to Amsterdam, quickly unpacking more sturdy shoes, I made off to places I’d long wanted to visit and the artists with whom I had a rendezvous – though they, being long gone, were quite unaware I was about to descend on them.
First the Rijksmuseum. Progressing along a wide boulevard toward the magnificent building I realized that historically it too, as I myself a survivor from Nazi terror, had made many journeys.
My first flight from Nazi pogroms was on November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht; while much earlier, but with glaring similarity, the Rijksmuseum was founded in The Hague on November 19, 1798. It then moved to Amsterdam in 1808, where it was first located in the Royal Palace. Later it transferred to the Trippenhuis, a neoclassical canal mansion in the center of Amsterdam built in 1660-1662 for Louis and Hendrick Trip, and is now the seat of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts. Finally, in 1808, the Rijksmuseum and its collection of some 200 paintings and artifacts moved to Amsterdam.
This magnificent building, designed by prolific Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, was first opened in 1885 and around its vast waistline I made my way towards the entrance, mainly to view Rembrandt’s paintings, particularly The Night Watch. To see for myself the light and shade for which Rembrandt’s paintings were so admired. Finally entering the echoing ceilinged hall I was awed by the vast columns spaced along gloomy marbled corridors when wonderful surprise – one was decorated with a series of Stars of David, the Jewish Magen David emblem! 
Determinedly picking a path among hushed voices and figures of all shapes and sizes, catalogues in hand gazing, strolling, standing – I searched. Where is Rembrandt’s famed The Night Watch? Magnetically drawn to the left arched hallway towards Rembrandt’s self sketched young cherubic face topped by tousled hair I was waylaid for a considerable time.
Nevertheless, despite his direct gaze, Rembrandt the youth still did not entice me from my search for The Night Watch. However, threading my way through the haunting Gothically designed halls, what glorious oil painting did I come across? None other than one of Isaac and Rebecca, known as The Jewish Bride, which Rembrandt painted around 1665-1669. It was even more stunning than finding the Magen David decorated column!
The Jewish Bride? Jewish? Was Rembrandt Jewish? Biographical details revealed nothing of the sort. Indeed, the subtly placed gift shop indicated little which might suggest his ancestors or descendents had a business like heritage! In fact, his rise to riches and downfall to almost rags with wife and offspring suffering accordingly suggests quite the opposite.
This masterpiece, with the figure’s calm and accepting expression contrasting with the vivid colors is considered a painter’s painting.
Indeed – Just so. It impacted profoundly on none other than van Gogh! According to his letters, Vincent van Gogh was reduced to tears in front of it, writing that he “would gladly give up ten years of his life to sit in front of the painting for two weeks, eating only a stale crust of bread.”
What was it in this particular of Rembrandt’s paintings that reduced Vincent to tears in front of it?
Could being the son of a pastor – albeit a very frosty natured clergyman – have familiarized Vincent with the Old Testament? Did the painting resonate within him the touching scene from Genesis where patriarch Jacob, on his deathbed, blesses his sons? Then, with his last breath, he instructs them to bury him in the cave in the field of Machpela where “There they buried... Isaac and Rebecca his wife.” Did the image of this devoted couple, inseparable in death, move van Gogh to tears? Were his tears for his own many, sad relationships? Was he filled with regret thinking - What if I had such a wife instead of all the unfortunate misfits I took up with?
Writings do not suggest Vincent was aware of the poet John Keats, who died in1821 aged 27 after a tragic life, 32 years before van Gogh was born – and in England, not Holland. Hearing a Nightingale’s glorious notes Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale begins with lines so melancholic and haunting they feel as though describing Vincent’s state of mind –
“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains.”
In common with van Gogh, Keats too wrote numerous letters, and this also could well have been to Vincent “The more we imagine beauty the more painful our world may seem – and this, in turn, deepens our need for art.”
Being so spiritually immersed that his very being was affected by the painting suggests, perhaps, that van Gogh’s feelings had a religious element. Constantly strivings to find ever deeper meaning echo thoughts of  Rabbi Dr. Laibl Wolf, author and exponent of Practical Kabbalah. According to Wolf  “Religious behavior is the way we internalize and perceive life.” It took a while for me to consider the applications of his idea to van Gogh. Could there be Jewishness in him? After all my musings and ruminations – How I longed to see some of Vincent’s art! 
And I would after this Rijksmuseum visit as The Van Gogh Museum was the next building along the large plaza. But for now I was still threading and asking my way to The Night Watch. People pointed me toward a daunting doorway towards an equally daunting crowded hallway where a vast throng appeared mesmerized by a structure inching centimeter by centimeter across and almost obliterating an imposing painting. The Night Watch I whispered questioningly to a skinny bespectacled youth. Apparently so, as could be guessed by his solemn nodding.
But, what was this contraption obliterating part of this painting as is inched its way across the surface? The catalogue informed:-
From July 2019, museum visitors will be invited to watch the restoration of The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s most celebrated masterpiece.
The catalogue gave no option but to be hypnotized by the contraption’s progress. Hordes of onlookers in couples, groups, with cameras or smart phones aloft were capturing the process of encrypting the pigmentation to ensure the colors’ accurate rendition when the painting needed restoration. But joy, small versions of The Night Watch painted by his students and un-obliterated, were to the side showing more clearly Rembrandt’s use of light lending the scene an ethereal quality which seemed confusing in a scene packed with militia men. Even stranger was the mysterious figure of a little yellow girl, (attributed as the image of Rembrandt’s own wife, Saskia) to the side – a chicken strapped to her waist.
Gradually I began to make my way out carried by now somewhat aching legs and mind, my feelings mixed. Why was I overawed but yet underwhelmed?
I left to sit in the sunny plaza with a water fountain spritely spewing its droplets brooding the question over a much needed cup of coffee when a sudden downpour came. Luckily the cafeteria awning protected many of us.  But those strolling across from the Rijksmuseum to the Van Gogh Museum on the other side of the Plaza were not so lucky. Rushing along, with umbrellas speedily unfurled, and pushchairs magically covering wailing offspring, people were suddenly galvanized into dashing figures when – STOP! The rain ceased and out came the brilliant sun. A different development – once more a leisurely strolling population of different ages, sizes and shapes was created.
By the time this scenario repeated itself at least three times I understood the message. Look, an almighty paintbrush. See the ultimate artist at work. Be not despondent if you are confused and yet not quite as deeply touched by Rembrandt as expected – enjoy what you are offered now!
And so, spirits raised, and elated at the jocular message played out, I finally wandered across to the Vincent van Gogh Museum. To see the paintings of the artist so profoundly moved by Rembrandt’s Isaac and Rebecca, known as The Jewish Bride, which Rembrandt painted almost 200 years before van Gogh (1853-1890). Was he so moved because he felt a Jewish spark in the Isaac and Rebecca story? He was spiritually guided throughout much of his short adult life.
Finally arriving at the modern Van Gogh Museum it seemed it might more correctly be called an Emporium.
I found myself variously sad, exhilarated, puzzled, dumbfounded, deeply touched and exasperated. Walking into the vast entrance hall, huge counters with selections of gifts greet the visitor. People of all shapes and sizes milling around, enamored with jugs, bags, pens, posters all reproducing the art of van Gogh in many shapes, sizes and his instantly recognizable colours. Gifts swathed in crisp tissue paper, pitchers, shawls, figurines which, above all, still preserved the curves of hard or soft purchases are purchased. These activities certainly resembled the kind of shopping undertaken in large retail stores, selling a wide variety of goods – namely an Emporium.
Then, to the side, the cloak room. A long line of people again in an abundance of shapes and languages with duffle coats and bags to match waiting, chatting, glancing around and finally getting to the front and handing in their belongings in return for a precious numbered plastic disc – a ticket to retrieve their goods.
Abounding thoughts come to mind. Where are his actual paintings? Where are the galleries housing them? Who paid to build this imposing structure? Who decided to place the gift shop immediately at the entrance? After all, the neighboring Rijksmuseum housing, among other works of art, priceless Rembrandt’s has the modesty to place its correspondingly commercially lucrative enterprise to the left of the hall, down steps leading to a far more cunningly lit gift area.
Wandering along the many galleries of this modern art building Vincent’s paintings gave a pit of the stomach hit. The brush strokes were like the five minute Festive Overture by Shostakovich with the same profound impact on my guts. Deeply moved, still I was frustrated, and asked myself some questions.
Was it fair that Vincent van Gogh left this world penniless? Especially as he certainly influenced important artists such as Paul Gauguin in his day. And even more so since no sooner had he died at the unripe age of 37 then his mother, who had thrown away crates full of his art – while his sister mercifully retrieved so many - lived long enough to see her son hailed as an artistic genius.
Makes for wondering – pondering even. What if his mother Anna Cornelia van Gogh (nee Carbentus) who did indeed recognise her son Vincent’s talents at quite a young age, would have nurtured them as most Jewish mothers might have, particularly as she too had some artistic ability. In fact hers sported a proud family history since she was the daughter of Willem Carbentus, famed “book-binder to the King” who had bound the first Constitution of Holland.
Had she been a more sensitive mother would she have named this second baby Vincent after the one lost in childbirth a year earlier – although in naming him also after a grandfather of the same name could indicate a Jewish touch. She might have taken into consideration the fact that the name Vincent is a boy’s name of Latin origin meaning “conquering”. He was thus cast in a mold where there were doubtless great expectations of him. It is said that Vincent is a name with a complex image. It was popular during the middle Ages, especially among the French, and always a favorite with Roman Catholic families. Then after being quietly used for centuries, it suddenly became stylish.
Still, how come no one came to the rescue of this unusual child, whose grandmother, in a fit of exasperation, boxed his ears? At age 15, van Gogh’s family was struggling financially and he was forced to leave school and go to work. He got a job at his Uncle Cornelius’ art dealership, Goupil & Cie., a firm of art dealers in The Hague. By this time, van Gogh was fluent in French, German and English, as well as his native Dutch. How he learned them is not clear, but these languages undoubtedly helped him in working at his Uncle Cornelius’s art establishment.
His turbulent life led Vincent to begin painting only when he was 27 or 28 so that in the last ten years of his life he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings including landscapes, still lifes, portraits and self-portraits. Unconventional as he was so were his paintings characterised by bold colours and dramatic, impulsive and expressive brushwork. He strove for expression unknowing perhaps that indeed his work contributed to the foundations of modern art.
What interested me, however, were his sunflower paintings – an amazing 87 in all, some done in Paris though the majority in the south of France. There, the lush fields and meadows of Arles during 1888 and 1889 inspired him. 
How ironic that his magical many times painted Sunflowers were wrought in the last two years of his troubled life. In one of his many letters to his beloved brother and supporter Theo, Vincent wrote that they held for him a special spiritual meaning. Here was the solution to the puzzle. He was indeed in search of a higher being but, having tried missionarism, was impelled to his true calling. Van Gogh once wrote, “I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.” Paul Gauguin waxed lyrical about how “in particular, his close-up still lifes of sunflower heads, their wide seed-cores velvety-looking in texture, their crowns of wilted petals (are) like dancing flames.”
Van Gogh expressly stated that for him the sunflowers represented an idea: “gratitude.” If only Van Gogh had been made aware of its possibilities.
Gratitude or Hakarat Hatov – recognition of the good – is an important value in Judaism. Practical expressions of gratitude are expressed in phrases such as this: Just for today I am going to recognize the kindness instead of the apathy, the light instead of the dark, the love instead of the hate, the beauty instead of the chaos, the blessing instead of the lack.
Many years ago, I drove through the south of France when – STOP! Suddenly. There were Van Gogh’s fields. His brushstrokes! Golden corn swirling, matching the clouds. These were the Wheatfields – captured in a series of his paintings. Where was Vincent... He was here. He captured nature’s beauty, but exactly!
Even more years ago, coming home from school, I’d first sit in the garden rockery at the back of our house among a throng of... yes... you guessed – sunflowers. I’d pick out the black kernels, crack them open between my milk teeth, and eat the delicious buds inside. Unknowingly many, many years later on finally coming to live in Israel,  these sunflower kernels were called ‘Garinim’ and much of the nutritious staple diet in the early 1950’s. Of course I joined others cracking them open! So how come Vincent did not have a nibble? Of course it had nothing to do with being Jewish but intrinsically food and taste are part of this way of life. Tasting the kernels rather than only painting the sunflowers may well have supplemented his punishingly poor diet and quaffing of absinthe. Nowhere is it recorded that Vincent ever actually tasted the delicious seeds of the sunflowers he so assiduously painted.
Had he been Jewish, even though the “Garinim” sunflower seeds so popular in Israel may not yet have been discovered, one might argue that he could have enjoyed a little crackling taste! And who knows, his wonderfully caring younger brother may have made somewhat of an industry out of them instead of only “buying” up Vincent’s paintings.
Cliff Edwards, author of Van Gogh and God: A Creative Spiritual Quest wrote: “Vincent’s life was a quest for unification, a search for how to integrate the ideas of religion, art, literature, and nature that motivated him. He was not commercially successful, and his suicide at 37 came after years of poor nutrition, drinking, mental illness and poverty.”
Could Vincent’s tortured and mentally unstable existence have been tempered by some of the trappings of Jewish life? Could being encompassed by a typically Jewish nurturing community have cushioned him from his ultimate fate? And if so, would his mother, who did not appreciate Vincent in his penniless life time, sending him miserably away from one school after another, have had the “Naches” Vincent finally brought her. Naches is a Yiddish word that means “pride” or “joy” typically referring to the pride or joy that a child brings a parent. Or maybe, if his health had been better and he had been nurtured by a Jewish mother, then Vincent sadly might not have directed his devoted outpouring into his fabulous form of art. As it was, soon after his death Vincent’s genius was recognised and exhibitions created an undreamed of income for his mother and sister, and until today, create unimaginable funds.
If van Gogh had been Jewish, maybe he would not have been devastated by the in-your-face gift counters on entering his Museum. He might have been pleased at the rolling dollar bills and educational activities aimed at children he never had. Ah well... What if .... What if indeed? At least we have what IS. And we can share with Vincent van Gogh – pure gratitude!