Into the fold and out of the box: Space for creativity and the Creator

Artists, musicians and writers who embrace Jewish spiritual practice often wonder whether it is possible to pursue the arts while committing to a life of observance.

 Artwork by Solomon Souza (photo credit: EBIN SANDLER)
Artwork by Solomon Souza
(photo credit: EBIN SANDLER)
Religious artists often confront a fork in the road, with the path of observance leading one way, and the creative life winding down a different path. Not only does Judaism involve set prayer times and Shabbat rest, which could hinder an artist’s flow, the tradition’s search for meaning and light also clashes with the more nihilistic tendencies and lack of inhibition embodied in so much of today’s art, music and literature.
While the tension between creativity and religion leads some artists to choose either art or spirituality, others develop their talents as a means to deepen their faith in the Creator, and share their faith with others.
A collage between text and life
A rift between religion and creativity opened early on for award-winning poet Yehoshua November, who felt pulled in different directions by his drive to write narrative poetry and his burgeoning interest in Judaism. November spent his formative years in smaller American cities like Scranton, Pennsylvania, raised in a modern Orthodox household that included hallmarks of secular culture. November credits the lyrics of musicians like Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon with sparking his interest in picking up the pen, which eventually led him to study literature and creative writing.
As an undergraduate student at State University of New York at Binghamton, November grew close with the local Chabad rabbi, and felt drawn to the ideas of hassidic philosophy. After college, November pursued a master of fine arts degree in creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I saw a split at that time between creative, literary culture and the Chabad religious life, and I felt turned off by the elitism and pretentiousness of some of the writers I met. At the same time, I became enamored with hassidic thought, stories and teaching,” remembers November.
“I had a watershed moment when the head of my program at Pitt arranged for me to meet a famous Jewish writer. He was irreverent about Judaism and mysticism. He was dismissive. The experience contrasted with my experience with Chabad, and I saw a dichotomy.”
At the close of his MFA program, November found himself halfway through producing his first collection of poems, God’s Optimism (2010). Instead of finishing the book, November walked away from writing and spent two years learning in the Lubavitch yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey, immersing himself in the more mystical interpretations of the Torah and the Talmud. At the core of November’s learning was the recurring theme that the most seemingly mundane activities and experiences actually hold the most profound spiritual messages.
“Before finding hassidism, writing seemed more real and fulfilling. I thought, even if the Torah is true, it didn’t speak to me, while poetry did,” November explained, reflecting on his education in Jewish day schools.
As his time in Morristown was coming to a close, November prepared to go to work, weighing a career in religious education against teaching creative writing and publishing his poetry. After speaking with a mentor from Chabad, November opted to return to writing, in addition to teaching at Rutgers University.
“There was a shift, I had more material post-yeshiva and my poems were tinged with more tragedy and sadness. My publisher actually commented that I had the ‘same voice, but the themes were heavier.’”
November revisited the poems that would make up God’s Optimism, which won the 2010 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and an LA Times Book Prize. This collection and its follow- up, Two Worlds Exist (2016), garnered rave reviews in sources such as The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, with November’s poems featured on NPR and in leading literary magazines such as Prairie Schooner.
God’s Optimism includes a poem titled “The Purpose of this World,” which addresses those who “take a vow of atheism” when they “cannot explain the sorrow of their lives.” At the poem’s conclusion, November challenges his readers to grab God “by the lapels/pull His formless body down into this lowly world/and make Him explain.” The poem concludes: “After all, this is the purpose of creation – to make this coarse realm a dwelling place for His presence.”
When asked whether he sees his poetry as part of the process described in this poem, November chuckles modestly, “I wouldn’t have the audacity to write that line now.”
“I like to see in my writing theology versus how life is really playing out. I like to take a concept in hassidic philosophy, and then hold it up to life’s experiences. It’s like a collage between text and life,” he explains.
In an interview with Rabbi Alan Brill last year, November explained, “[T]here is a strong sense that my hassidic life significantly enriches my poetry, and that my poetry provides a space for me to process my efforts to live as a hassid. In this sense, the two worlds pleasantly overlap.”
This dynamic is at the heart of poems such as “Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah,” which captures an encounter in the ritual bath during which November noticed a co-religionist’s tattoos. Such body modification is explicitly forbidden by Jewish law, and is an immediate indication that the person bearing tattoos has not been Torah observant his or her entire life. November imagines what it must be like for this young man at the mikve, whose very body bears witness to his previous life before Orthodoxy:
Then, holding only a towel, they begin, once more, the walk past the others in the dressing room: the rabbi they will soon sit before in Talmud class, men with the last names of the first hassidic families almost everyone, devout since birth.
And with each step, they curse the poverty that keeps the dark ink etched in their skin, until, finally, they descend the stairs of the purifying water, and, beneath the translucent liquid, appear, once again, like the next man, who, in all his days, has probably never made a sacrifice as endearing to God.”
November notes, “That was a religious moment filtered through human shame, a very human, authentic moment. I felt that shame could be elevated to something holy, being the underdog, his struggling made the journey more authentic. I wanted to shine a light on the struggle and human shame turned holy, in this moment of chaos and embarrassment.”
This encounter also seemed for November to be the perfect expression of a central hassidic concept that the lowest place space in the world is the place in which the deepest divinity is possible. November explains, “This idea pushes us to look at unsung, mundane moments, even moments of difficulty and challenge, and to see something divine in those ugly moments.
“This is an extension of the midrashic premise that God specifically created the lowest realm as the whole purpose of creation, so that God’s presence could exist in the lowest realm, which is where God is most present in the world. This also applies to our individual lives; the lowest moments are the places where God is most present. In those moments of failure, hardship, doubt, those are the moments that embody creation’s purpose.
“That inverts everything. In poetry, I look at these sloppy flawed human moments as mystical and spiritual,” he adds.
“It takes reorientation, in those dark moments. Don’t try to shun or escape them. When one finds oneself there, it’s important to try not to be defensive, to try to find the divine, to be emphatic about the existence of divinity there. That makes you less likely to engage with darkness from a place of anger.”
Aerosol art: A transcendental experience
While November’s poetry is the product of keen observation and measured reflection, the process of literally seeing the divine in life’s darker corners is a hands-on exercise for a young artist named Solomon Souza, who has built an impressive body of work on the walls of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. Souza uses the gritty art form of graffiti to bring to life scenes from the Bible and portraits of famous Jewish historical figures.
A native of London, Souza came to Israel as a teen and began honing his craft on the streets of Jerusalem. He built a name for himself by painting graffiti-style portraits of famous Jerusalemites, Torah sages, and cultural icons. Souza’s subjects include the beloved former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Albert Einstein, Bob Marley, Mahatma Gandhi and Golda Meir, among many others.
Souza painted many of these portraits on the shutters of vendors’ stalls in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, where he transformed aisles of metal gates into an after-hours urban gallery that is now the subject of guided tours. Visitors peruse the finished works and occasionally catch a glimpse of Souza in action.
Among Souza’s early pieces in the shuk was a series of shutters on which he painted the seven days of creation. Souza’s scenes, like his portraits, have an otherworldly feel that brings to mind both oversaturated color photographs and Bronx-style memorial murals.
In addition to the shuk, Souza’s work can be found throughout Jerusalem’s artsy-yet-religious Nahlaot enclave. It is here that he painted a devotional portrait of the tzadik of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Levin (1885-1969). This piece, which spans two stories of an apartment building, combines images of the Shoah with a vision of the Third Temple, overseen by the loving gaze of Rabbi Levin.
“My mom instilled in me a need to paint and create. I grew up in Hackney, east London, and I was enthralled by graffiti, it captivated me. I didn’t go to art school; I’m self-taught,” says Souza.
While he may have developed his craft without the aid of formal training, his lineage in the art world includes both his mother, the painter Karen Souza Kohn, and his maternal grandfather, the famous artist F.N. Souza, who helped pioneer the Progressive Artists’ Group of Bombay and is credited as the first post-independence Indian artist to reach prominence in the Western art world.
“Without my mom, I don’t know where I’d be,” Souza explains. “I met my grandfather twice. One time I remember it was after one of his openings, which must have been a success. He took everyone out to a French restaurant. I’m very inspired by him,” Souza continues.
“I’m also very inspired by my mother’s work, it’s loose and free, but also technical and emotive. I see the spiritual journey in her work, the way it changed after she became religious, it moved away from darkness. It changed so much.”
Reflecting on the role Judaism and the Jewish experience plays in his work, Souza elaborates, “I have a huge appreciation for the religious aspects of life and for Torah, it’s where I draw my main inspiration, that and life in general.”
“Torah, it’s my reference, a record of our history. I see my work painting scenes from the Torah as similar to Mayan artwork or other civilizations. I’m presenting our culture, especially in Jerusalem, images from the kingdom of David, our capital,” explains Souza.
“Every time I paint it’s a transcendental experience. I can feel that spark, the imagery coming through. I’m always drawing, it’s the only way I can concentrate. Even when I’m learning Torah, I’m drawing, constantly.”
Letting the melodies flow
Unlike visual artists or writers who can tailor their creative schedule to conform with an observant life, it is close to impossible for religious musicians in the secular world to avoid the issue of performing on Shabbat, among other conflicts with ritual observance.
Violinist Yonatan Lipshutz had to confront this challenge head on when he delved deeper into Judaism. At a certain point, performing Saturday matinee concerts became impossible to reconcile with his Sabbath observance. Lipshutz had been playing classical violin from the age of seven and had earned a BFA degree. To say music was his life would be an understatement, as Lipshutz practiced 10 to 15 hours a day, performed with the Westchester Chamber Orchestra and taught at a local conservatory.
 Violinist Yonatan Lipshutz practices everyday but Shabbat. Violinist Yonatan Lipshutz practices everyday but Shabbat.
After Lipshutz and his wife started keeping Shabbat, however, they made a decision that he would no longer play violin.
“I totally stopped, not just professionally, I stopped playing completely. I took a nine-month computer course, got a job, we ended up moving to Minneapolis, Minnesota from New York, and we were able to buy a house and a car. At that point I actually sold my violin,” Lipshutz recollects.
“As I was becoming more observant, I thought about the classical music I was playing and it occurred to me that this was the music they were playing as we, members of our family, were led to the gas chambers in Europe. I had problems relating to the music after becoming observant, I went ‘off’ of classical music cold turkey. Sure, I still listened to some Grateful Dead, but no Bach, no Beethoven.”
Lipshutz made aliya in 1991, just two weeks before the Gulf War broke out, and eventually landed with his wife and children in Safed. Soon after, he discovered Breslov Hassidism and began taking yearly trips to Uman, Ukraine, the burial place of the movement’s founder, Rebbe Nahman.
In a strange twist of fate, Lipshutz’s neighbor in Safed brought him a half-size violin, which he hoped the former musician could fix.
“After close to 15 years of not playing, I found myself with the desire to play again, after all that time without a violin, without even a stereo, I found that desire growing,” Lipshutz remembers.
Not long after fixing and playing the little violin in Safed, Lipshutz returned to Uman with a group of 35 Breslovers. While pilgrimages to Uman around Rosh Hashana have become en vogue for thousands of Jews each year, Lipshutz embarked on this specific trip right after Passover, a low ebb for Jewish tourists to the Ukrainian town.
“During busy periods in Uman there was a huge shuk, with people buying and selling all sorts of things. In the 1990s, everything was incredibly cheap.
You could buy a clarinet for $1; if they were charging $5 for something it was considered expensive,” Lipshutz says.
“When I went on that post-Passover trip in 1997, there were no crowds and so there was also no market. There were tremendous niggunim [melodies] that Shabbat and I felt myself crying inside. All the years I played the violin, it was always with sheet music, taking the music from the outside and bringing it inside. But on Shabbat, the melodies come from inside. I thought to myself, if I had a violin I could play all of these tunes.”
“After Shabbat, I went to Rebbe Nahman’s grave alone, in total darkness. It was midnight and it was freezing cold. There might even have been snow. I was the only one praying there. I started talking to God from my heart, ‘I played violin for so many years. I put in so many hours, all that technique I learned, what was it all for? My father spent all this money every week for violin lessons, now I have nothing to show for it. Why?’
“It was very late as I left. I couldn’t believe my eyes, there was one Ukrainian waiting when I left the gravesite, and he was selling one thing: a violin. I burst out laughing. He wanted $15 for it. I bought it and brought it back to Israel.
“All of the sudden, the melodies were flowing. I started playing with my friend Eliyahu Reiter doing small concerts after Shabbat. It was a tremendous outpouring of music. We made a tape, and eventually we formed the band Simply Tsfat.”
Lipshutz’s band has become a favorite in Israel and the US, where they tour regularly, recording a number of albums. The ensemble plays traditional Jewish melodies, bluegrass-infused folk, rock and original numbers combining these genres. In addition to conventional concerts in front of secular and religious audiences, Simply Tsfat has performed for inmates in federal penitentiaries, for senior citizens and congregants of Conservative synagogues.
Looking back on his exile from music, Lipshutz comments, “Even though I had been keeping the Sabbath and performing the commandments for years, I didn’t really do teshuva [return to Judaism] until I got that violin.”
“With classical music, I played it to learn the technique, but it was never a spiritual thing for me, and I never had a spiritual experience. When I started playing music again in Safed, I was able to take what I had and gave it over to God.”
Similar to poet November and graffiti artist Souza, Lipshutz found that one of the most powerful ways to connect spiritually was through his creative gifts.
These creative and observant Jews, like many others, discovered that the area in their lives that appeared initially to be their greatest obstacle to spiritual growth actually served as one of the most direct ways to connect to the Creator and express their faith. In the end, instead of creating distance in their relationship with God, creativity actually brought these artists closer and helped them show others the beauty of a committed life.