Marble marvels

The story of the artist who painted Benjamin Netanyahu on stone, and how his grandson delivered the artwork to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Morris Zwagil's artwork (photo credit: Courtesy)
Morris Zwagil's artwork
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On May 22, the eve of Shabbat and Shavuot, I hailed a Jerusalem cab and announced to the cab driver, “Prime Minister’s Office, please, on 3 Kaplan Street.”
As I did not appear to be a diplomat or VIP, the cab driver wondered why I requested to be taken to the Prime Minister’s Office. While sitting in the backseat, gripping my prized possession for dear life, I excitedly explained to the cab driver that I had volunteered to deliver a special item to the prime minister.
But really, I was fulfilling my grandfather’s dream. A huge fan of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, my grandfather had recently painted a portrait of the prime minister. Sadly, he had resigned himself to the reality that his painting would never reach its intended destination.
Morris Zwagil’s painting of Netanyahu was certainly not the beginning of his journey to the pinnacles of art.
My endearing 89-year-old grandfather, or Zayde as I affectionately call him, is a soul artist. He is one of the few artists in the world today who paints Judaica on marble.
He is still producing artwork with the same vigor and enthusiasm as when he first pursued his career in art as a youngster in Baltimore in the 1940s.
Zayde’s artistic prowess did not emerge from a serene upbringing. He experienced turbulent times in his childhood. When he was 10 years old, his father abruptly skipped town and abandoned the family, leaving my great-grandmother with the enormous task of raising three young children alone. My grandfather understandably grew up very poor and had to rely on government assistance to survive. Thankfully, he discovered early on that he had a unique skill set which transformed his life.
“When I paint, I have no stress or worries,” he said of his artwork’s therapeutic effects.
In junior high school, at 14, he made many pencil drawings because, as he confided in me, “we were too poor to buy paint.”
A perceptive art teacher admired my grandfather’s drawings and submitted them to the Maryland Institute of Art, where he was granted a year’s scholarship. There, he honed his skills and learned how to create perspective paintings and gained valuable instruction in art layout.
Five years after his education at the institute, my grandfather, in 1945, drew a historic picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin meeting at the infamous Yalta Conference, which received rave reviews.
As time progressed, my grandfather married a beautiful woman, Rosalie, and had four children. Despite the time constraints of raising a family, Zayde’s penchant for artwork was never too far away in the distance.
Eventually, his artwork advanced into watercolors, oil painting and acrylics. He first became introduced to marble when a friend who was in the marble business had some discarded marble. A visionary, my grandfather foresaw that he could experiment with the discarded marble to create acrylic art which ultimately became his signature design. It would not be long before he became a regular visitor to his friend’s marble store.
However, as my grandfather enlightened me, “it is always good for an artist to have a subject.” Zwagil’s subject is the portrayal of his own love affair with Jewish culture through his marble pieces.
When did he first discover that his calling in life was to paint Jewish symbols? He said that the idea originated on one occasion when he observed a yeshiva bochur walking down the street, and he instantly admired his features, especially the bochur’s hat. He recalls proclaiming at the time: “This is a subject that I could paint!” However, this affinity for painting Judaica on marble did not spontaneously emerge out of thin air. The seeds were planted early on when my grandfather became enchanted by his own grandfather’s devotion to prayer. As a young lad in the 1930s, Zayde attended shul with his devout grandfather, who prayed three times a day and served the Baltimore Jewish community as a shohet (ritual slaughterer).
“I [was] thrilled to go to shul with him,” my Zayde glowingly says of his grandfather.
During those shul experiences with his grandfather, my grandfather would become frustrated that he did not know how to read Hebrew. His grandfather, a man of great wisdom and tranquility, gently comforted his grandson by informing him in Yiddish that God understands all languages, and he should not be afraid to pray in English. His grandfather understood that Yiddishkeit is accessible to all Jews.
My grandfather has tried to emulate his grandfather’s guiding principle by sharing his own passion for Yiddishkeit with the rest of the Jewish people through his art.
Zayde also credits his wife for playing a pivotal role in influencing his zeal for Judaica artwork. Rosalie, who held a special place in her heart for Jewish music and culture, would encourage Zayde to paint a marble piece as a gift for a bar-mitzva boy or bat-mitzva girl. Before he could blink, my grandfather’s marble pieces were prominently featured in the homes of his neighbors and friends.
An encounter with the renowned Israeli artist Ami Goldfarb encouraged my grandfather to sell his art to the local public.
Goldfarb, who appreciated my grandfather’s artwork much like that 1940s art teacher, introduced my grandfather to various art shows. Soon thereafter, my grandfather became a fixture at Jewish festivals, JCC events and synagogue gatherings throughout the State of Maryland, where he made many sales. I remember as a kid helping my grandfather carry heavy crates of marble pieces to these art shows.
OVER THE years, my grandfather has painted thousands of marble pieces, including exquisite portraits of rabbis, such as the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. He has painted Jewish women lighting Shabbat candles and Jewish men dancing at weddings.
Above all, paintings of Israel – especially the Western Wall – have become a dominant feature of his artwork.
“I have done so many different variations of the Western Wall I cannot even count,” my grandfather told me.
One of his most treasured pieces is a painting of his late wife praying at the Kotel, and alongside her is another woman wearing boots.
Even though he has lived his entire life in the United States, Israel will always be his eternal home. He fell in love with Israel after an emotional trip to the Holy Land with his wife in the 1970s.
“I could have lived in Israel forever,” my grandfather revealed. However, fate obviously determined otherwise. Nonetheless, no geographical barrier will prevent him from picking up his paint brush to express his devotion to the State of Israel and its prime minister.
In March, when Netanyahu addressed the US Congress in a highly controversial speech over the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program, my grandfather was so enthralled that he found a picture of the prime minister in a magazine and painted him on marble.
When I asked my grandfather why he specifically chose to paint Netanyahu, he responded emphatically, “Because I love the man! He speaks for the preservation of the Jewish race.”
But, how would my grandfather deliver the painting of the prime minister to the prime minister? This is where I came to the rescue.
It just so happened that I was traveling to Jerusalem for the Shavuot holiday to visit friends from Baltimore who had made aliya. In April, I emailed the Prime Minister’s Office and requested a meeting with the prime minister so I could deliver to him my grandfather’s portrait of him. I did not receive a response, so I was fully expecting that I would be departing for Israel without Netanyahu on marble.
Miraculously, one day before I was about to leave for Israel, I received a gracious email from the Prime Minister’s Office stating that, while the prime minister was not available to meet with me, I could leave the marble piece at the front desk of the Prime Minister’s Office.
With little time before I was to leave for JFK airport, I picked up the marble piece from my grandfather, scrambling to carefully package and pack it inside my clothing in order to avoid breakage during the flight, which was a real concern.
At the airport, the marble piece was almost confiscated by a suspicious El Al security agent, who inquired why an object was sticking out of my sweatpants. Fortunately, that potential disaster was averted as I politely explained to the agent that it was a painting from my grandfather.
Finally, even after I managed to arrive in Israel with Netanyahu on marble intact, I still worried that the Prime Minister’s Office might not accept the marble piece for security reasons, despite the email stating otherwise.
AFTER I was dropped off at the Prime Minister’s Office, security agents for the prime minister instantly swarmed around me with their guns drawn. Apparently, the security personnel at the front desk had not received the email stating that I would be permitted to deliver the marble piece to the prime minister.
As confidently as I could possibly be, I stated to the officers in broken Hebrew and then in English that I was an American and was delivering a painting of Netanyahu made by my grandfather, hoping that their concerns would be allayed.
Understandably, they were still puzzled by my awkward presence and requested to inspect my passport, which I did not have with me. They were not convinced that I was the real deal, even after I showed them the email I had received from the Prime Minister’s Office. All I had with me at the time was my Maryland driver’s license, which I readily presented to them, hoping they would not reject it.
They eventually determined that I was not a threat to the prime minister. However, the marble piece still needed to pass security. All I kept thinking to myself was that if by some remote chance this marble piece did not pass security, I might be spending Shavuot in an Israeli jail. The portrait of Netanyahu ultimately passed security and I was able to spend a wonderful Shavuot holiday with my friends.
Several weeks later, my grandfather received an official letter with a gold emblem from Netanyahu thanking him for “the impressive portrait on marble” which he painted.
Naturally, my grandfather framed the prime minister’s letter and added it to his collection of thank-you letters he had received from other heads of state. But the acknowledgment letter from Netanyahu unquestionably has the most meaning for my grandfather, since it came from the holy city of Jerusalem.
Mission accomplished.
The writer is an attorney and and pro-Israel advocate from Baltimore, Maryland.