A picture is worth 1,000 letters

Leonardo Grinberg is fashioning the Hebrew letters into elaborate art

Leonardo Grinberg's art (photo credit: LEONARDO GRINBERG)
Leonardo Grinberg's art
(photo credit: LEONARDO GRINBERG)
I nspiration often lurks in the strangest of corners, and at times molds the most unexpected of people into artists.
Such is the peculiar story of an Argentinean-born cardiac surgeon who discovered his artistic talent only upon making aliya, and in so doing even made his own unique and delightful contribution to the world of art and Israeli culture at large.
Leonardo Grinberg, 64, was born and raised in a traditional Jewish home in Buenos Aires. Son of a pair of ardent Zionists, he dreamed of making aliya from an early age, and in 2003 finally turned that dream into reality by officially making Israel his home. After 30 years of working as a cardiologist and heart surgeon – both in his native Argentina and in Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva – he now works for the department of occupational injuries at the National Insurance Institute in Jerusalem.
At first glance, nothing in Grinberg’s life story would give away the project over which he has been diligently laboring in private for over a decade. Yet with no previous experience or professional training whatsoever, he produces a fascinating form of art essentially unique in the local scene: he fashions elaborate pictures using nothing but Hebrew characters as his faithful building blocks.
The grain of inspiration that gave birth to this idea, in itself quite out of the ordinary, was seeded in his mind upon watching a local television show dealing with Kabbala and Jewish mysticism.
The very first spark came when a rabbi explained on air that the form in which some Hebrew words are written in fact gives a visual embodiment of the very object they verbally represent.
The example he gave on the spot was the Hebrew word for tree – etz – which upon closer look can be recognized as the canopy of a treetop.
Settling that evening in front of his personal computer, his head swimming with ideas, a fixated Grinberg was soon rekindling a love for the Hebrew alphabet and discovering a hidden talent that lay dormant in him his entire life, apparently waiting for the opportune moment to surface. With the excitement of an artist who has picked up the brush for the very first time, he found himself spending hours in front of the screen, feverishly forming images of animals, faces, landscapes and anything under the sun – all with our beloved 22 characters.
Yet quickly his work was converging towards certain themes from which he drew particularly fruitful inspiration.
His passion and fascination with Judaism and Jewish mystical traditions, like the hassidic movement and kabbalistic thought, found expression through his newly discovered art form.
Intricate hanukkiot, Torah scrolls and the faces of Rebbe Nahman’s fabled sages all sprang to life from a series of lameds, nuns and gimmels, all rotated and juxtaposed at the artist’s behest. The lively images they conjure in the viewer’s mind are so masterfully fashioned that deliberate attention is required to even notice the tiny rascals hiding in plain sight amongst its lines and contours.
Surely enough, one may ask whether the Hebrew alphabet can claim any primacy in this respect; in other words, could the Latin alphabet not serve just as faithfully as the tool box for as elaborate an art as any produced by ours? Grinberg, it turns out, answers with an emphatic “no.”
“There is something special in the Hebrew alphabet. I have no rational explanation for it, but it feels as though the creative forces caged in each letter and their versatility allow for much more complex art,” he says.
In a way it is quite fitting that the civilization that has historically been strictly iconoclastic from its early beginnings – that is, averse to idols and graven images up to a downright prohibition appearing in the book of Exodus – should somehow arrive at an alphabet which can so naturally give birth to an art form of the sort Grinberg is today rejuvenating, one which elegantly transcends the biblical command. “It is extraordinary to see such an ancient language bloom on the computer screen… producing an art that our ancestors could hardly envision.”
Yet the reader may be surprised to discover that Grinberg chose, for various reasons, to keep his masterpieces private for over a decade, inviting only close relatives and friends to enjoy his work. Quite incredibly, his work never featured in any gallery or art exhibit. It was in fact only recently that he decided, with the strong encouragement of his inner circle, to promote his art and make it available for the open public.
So far Grinberg has posted some of his select work online, and is now hoping to reach out to as many curious minds as possible who might enjoy the fruits of his labor, which he regards as his own humble contribution to Israeli culture. “My art is in many ways my road to assimilation into Israeli society. It is my personal input into the common mix of Jewish culture and tradition – a real modern form of Judaica.”
Ironically, the golden-aged cardiologist has now taken up professional art lessons for the first time in his life, learning how to paint in the hopes of further expanding his horizons as an artist and perhaps utilize new skills in conjunction with the unique niche he cultivates.
“My art has always been heart surgery, for over three decades. It is funny how life has led me to an unexpected occupation at such a late age. But I am truly grateful that I discovered it at all.”
Grinberg cannot help but conclude with a tinge of Zionism. “All of my love for Judaism and for Eretz Yisrael go into my art. They are the dominant themes that direct most of my work. I can only hope it will bring pleasure to anyone who takes an honest interest in it.”
More of his work can be found by searching for Leonardo Grinberg on YouTube.