Paintings of a long-ago land

In Greenfield’s exhibition, we sense the euphoria of a man enraptured with the sights, sounds and sensations of his new home in Israel.

yitzhak greenfield painting_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
yitzhak greenfield painting_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige was a professional baseball player who pitched in both the “Negro” and major American baseball leagues. A legend for both his skill as a pitcher and longevity as an athlete, Paige played in his last professional baseball game just two weeks shy of his 60th birthday.
Asked on that occasion if he had any tips for staying young, Paige famously replied: “Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. Avoid running at all times.” And perhaps most importantly, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
A very youthful Yitzhak Greenfield is looking back, however, as he celebrates not only his 79th birthday but also the 60th anniversary of his arrival in Israel.
This internationally acclaimed Israeli artist – famous for his love-struck paintings of Jerusalem, kabbalistic explorations of Hebrew letters and symbolic representations of the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel – is looking back at some of his earliest work.
In his current exhibition of paintings, “Kibbutz 1950- 1960,” we can see the euphoria of a very young man enraptured with the sights, sounds and sensations of his new home in the fledgling State of Israel. Looking at Greenfield now, we can still see much of that enraptured young man in his alert, joyful eyes, his broad smile, and his frequent boisterous laugh.
As he stands amidst the paintings on display at the Minotaure Gallery in Tel Aviv – all made during his first decade in Israel – he explains how he became an artist.
“I was born in Brooklyn. I grew up in the Brownsville-East New York area and went to Thomas Jefferson High School. As a child, my brothers and I, and my cousins, used to get together and we would draw. All of us. We would draw and draw and draw for hours. We would make figures, we’d make extraordinary maps.
“Some of my cousins became cartoonists, and eventually became involved with publishing. All of my siblings continued painting to a certain extent.
“One brother, my twin brother, painted all his life, but never had a show. My older brother painted, my sister painted. I decided, at the age of 13 or 14, that I needed more professional training. So I took the bus to the East Side, to the Educational Alliance Art School, and at the age of 14 I became an art student there.”
Greenfield continued to study at the school until he left the US for Israel.
IT WAS at Thomas Jefferson High School, however, that Greenfield embarked on the process of becoming Israeli.
“One day, someone came over to me and invited me to join the Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement. I went over to visit and felt at home immediately. Because it was a combination of Zionism, intellectual endeavor and Yiddishkeit. To me, this combination was wonderful.”
To a boy still suffering from the recent death of his father, the group also offered a sense of family and of belonging.
“Of course, there was the warmth of the group,” Greenfield says. “It was a peer group. The people in my group – those who remained in the kibbutz and those who left the kibbutz – we still function as a kind of additional family to this very day.”
And for a young American Jew hearing about the horrors of the Holocaust during the postwar years, Zionism exerted an irresistible pull.
“My allegiances moved to a very outspoken identification with the Jewish people, and with its future, which was Israel. My allegiances moved from identification with the American ideals of success to wanting to come to Israel and live on a kibbutz and build the country.
“My grandfather served in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. He was drafted, along with his wagon and horses. He probably transported munitions to the front. And he survived that and died of the flu during the big epidemic of 1919.
“My grandmother was left with seven children, so she decided to sell their home in the village and they moved to Vienna. And they lived in Vienna for maybe five years. They sent one daughter to New York, to earn money. She slaved for five years and brought the family over to New York in the 1920s. She brought the whole family, except for one son who had a hernia, and was not accepted at Ellis Island. He returned to Galicia, married there, had six children, and then disappeared during the Holocaust.
“Look,” Greenfield says, “we can’t forget this, but we are in a certain way the sons and daughters of the Jews of Eastern Europe who left in time and weren’t devoured by the Holocaust. We were lucky. But I felt it deeply from a very early age.”
So when his group decided, after a couple of years, to make aliya, Greenfield had little trouble deciding to go with them. Leaving behind a scholarship to Brooklyn College and a family unhappy with his decision, the young artist set sail on a boat called The Liberty several weeks prior to his 19th birthday.
“It stopped at Barcelona, Majorca, Tangiers and Turkey before unloading us at Haifa. It was a wonderful trip,” he recalls. The group was sent first to Kibbutz Daliya for training, which entailed half a day of work, and half a day studying Hebrew.
While some people “hit the ground running” when they land in Israel, Greenfield hit it painting.
“I continued painting from the very first moment I arrived. When I came to Kibbutz Daliya, I announced to the kibbutz that I was a painter and that I wanted to have a studio. Now, they could have said, ‘You’re crazy!’ and ‘What are you bothering us for?’ After all, I was just a kid. But they said, ‘Okay, we will give you a studio.’
“So they gave me a little shed, which had no roof and no floor. But it was a studio, my studio,” he recalls, laughing.
AFTER HALF a year at Kibbutz Daliya, the group was moved to their permanent home at Kibbutz Galon in the northern Negev. Greenfield performed a full range of kibbutz tasks, including frequent guard duty, in addition to painting. The artist found himself in a painter’s paradise, set amidst spectacularly beautiful landscapes and peopled with everyone from new immigrants in transit camps to Beduin on horseback – all as seen through his eager young eyes.
Greenfield especially enjoyed the tough, wiry kibbutzniks and learned to appreciate their no-nonsense way of getting thing done.
“They came to me and told me they were building a high school and needed an art teacher, and that they had decided I would be the art teacher. So I told them I was a painter, but not an art teacher, that I never studied to be an art teacher.
“So they said: ‘We’ll give you a one-month vacation. You can travel around the country and visit the best art teachers in Israel. And then we’ll give you enough money to buy six books on how to become an art teacher. You will read the books, and you will visit whoever has to be visited, and you’ll be ready.’
“Well, I took it! I did it. And with that ‘official’ training, I not only taught at the kibbutz high school, but also later for six years at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem,” Greenfield says, laughing loudly. “But that was the kibbutz mentality in those days. They would present you with a task, and you would do it.”
It was during this period that Greenfield met and – a mere three months later – married Zipporah Sibahi, the daughter of a Yemenite rabbi in Rishon Lezion. She would serve as his muse and inspiration for much of his figurative and symbolic painting.
Greenfield and his growing family moved on to Kibbutz Ein Hashofet in 1961, remaining there for four years before settling finally in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem. It was in Jerusalem that Greenfield would truly expand and diversify his oeuvre into more abstract approaches with different kinds of mixed media, especially printmaking and collage.
Greenfield’s fascination with printmaking began in art school, where he discovered the work of European expressionists like Edvard Munch, as well as the ukiyo-e prints of Japan. He had begun to experiment with the genre while at Kibbutz Galon, using orange boxes to make woodblocks and a spoon in the absence of a press.
Later, a series of woodblocks depicting Yemenite women won Greenfield an award, a scholarship for study in Europe and his first exhibition there.
Today, Greenfield has more than 50 exhibitions under his belt – in Israel, the US, Canada and throughout Europe. His latest work, a group of large conceptual prints made from photographs, is on display at another gallery less than two blocks away from this exhibition.
“This exhibition is about the discovery of Eretz Yisrael through the eyes of a new immigrant, who came to this country when he was 19 years old,” he says. “There’s a story behind every one of these paintings. I knew most of the people personally, and as for the landscapes, I lived in most of the landscapes. I walked there, I drew there, I painted there.”
Depicting Yemenites, Beduin, farmers and street children, Greenfield’s paintings are often anthropological, without being academic. Also, they are neither “deadpan” nor the least bit voyeuristic. They show a 19-yearold boy’s excitement of discovery, an obsessive interest in everything, along with a sense of how happy and lucky he is to be here.
“I still feel privileged to have been here in 1951,” he says, “when everything was like the Wild West. It was wide open.”
In addition to painting, Greenfield has taught art at the Hebrew University, the Israel Museum, and in special programs with the IDF. Does he believe that talent can be taught?
“Talent cannot be taught, but talent – or a modicum of talent – can be discovered by the teacher,” he says. “If someone has the motivation to present himself, to endanger himself by presenting himself to an art teacher and saying, ‘I would like to draw, can you teach me?’ I can teach him how to draw.
“Some people will be quick and nimble in developing these skills, others might be very painfully slow. But they all can achieve something. Sometimes the slow ones are better than the quick and nimble ones. In art, it’s not the nimble that takes the flag. Sometimes it’s the concentration and sincerity and the purity of motivation that makes the real achievement.” So it’s the tortoise, not the hare? “It’s the spiritual tortoise, not the nimble hare,” Greenfield says, with gleeful laughter.
Is there any kind of art that this lifelong artist does not like?
Greenfield considers the question a moment and replies: “I don’t like stylish art, art which is done because it’s what is being done now. Art that’s done because the critics say it’s right for this time, it’s just right for us now. Many of those artists are simply getting onto a bandwagon. Instead of going through a creative process, they’re just fast-tracking their way into something that has already been done.
“I like art which I feel is motivated by the inner needs of the painter, the needs, the pain, the contradictions, the paradoxes of his life. I like that kind of art. That kind of art can be wonderful. And I prefer that to technically perfect pieces done by art technocrats who are very smart and quick.
“In other words, I would prefer the works of Edvard Munch to those of Delacroix.” As usual, his remarks conclude with laughter.
“Kibbutz 1950-1960” is showing until March 15 at the Minotaure Gallery, Rehov Ben-Yehuda 100, Tel Aviv. For further details, visit or call (03) 522-8424.