Worth a thousand words

The scribal tradition’s modern makeover

Kalman Gavriel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Kalman Gavriel
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The sofer (Jewish scribe) has always been a rather abstract figure. It is perhaps the only role with such religious prestige that necessitates creativity and artistic talent. The sofer’s job is as a copyist and a calligrapher; writing Torah and mezuza scrolls, writing ketubot (marriage contracts) and decorative Jewish verses to adorn the home.
Becoming a sofer is no easy task; one must learn the thousands of intricate rules related to the formation of each individual letter, knowledge usually passed down through an apprenticeship. Different writing styles are passed down through both teachers and subcultures, namely Ashkenazi and Sephardi, meaning that those well-versed in scribal tradition will be able to recognize subtle stylistic differences. While the sofer may be shrouded in mystery, the penultimate law of Judaism’s 613 dictates is that, in fact, all Jewish males should write a Torah scroll in their lifetime.
There is one man, a trained scribe, who strays from the pack. Kalman Gavriel is atypical in two ways. First, he is demystifying the scribal tradition by educating anyone who is interested about the craft. Second, he is undoubtedly and unashamedly a calligrapher rather than a copyist. He has taken the craft far beyond ketubot and decorative verses; his creations are replete with riotous color and unusual shapes. Instead of decorating passages, he allows the verses to become their own decoration.
He transforms the first words uttered every morning by Orthodox Jews – the modeh ani prayer – into the figure of a child dancing across the parchment among watercolor trees and flowers. He shapes the prayer for lighting the Shabbat candles into the shape of candles, with burnt orange letters forming the flames.
Gavriel’s novel approach turning Hebrew letters into art is a serious step away from the more traditional work of his contemporaries. I chat with the man himself to share his story – one of religion, Zionism, creativity and sharing.
We talk while I sit in a cafe in central Tel Aviv, and Gavriel stands on a rooftop overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. I am surprised and pleased at how easily our conversation flows, despite the two very different Israeli “bubbles” we each reside in. He quickly draws me into his story and I soon realize that this is his mission: to share his knowledge of the letters with anyone who wants to learn, to stretch the boundaries of the scribal tradition by teaching others how to intertwine their creativity with this religious concept.
With hanging tzitziot (knotted ritual strings worn by observant male Jews) and a red, tangled beard, it is difficult to imagine him in any other place than the ancient walls of Jerusalem. His story, however, begins in Minnesota, where he grew up the youngest of four children. When his parents chose a religious Jewish school for their children, due to convenience, it proved to have a deep effect on their family life. Gavriel’s father converted to Judaism while his son was in middle school and the family become more involved with the religious community.
Like many of his peers, Gavriel came to Israel at 18 to spend a year learning in yeshiva before college. During this year, his oldest brother became haredi. Although the brothers are “opposites by nature – he is much more mechanical, logical – he’s a Litvak and I’m a hassid,” Gavriel saw “a certain truth” in how his brother had gained a deeper understanding of Judaism, and was inspired to stay in yeshiva for a second year, and then a third.
The third year, Gavriel moved to a hesder yeshiva in Otniel, in the Hebron hills, which opened his eyes to the deeper concepts of the Torah.
“I’ve always been philosophical; I have analyzed everything since childhood. [In this yeshiva] the world was much more vibrant, it was experiential Judaism compared to the Judaism I was used to – the Judaism of the classroom.”
It was here that he first learned the art of the sofer, having been inspired by the talent and knowledge of a friend.
“He blew me away.”
Gavriel turned to a rabbi and mentor to teach him the laws pertaining to becoming a scribe.
“He was a charismatic and spiritual person who, actually, wasn’t very well trained. But he taught me the concepts of the letters and that the intention of a scribe is more important than his writing. After four months, my handwriting was nicer than his – the truth was, he wasn’t a great scribe!” Talented or not, this teacher had sparked a passion in Gavriel, who was determined to continue with the craft.
“Were you always interested in art and letters?” I ask.
After a few seconds thought, he recalls that he would doodle block Hebrew letters on his school notebook when he was younger.
The scribal tradition. (Marc Israel Sellem)The scribal tradition. (Marc Israel Sellem)
“There’s something about the letters that I love and have a personal connection to – the ways of constructing them… On a micro level they are beautifully formed and on a macro level they make beautiful pictures.”
Though Gavriel’s pieces are strikingly artistic, he has never formally studied art, but rather learned about his own style and the art world through people he has collaborated with over the years, such as the painters who add splashes of color and illustrations to his pieces.
“I’m kind of doing my own thing,” says Gavriel, in what I have come to understand as his typical understated, humble way of discussing himself. “I’m inspired by people who had the bravery to begin their own artistic forms, and lead people in them.”
We pause our conversation briefly, as Gavriel becomes distracted, “Sorry I was just watching some Arab kids jump over the roof. Wild.”
As well as creating custom-made pieces, Gavriel runs workshops to teach people about the art of the scribe. The workshops are open to anyone.
“I see myself as a facilitator and not a teacher. I give my students the materials they need to continue on their own.”
This is a brave venture. Opening up the teachings to whoever is interested, and focusing on the art form behind the tradition is novel.
“People ask me if I want to write a Torah. Of course I do, I definitely have a desire for it. But I feel my place is to be an in-between between the scribal tradition and a wider community, be they Jews or not. My role is to build a meaningful art form that stays true to a rich tradition but that has a contemporary influence, too.”
Gavriel begins his classes with teaching his students about the mechanics and definition of the letters.
“I encourage them to make a letter that is proper in their eyes, which gives a certain amount of individuality within the halachic framework.”
He teaches me about the letter heh – that it has a small letter yud incorporated into its form, that it can only be considered a heh if the yud begins at a certain point. He explains these complicated logistics simply, but manages to exude a contagious, quiet excitement. I feel as if I have been let in on a secret, and that the letters I see in the newspapers or on street signs every day have a depth that I had never considered.
(Photo by Marc Israel Sellem)(Photo by Marc Israel Sellem)
Gavriel’s students are strikingly varied – both Jewish and not, religious and secular. I ask him why he thinks this is.
“I think our generation is looking for meaning.
Think of yoga and mediation. I think that I, and my art, give people an outlet, to take something aesthetically beautiful with a powerful message. I encourage people to express themselves in a meaningful way.”
(Photo by Marc Israel Sellem.)(Photo by Marc Israel Sellem.)
It is important to him for people to interact with the Torah in an informal manner, via “motion meditation” or “art therapy.”
While the “Bezalel crew, hipsters and hippies” that make up the majority Gavriel’s students in Jerusalem are keen to embrace his modern approach, he is still very much entwined with the more traditional elements of being a sofer. In this world, people don’t always appreciate or understand his approach.
“I know there are definitely people who don’t understand what the hell I am talking about.”
He speaks of going to Mea She’arim to buy parchment as “some of the more intense moments of my career, but when I get to interact with people, even though we are worlds apart culturally, most people understand the meaning behind my approach.”
He proudly tells me that one of the descendants of talmudic scholar the Vilna Gaon looked through his pieces and pointed out a mistake.
“I was kind of excited. Like, ‘wow, you care enough to find my mistake.’”
In regard to straddling the haredi and secular communities, Gavriel’s approach is simply to follow his own beliefs and intuition.
“I always try to adjust myself and improve, to be inclusive and understand Judaism from my point of view, not someone else’s.”
This is best demonstrated by a particular piece of an Israeli soldier made of words. Bringing modern Zionism into this ancient craft is unconventional, to say the least. Initially, the text forming the soldier was the blessing for soldiers and has since been replaced with “Hatikva.” It was first created while Gavriel was serving in a paratroopers’ unit of the IDF. In his spare time, he would go to the synagogue and draw, using the bima (platform used for Torah reading) as a desk. The piece has proven controversial, with some observers claiming that it is inappropriate for the soldier to have a gun slung over his shoulder.
“People’s eyes tend to stray towards that piece right away. I think the root of that drawing is that some of what I was feeling as a religious person serving in the army comes through, a lot of people can relate or connect to it.”
To Gavriel, connections between artist and spectator are important. He tells me a story that he first heard from his former art teacher. She was at a trendy uptown art sale and arrived at a booth where she saw a landscape painting that made her cry. She wondered why she was crying, and moved onto the next picture created by the same artist, and cried again. Confused as to her own reaction, she went to talk to the artist, who was amazed and told her that when she was painting the pieces she was crying herself.
“I think that art is taking a moment of time and freezing it in a picture of emotions and concepts,” says Gavriel, “when a piece is real and authentic it speaks for itself.”
Israel needs people like Gavriel – people who are calmly inclusive, for whom it is completely natural to share their knowledge and spirituality with anyone interested in listening. He builds bridges through his art and creates powerful and beautiful pieces in the process – surely a good thing.