The Unexpected Chagall
I was never a Marc Chagall fan. His work always seemed to be, at best, juvenile. I considered myself a hardcore realist. The Great Depression photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, with their blunt portrayal of human suffering, said more to me than the airy-fairy world concocted by Chagall.
I categorized the artist as an escapist. No more, no less. A man on the run from his roots, yet still bound by them in a way he himself could not understand. Art, I knew, had its uses.
Chagall was far from my mind that winter morning when I stepped inside the synagogue I attend, the Yemenite HaGoral on tiny Abulafia Street, near Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehudah shuk. It was still dark outside; the lobby, half lit. On the wall before me was a photograph of Mori Haim Caesar, one of the Yemenite community’s sages, dressed in traditional garments. Near the photograph of Mori Caesar was something new—a reproduction of a painting of the synagogue interior.
“Chagall,” said a man who comes in behind me and sees me peering at it.
“When did he do it?”
“He was here in 1931.”
“In this building?”
I approached it. it looked like the interior of the synagogue, all right. Marc Chagall. What do you know? It did not fit with the images I have of Chagall’s work. It was too real, bereft of fantasy. Although painted 85 years ago, the present lay there in the painting; the feeling for what transpires here. How did it happen? How did he arrive in this unknown synagogue lost in a maze of Jerusalem’s back alleys?
I turned to the photograph of Mori Caesar. He peered back at me but gave no clue about the painting or its creator. I wondered, suddenly, if my evaluation of Chagall was all wrong—that the dreamer was simply an elaborate mask for a man whose awareness of life was so sharp, so blinding, he could not bear to bring it into the open.
His emergence as an artist itself is an enigma. How does a child raised in a Hasidic family in what was then Russia in the 1890’s, with no media exposure and no family connection to art, how does such a child evolve into an artist? And not merely a dabbler, but one who understands that that is his essence and decides at all costs to develop it.
Back then, the Hasidic world was largely devoid of anything that resembled Western art. But what amazed me even more than Chagall’s choice was his family’s acceptance of it. Is it possible there were no fights, no wailing, no noxious repercussions when the young Chagall’s sketchbook became the love of his life?
I went to Mea Shearim, one of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox enclaves, and tried to imagine a Hasidic boy with an oversized yarmulke and payes telling his father: “Tatte, I am not going to yeshiva like my brothers, my cousins and my uncles. I am going to be an artist. Yes, I am going to paint pictures!”
Perhaps his family understood that repressing Chagall might bring irreversible damage. Perhaps they had some inkling of his genius. Or perhaps they were simply stunned by the unreality of it all. They gave him free rein and in doing so opened the door for his departure. Chagall left Orthodoxy for France, for America and for imagery that brought him international recognition. Yet in all of this, one senses a relentless, perpetual search for the roots he had left behind.
In 1931, he sailed for the Holy Land. Chagall had been commissioned by Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard to make a book of prints illustrating the Bible. He had also been invited by the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, to join in the founding of the city’s art museum. It was spring when he arrived. He spent a few months searching for images to draw, and was inspired to paint interiors of synagogues in Jerusalem and Safed.
I try to imagine him wandering around the alleyways I myself have traveled so often. What was it that led him to HaGoral? An odd choice of twists and turns? Or something more? The name of the synagogue is apt. Hagoral means, in Hebrew, the lottery, or the destiny. A hundred years ago, the synagogue was vacant. Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Yemenite Jews were on the lookout for a place of worship. All pounced at once on the building. What to do? They held a lottery—a roll of the dice and the synagogue fell into the hands of the Yemenites.
But the name of the synagogue is not a generalized one—hagoral means a specific destiny, possibly including the destiny of a painter named Marc Chagall. Again, I ask, how did he find it? Unmarked as it is, hidden on the second floor. I wonder if it was empty when he climbed the steps, or were there others, like Mori Caesar within, sitting cross-legged on the carpets, lost in study.
Chagall could have created a classic fantasy. From the beginning, Jerusalem has generated works of art portraying fantastic images of holiness. But possibly the synagogue simply absorbed him. Within these walls was a reflection of the 2,000 years that the Yemenite people had cherished the letter of the law, untouched by the cultures of Europe and America—an unmitigated love that passed from generation to generation.
Years later, Chagall would write in his autobiography that the core of his paintings expressed a single concept: love. Standing in that room, he might have felt that the synagogue said enough; that there was no room here for impossible visions. In the moments that he sketched the synagogue, he might have seen the paradox of the Jewish people: Yemen and Russia, two opposing worlds, located on opposite sides of the planet, joined by a single thread. Chagall began sketching with pencil, and then painted the synagogue in oil. Ultimately, the painting would bind itself to his heart; after its sale in 1945 to art collector Max Cottin, Chagall would try many times to regain possession of it.
The painting went on exhibit in the Gallery of Jewish Art in New York in the spring of 1945. The work is signed by the artist and dated: “Jerusalem, 1931.” Possibly it never would have been put up for sale, but the death of his wife, Bella, and the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust caused him to act in ways he later regretted. A packet of letters, correspondence between Chagall and Cottin during the 1960’s and 1970’s, contains repeated requests from Chagall to buy back his painting, or exchange it for another. But Cottin refused and the painting remained with the Cottin family until its sale in New York at Sotheby’s on December 14, 2011, for $872,500.
Sometimes, when I’m alone in the synagogue, I look at the reproduction of Chagall’s work and it strikes me anew each time how ordered it is, not only the balanced colors and shapes, but the inner balance that comes, perhaps, from the 500-year-old Torah scroll that rests in the Ark Chagall painted. Five hundred years of Jewish life, testifying to the eternity that Chagall sought.
When Chagall passed away in France in 1985, there was no one in his family to say Kaddish. He would have been buried without rites. However, a stranger, a Jew who knew the prayer, said Kaddish for the celebrated artist. And sometimes, when I look at his painting, I think, perhaps, it was Mori Haim Caesar who sent such a man to pray for him.