Finding Hope Against Hope

Samuel Bak’s new exhibit is a stunning collection of oil paintings in which the letters “H.O.P.E.” appear in various states of prominence and entirety, sometimes hidden amid bits and pieces of broken bottles and pottery, sometimes clearly visible. Bak’s complex, vibrant paintings address, in his words, “the problem we all share in searching for Hope when it is so difficult to find.” 

“Hope — how did I get there?” the child prodigy and Holocaust survivor rhetorically asked in his preface to the show’s catalog. If there are pictures worth a thousand words, he reasoned, “aren’t there words worth thousands of pictures?”

The show at the Pucker Gallery on Boston’s Newbury Street is as rich in allegory and metaphor as it is in color and texture. Huge fruit, mostly pears, appear in bewildering forms and situations. They are made of metal, stone and wood. They are blue, orange and red. They borrow their identity from cups and vases, shifting from the familiar to the unfamiliar. And yet, each remains unmistakably identifiable.

Bak first painted pears when he was preparing for a big show in Paris during the 1960’s. “I suddenly realized that the pear can be used for all kinds of things that bring different thoughts with them,” he said. For example, the pear brings to mind the female form. It also, according to Bak, can symbolize the limitation of human knowledge. “No one really knows what was the fruit of knowledge,” chuckled Bak, who admitted that, as a child, he disliked apples and that the pear was his favorite fruit.


“I try to extract whatever I can from a single object,” he said, revealing that returning again and again to the same subject allows him to go deeper into a theme, like a composer whose improvisations create new works based on a single musical theme, such as Bach’s “30 Goldberg Variations.” “My imagination is not surreal; it is grounded in reality,” he added. 

An only child, Bak was born in 1933 to an educated, cultured middle-class family in Vilna. By age three, he was a recognized child prodigy painter. “At that age, I wanted to be a fireman or to sell candy, but little by little I got used to it,” he noted, adding he remembers loving painting and making his parents proud.

At seven years old, on the day after his first day of school, Bak and his family were deported to the Vilna Ghetto. At the age of nine, he had his first exhibition, inside the ghetto. When the Russians liberated Vilna, he and his mother were among its two hundred survivors from a pre-war community of between 70 and 80 thousand. They spent from 1945 until 1948 in German displaced person camps, immigrating to Israel in 1948. His second day of school was in Israel, at age 15. “That’s how it was. My times were not normal when I was young,” Bak said, shrugging.

He lived and worked in Tel Aviv, Paris, Rome and Lausanne, before settling in Weston in 1993. The Pucker Gallery had represented him since 1967, when an Israeli art dealer showed Bernie Pucker some of Bak’s work. “It is a kind of marriage,” Bak said, pointing out that such long relationships between artist and gallery are extremely rare.


Under the Arches

Bak is keenly aware of the role the Holocaust has played in his choices of subjects and themes. His imagery reveals survival and suffering, reconstruction and destruction, hope and despair. His paintings are full of bits and pieces of broken objects that have been put back together in sometimes disturbing fashion. His choice of the theme “bits and pieces” is deliberate.

“After the Holocaust, despite the fact that each one of them was haunted by ghosts, the survivors put up an appearance of a certain normalcy, of something that was almost reconstructed but that was intrinsically broken inside,” Bak began.

He continued, “This became the very big subject of my paintings. It means to describe the reality of bringing up an old memory of something that cannot be completely repaired. My paintings are made out of bits and pieces, like the lives of these people.”

Although Bak has been compared to Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author, he identifies more with writers like Primo Levi, the Italian survivor who wrote, “If This Is A Man” and “If Not Now, When”?

“For me, the Holocaust was more of a universal kind of experience. It was a laboratory of human behaviors that showed the extremes of the destructive powers of humans harming each other…For Elie, it is a more Jewish specific drama,” Bak explained, adding, “We speak of the human condition in very different terms. I speak of the terrible with a greater degree of irony and humor. He goes at it more directly.”

Besides, noted Bak, he speaks in images and Wiesel speaks in words. “I was told, ‘You are the Elie Wiesel of painting,’ but there is no such thing.”

Giving Thanks for Shmita

As we gather around our Thanksgiving tables with loved ones and favorite dishes, our thoughts turn to many things for which we are grateful. Despite recent outbursts of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments, we are thankful that America remains a safe haven for Jews. Despite an unsteady economy and a widening of the gap between the haves and have-nots, we acknowledge that we have a roof over our heads and enough to eat. Although friends and family may be scattered all over the globe, we appreciate that we have the means and desire to come together as a community.

Thanksgiving 5775 is a “Shmita” year, the sabbatical year of a seven-year cycle mandated by the Torah, and we should also take a moment to be thankful for it.

Shmita (literally “release”) is the mitzvah that commands us to let the land rest and to forgive all debts to fellow Jews every seven years. Any fruit which grows of its own accord is deemed ownerless and may be picked by anyone. After six years of farming, our ancestors were called upon to release control over all they owned and owed.

In essence, Shmita teaches us about social justice and sustainability, about how we can help maintain economic, environmental and social balance in the world. It is a commandment of action and commitment. Our gratitude to God expresses itself in deeds. We feed others, whether they are family members or strangers. We revere the land, granting it a year of rest and replenishment. We acknowledge that God sustains living creatures with lovingkindness by extending the same to the earth that sustains us.

Shmita is also a commandment that we slow down, that we stop and rest and examine our own behaviors and beliefs to see what we want to change. Shmita implies that our thankfulness to God should not remain in the realm of emotions, thoughts or even speech, but should also move us to action. It reminds us of our connectedness to God, to each other and to the land.

And so, this year when we say our brachot giving thanks to God before enjoying our holiday meal, let us recognize that Thanksgiving 5775 is special by including an additional prayer for the gift of Shmita.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on November 20, 2014.

Lest We Forget: Remembering Kristallnacht

November 9, 1938, started as just another day for Jews in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. After breakfast, fathers went to work, children went to school and mothers kissed their loved ones goodbye. They returned home for a family dinner, went to bed and expected the next day to be identical.

That night, Nazi storm troopers, aided by citizen rioters, burned 267 synagogues, vandalized 7,500 Jewish businesses, murdered 91 Jews and incarcerated 30,000 Jewish men, transferring them to newly built concentrations camps. Overnight, the Holocaust had officially begun.

Kristallnacht — the night of broken glass — marked an important turning point in Hitler’s anti-Semitic policy. Historians uniformly point out that the passivity with which German citizens accepted this violence signaled to the Nazi regime that the public was prepared for their more radical measures aimed at removing Jews entirely from German economic and social life. The Nazis were organized, they were well funded and they were united behind a single mission.

After this summer’s Operation Protective Edge, the trend of declining global anti-Semitism sharply reversed. Daily reports of vandalism, violence and intimidation of Jews all over the world has become the new normal. Classicanti-Jewish tropes have resurfaced, masquerading as critiques of Israel’s political policies and support for Palestinian human rights.

Closer to home, Students for Justice in Palestine, a well-organized group that advocates aggressive and intimidating anti-Israel tactics, is spreading its presence on college campuses throughout the U.S. at an alarming rate. Since June 2014, SJP has formed 28 new chapters, according to the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), bringing the nationwide total to 157.

SJP is sponsored by American Muslims for Palestine, a group that promotes and defends posting mock eviction notices on Jewish students’ dorm rooms as “constitutionally guaranteed political speech.”

Kristallnacht was a unique and extreme event that caught its victims completely off guard. Despite mounting evidence, we must remain calm and optimistic, but we must also be alert and vigilant. We must challenge those who claim their blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions are simply robust exchanges of ideas. Most importantly, we must not be afraid to act. For, in the words of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” It is also dangerous.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on November 6, 2014.

Between Avraham and Ibrahim: Interview with “In Between” author Ibrahim Miari

Ibrahim Miari

Ibrahim Miari’s one-man show, “In Between” is a 5-course dramatic feast. It starts with the hypnotic pageantry of Miari’s Sufi dervish dancing and ends with his intercultural marriage to Sarah Goldberg, a Jewish Buddhist. In between, there is a larger-than-life puppet, hypnotic dumbek drumming, and lightening speed changes of character, place, time and emotion.

The play is also a petri dish for every conceivable political, religious and intercultural discussion on the subject of Israel and the Middle East. Miari grew up in Acco, Israel, the son of an Israeli Jewish mother and Palestinian Muslim father. His spellbinding autobiographical story, told with piercing insight and candor, repeatedly raises our awareness by putting us in the unfamiliar shoes of an Israeli who carries a passport stamped “Arab.”

As an Arab Israeli, Miari explains to his audience, he’s not Israeli enough because he’s a Muslim through his father (Islam is patrilineal); he’s not Arab enough because he’s a Jew through his mother; and he’s not Palestinian enough because he doesn’t live on the West Bank.

“I am a 1948 Arab,” his character declares, referring to Arabs who settled in Israel after the War of Independence. “I’m a demographic problem. I’m an inside Arab- an Israeli citizen. I am a ticking bomb-the ultimate security risk.”

Miari is also Ishmael grafted onto Isaac. Born Avraham, at 7 he attended a Jewish school and won the costume contest for Purim, his (and his mother’s) favorite Jewish holiday. By age 8, he was Ibrahim, enrolled at an Arabic school where Israeli Independence Day was celebrated as Nakba Day, the “Day of the Catastrophe”. He identified with everyone and with no one; he was a community of one.

Before moving to the United States in 2005, Miari was a member of the Acco Theatre Center Ensemble for nearly 12 years, acting and dancing in ensemble based projects for both young and adult audiences throughout Israel, Europe and the United States. He also performed solo shows in Hebrew, Arabic and English. An accomplished Sufi dancer and sacred dances instructor, he has directed the drama program at several peace camps in Canada and US with high school age Israeli and Palestinian youth.

In fact, it was while running such a program at a Canadian peace camp for young Israelis and Palestinians that he met his wife Sarah. Their subsequent search for a clergy to marry them gave Miari terrific material. He mesmerizes the audience with skill and satire as his Bread-and-Puppet sized silk cloud of a puppet transforms from imam to rabbi to Buddhist priest, each declining the young couple’s request to officiate their ceremony for ironically similar reasons.

Shelley A. Sackett with Ibrahim Miari at Arsenal Center for the Art’s NewRep Black Box Theater.

Reached at home by phone, Miari articulated why he has not published his play. “It is still a work in progress,” he said of the work that began as his MFA thesis project while attending Boston University’s Theater Education program. “(Not publishing) it allows me to change it as I grow as an artist and a performer. I improvise as I see fit in the moment, according to the energy in the room and current events.” By example, he recalled performing at MIT shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing last year. When his character likened being an “inside Arab” in today’s world to a “ticking bomb”, Miari sensed how the weight and immediacy of that line moved the audience. He paused along with them, incorporating that instant into that performance.

“All of a sudden, I took them to my story and I brought them back to reality. I am in the show and I am in the moment. This play is so personal to me and to my experience that no one else but me could perform it.”

Although his play is autobiographical, he had to invent the way his parents met because his mother wouldn’t tell him the true story. “After watching the DVD (“In Between” has yet to be staged in Israel), my mother said ‘You see? That’s why I didn’t tell you!’” Miari laughed. She remains silent on the subject to this day, although she is as supportive and understanding of her son in real life as she is portrayed in the play.

Miari prefers not to talk about politics (“My opinion about what is happening in Palestine is expressed in my work”), but he offers that the road to a peaceful resolution in Israel is as complicated as it is simple. “It is simple because people need to acknowledge that the violence, occupation and suffering needs to stop, and then they need to have the intention to go towards a solution. It is complicated because most people are unwilling to talk and because there is a lot of ignorance on both sides.”

On a happier note, he pondered what his daughter might take away from “In Between.” “I hope she would see that we’re all one, that this world is so much more than religion and politics. That you should live your life the way it suits you and not try to accommodate anyone.”

While Ibrahim Miari’s story and background may be unique, he echoes what every parent of every nationality and every religion says about every one of his children. “I just want her to be happy.”

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