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Back to the Drawing Board

Shlomi Gil

Yaakov Kimchi’s Jewish art hangs on the walls of homes in Israel and around the world, and his illustrated seforim have become favorites among cheder boys and bochurim alike. Yet three decades ago he was an arch-secularist who’d never seen the inside of a beis medrash or a page of Gemara — until his creative mind knew it could no longer deny the stirrings of his estranged soul.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

No one in the upscale moshav of Neve Yerek near Hod Hasharon will easily forget the winter of 1991. The torrential rains wouldn’t let up, water was pooling everywhere — the flooded fields were on the brink of ruin, and Saddam Hussein was threatening to destroy the country with missiles. But throughout those stormy days, the farmers never stopped talking about “him” — their tall, mysterious neighbor who wandered through the fields with a paintbrush in hand, traipsing through the mud in a powerful expression of love and connection to the land. When he wasn’t wandering around, he could usually be found in a corner field, far away from the agricultural tools that had been set aside until the heavy rains abated. The farmers knew him by name and they knew his work, but he didn’t spend much time in conversation with them. Every day, early in the morning or late at night, he would go out to the fields with his dogs, exploring the unusual sights the old moshav had to offer. His neighbors saw him mainly when he was returning from his extended forays, his shoes caked with mud and his coat bearing fresh stains from the earth. He never seemed in a hurry to go anywhere. He obviously loved nature, and every few minutes, he would withdraw a camera from his pocket to capture the image of a breathtaking tableau — he would gaze at it intently and then continue on his way. A small revolver always peeked out of his pocket. Like many of the local residents, he felt safer that way, with the added measure of protection from the Arabs who lived in nearby villages. But that winter, even the most uncurious members of the moshav couldn’t ignore the obvious changes taking place in the lifestyle of their artist neighbor. First there was the beard, and then the piece of fabric atop his head. They couldn’t remember if anyone ever wore one of those things in their town, and they began speculating about what was happening to the man with the paintbrush.

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