Sunday, July 22, 2012

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Moully’s Vibrant Hasidic Art

Davora wrote us, “Yitzhok Moully is a Chabad rabbi and artist.  Together we are trying to  start a new Hassidic art movement called Art for The Creative Soul.  This is a new movement to bring tzinua art to the Frum community by supporting artists and teaching Torah through art to all ages.”  Moully’s art is online here.

From Mishpacha Magazine, July 2…

Local Color - Yitzhok Moully’s vibrant Hasidic art
Barbara Bensoussan

The first thing you notice about Yitzhok Moully is his pink yarmulke.

This has become something of a trademark; Moully says he wears it because “I like to break barriers. I do a lot of kiruv (Jewish outreach to Jews), and my yarmulke always helps break the ice.”

But Yitzhok Moully is all about the unexpected—both in his life, where artistic passion seized hold of him with no prior warning when he was already in his late twenties, and in his art, where you’re likely to notice, amidst a silk screened line of black Hasidic figures, one guy sporting the same bright orange socks Moully now playfully lifts his pant leg to display.

Having been catapulted to fame when a film crew from a national TV station broadcast a one-minute interview with him (they’d been in Crown Heights taping a series on Hasidic life, for famous talk show host Oprah), his work now hangs in venues as diverse as the Emory University Hillel House in Atlanta and the upscale Pardes restaurant in downtown Brooklyn. He’s even had an offer to feature his work in a calendar for the coming Jewish year, made for a major supermarket chain.

Moully has not yet quit his day job, which is working as the assistant rabbi for the Chabad House in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. With a wife and four children, he’s not in much position to go live in a garret. But he’s also cognizant that while a lot of people are capable of working in kiruv, very few are able to reach people through art. Moreover, nobody else has sought to portray Orthodox Judaism using his unique form of witty, lighthearted pop art.

We meet Moully in the comfortable brownstone home of longtime family friends in Crown Heights, where there’s a constant flow in and out (including an expresso-colored cat who pads silently to and fro across the parquet). Judging from the amateur oil paintings on the wall, at least one family member here shares his interest in art. Moully himself sits in relaxed fashion on the couch, wearing khaki pants, a button-down shirt and, of course, his pink yarmulke. This departure from the more typical white shirt and black pants is perhaps natural for someone who begins the conversation by relating, “My parents were both hippies.”

Hashgachah pratis—and perhaps the prayers of his grandparents—saw to it that they didn’t remain hippies forever. “My parents were living on some kind of collective farm out in the outback in Queensland,” he says, only a slight trace of Australia still detectable in his voice. “My mother had come from a traditional home; she was a spiritual person and wanted to be connected to the land. But when I was about three years old my maternal grandfather’s health took a turn for the worse, and my mother took me back with her to Melbourne to go care for him.”

While there, she would sometimes attend the local shul on Shabbos, with Yitzhok in tow, and got to know the rabbi. Since there was a Chabad school close to home, she enrolled her son there, knowing it would please her father. “The day she enrolled me, my grandfather died,” Yitzhok says. “It was as if he’d gotten sick just so his daughter would come home and connect me to Yiddishkeit.”

Yitzhok and his mother remained another year in Melbourne. His mother, by then, had become “pretty frum,” but hadn’t relinquished her passion for nature. In 1985, she made plans to move to a religious moshav in Israel. Her travel plans from Australia included stops in California and New York.

Yitzhok was a bit over five years old, and thrilled to get his day in Disneyland. After that, as it was late Elul, his mother took him to Crown Heights, where they met a hospitable family named Toureg—the same in whose home we’re seated now —who invited them in for the holidays and kept them on for the next six months. The two families became like one; Yitzhok played with the Toureg children like a sibling.

The move to eretz Yisrael hence never materialized. Encouraged to write to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Mrs. Moully received a response telling her to remain in Crown Heights to “accomplish what you’re here to accomplish.” “Since my parents were no longer together, my mother thought perhaps that was an allusion to finding a new shidduch,” Yitzhok says. “But that didn’t happen. In retrospect, it seems what needed to happen was for me to get the chinuch I got.” In fact, he soon joined in with the groups of boys who would go to shul early on Friday nights to see the Rebbe come in, and wish him a good Shabbos; Yitzhok remembers on two occasions sitting directly under the Rebbe’s feet. “I felt the Rebbe wanted me to be part of the community,” he says now. “If it hadn’t been for that, today I would’ve been just a bloody good surfer.”

After four years, however, the Rebbe told Mrs. Moully it was time for her to return home to Australia. She went back to Melbourne, retaining her Lubavitch connection and enrolling Yitzhok in yeshiva. When he was fifteen, she remarried. Yitzhok went on to spend time learning in Morristown as well as doing a stint as a shaliach in Venice, Italy. At the time, however, the artistic riches of Italy were lost on him. “I didn’t have time to notice such things,” he says with a shrug. “It wasn’t calling to me then.”

He was more interested in giving back to a Jewish world he felt had given so much to him. After Venice, he began helping out at a Chabad House in Basking Ridge, N.J., a place he describes as “small town America.” He married a girl from Toronto [his wife Batsheva currently works training preschool educators], and became the assistant rabbi.

It’s now eight years since he first came to Basking Ridge, and he keeps busy mostly working with teens, including helping with bar and bas mitzvahs (his pink yarmulke minhag started when one girl, with an improbable name resembling “Miriam Iglesias,” brought a bunch of pink yarmulkes to the bat mitzvah her Jewish mother made her through the Chabad House. Moully put it on to please her, then decided, “This one’s gonna stay.”). He also helps with projects like maintaining the website, making videos, running a yearly café-concert fundraiser, and doing all the necessary photography—his original artistic passion.

A New World

“I always loved taking pictures; when the first digital SLR camera came out for under a thousand dollars, I ran out to buy it,” Moully says. “But after awhile, I began to feel there was something missing in photography. It was too realistic; there was not a lot of room for interpretation.”

About six years ago, he stumbled upon a video clip about a technique called silk screening, which often makes use of photographic images [see sidebar]. “I’d never heard of it,” he says. “But right away I began to think of the possibilities. It’s like a light bulb went off inside my head; I thought, ‘I could do this!’”

After extensive reading and video instruction, he undertook to give it a try, working from his dining room table. It took him a year to produce his first piece, stumbling along via trial, error and Google. It measured, he says, eight inches by eight inches. Today, he does pieces as large as four feet by six feet.

He later honed his skills by taking classes at the Lower East Side Print Shop; after choosing to augment some of his silk screen creations with painting, he took a painting class to perfect his brush strokes. As the hobby expanded, so did his vision. “I realized I had a unique perspective, a message,” he says. “I grew up familiar with two different worlds, a hippie world with a lot of color and a religious world of reverence and spirituality. People look at the Orthodox world, and they think black and white. But I want to break those kinds of barriers, to show the joy that exists in the religious world.”

As a rabbi, he says, he’s limited in the ways he can reach out to people, since most kiruv constitutes a sort of direct frontal attack. Art, on the other hand, provides a more indirect way to approach people, using a neutral common interest, and allows him to connect to a wider audience. The strikingly modern, upbeat feel of Moully’s work signals to them this is a rabbi who’s pretty with-it, and can relate to their world.

His piece “Williamsburg Bridge” speaks to the straddling of two worlds, and the attempt to unite them. The viewer sees an image with Hasidim strolling on one side, hipsters on the other, and the bridge in between them. Moully himself “bridges” both worlds: “I’ll go look at the galleries on one side of Williamsburg, then I’ll go to the other side for a kosher lunch.”

While the art world sometimes takes itself too seriously, Moully’s always able to keep a sense of humor in his work. “Matza” shows a series of images, beginning with a whole shmura matzah. As the eye travels across the images, the matzah looks as if more and more bites have been taken out of it…until all that’s left is a matzoh ball, sitting in a bowl of soup. “Orange Socks” shows a line of black Hasidic figures on a yellow background, looking rather somber until you notice one of them is sporting the same orange socks Moully claims he wore to his wedding.

Other works seek to show that ordinary objects can be transformed into a dvar shel mitzvah. Hence, a martini glass is shown juxtaposed with a Kiddush cup, and a Zippo lighter with Shabbos candles. An image of a page in a sefer Torah is shown next to an image of an iPad displaying the same page. The fluorescent hues grab the viewer’s attention and recall pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein; like Moully’s pink yarmulke, their express aim is to start a conversation about Judaism.

Moully is mostly self-taught, learning about art through visiting galleries or doing online searches. One of his strolls through a gallery in New Hope, PA, about an hour from his home, led to a conversation with the owner and then an invitation to display his work there (he displayed for three years, until the recession forced the gallery to close its doors).

It was through an attempt to help another artist that Moully got his big break. A couple of years ago, he got the yen to take his wife to Venice for their fifth-year anniversary, to show her the beautiful city he’d worked in before they met. They dropped the kids off with his in-laws in Toronto, and continued on. While in Venice, Moully chanced upon a charming little gallery in the old Jewish quarter, owned by artist David Ariel De Guglielmi.

Moully was entranced with De Guglielmi’s work, finding it colorful and vibrant; the artist, it turned out, had had formal training in a top Italian art school in Milan, but abandoned art after a serious auto accident and subsequent rediscovery of Judaism. As a serious ba’al teshuva with a lot of catching up to do, he put his energies into Judaism and eventually began working as a mashgiach. But one of his rabbis told him, “You have a gift, and you should be using it instead of being a mashgiach. Find a Jewish way to use your talents.” De Guglielmi returned to his easel and opened a gallery.

In the end, Moully bartered one of his own works for one of De Guglielmi’s, and undertook to become his “unofficial representative” in New York to show the work to gallery owners. While carrying this out, however, he began to feel “something of a hava amina to do a show of my own.

“I thought Tishrei would be a good time to do it, with all the people who come to Crown Heights for the holidays,” he says. “I found someone who rented a storefront for that month to sell lulavim and esrogim—but he wouldn’t need it really after the first two days of Sukkos, would he?” They worked out a deal to let Moully sublease it for the rest of the holiday.

He put out a call to all the artists he knew, saying he was planning an exhibit entitled “Hasidim of Color,” designed to showcase the color and creativity in Orthodox Jewish life. About fifteen responded (and later many more, from a thirteen year old boy to a grandmother in her eighties who surprised him by discussing the way she employs Photoshop in her art).

Immediately following the first motzaei chag, the artists convened at the storefront to hang their work. “We hung paintings till 1:00 a.m.,” Moully recalls happily. “The response was amazing! People were coming in with their paintings, asking to be a part of it. Two a.m. came and we couldn’t close the doors. We finally closed for the night at 4:00 a.m.”

The show wasn’t a roaring success financially, but they made enough money to cover the costs. But it accomplished something more important than money: it gave exposure to Jewish art, and created a venue where Jewish artists and art lovers could meet each other and connect around their passion. “There was one artist from the community here, a middle aged man, who’d been skeptical about the display at first,” Moully says. “He thought it would just produce hefkerus. But in the end, he thanked us. He said, ‘You gave me something I haven’t had in years—the chance to talk about art.’”

It was during those heady chol hamoed nights that the national TV film crew came wandering through. Their star had already left, but they filmed five minutes of conversation with Moully and broadcast sixty seconds of it. Those sixty seconds of fame led to a barrage of phone calls and some sales, including the Emory University sale.

The artistic networking that went on inspired Yitzhok and others to seek to continue the process after yom tov was over. He’s now in the process of organizing, along with some friends, a network of frum artists he calls “The Creative Soul,” to encourage Jewish artists to use their art to convey the beauty of Torah and the Jewish lifestyle.

“Many of the Hasidic Rebbes used art in the service of Yiddishkeit,” he says. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged [Baruch] Nachshon to go to art school in the 1960’s to develop his talent!

“I myself have sometimes questioned, ‘Is art an appropriate pursuit for me?’ After all I’m married, I have four kids, I need to spend time learning. But I spoke to a mashpia, and I realized I was asking the wrong question. The right question is, how are you going to use your abilities for avodas Hashem? When you phrase it that way, it’s not about having a hobby to blow off steam, or to feel good about yourself.

“It’s a way to imitate Hashem, through creating something brand new. And it’s a way to connect to Judaism, and get others to connect to it too.”

Moully’s art can be found online here.

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