Father’s Day: From dad’s art studio to the rabbi’s bimah

I confess. Sometimes when I say from the pulpit, “A great Jewish man once said,” I’m actually just quoting my dad. OK, more than sometimes. Often. I’m embarrassed to say, “My daddy taught me …” all the time. It might make me appear immature and unlearned. However, of all teachings by Jewish men I’ve studied, those of my father, James Grashow, have inspired me the most.

In the beginning, when people would ask why I became a rabbi, I would respond, “My father is an artist …” as if that made perfect sense. But I quickly learned that most people don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a ballroom-sized studio, with 20-foot sculptures towering over you, a space filled with spikes and stakes, a landmine for children — far from childproof. An unfinished plywood floor confettied with wood shavings and razor blades. Chairs thorny with woodchips. Dangling wires, open cans of turpentine, ridges of dried glue. There were no safety locks on the sander or the powerful bandsaw. 

Few people know how, despite the splinters, growing up in such a great space was buoyant with the possibilities of metamorphosis. My brother and I ran through sculpture installations chasing Nerf balls and paper airplanes. The innards of my father’s sculptures were like giant dollhouses for me. Dad often picked us up at school in a pickup truck loaded with cardboard dinosaurs, or a car with papier-
mâché arms and legs protruding menacingly out of the trunk. Every part of our lives were filled with my father’s “work,” so much so that we often didn’t recognize it as work, and my brother once said, “You know all the stuff you did in kindergarten? That’s what my father does for a living.”

I was astounded when a fellow student at Brandeis University asked me, “Isn’t your father ashamed to be creating graven images when the Torah expressly forbids it?” I was angry that this student could imply my father was any less “religious” than he. 

During my interview for seminary, one of the imposing interviewers said, as he thumbed my application, “It doesn’t seem that you were raised in a religious environment.”

He was wrong.

As a child, I would sit in a bin of rags and watch my father work and listen to him talk about the canvas’ void, the fragility of man, the futility of monument, the supremacy of blank space. He taught me that the difference between a good work and a masterpiece has to do with the lines, and whether they breathe. Memory and observance are the basis of art, just as our practice is to remember and observe Shabbat, and Shabbat is the basis of artful living. It allows our lines to breathe. 

After wrestling with commentaries trying to resolve the discrepancy between Genesis 1, in which God creates man after all of the animals, and Genesis 2, in which God creates man before anything else, I brought the matter to my father, who told me the answer is obvious: When a painter begins a painting, he starts with a light source, then he paints the background, and lastly he paints the portrait. However, when a person comes to see the painting, the person first sees the portrait, and only later might notice the landscape and shadows. The first creation story is from the point of view of the artist, of God, starting with a light source and a background for the final portrait, which is man. The second creation story is from the perspective of the viewer, of man, who sees the portrait first, the little grasses and swarming things last. 

Of course I was raised in a religious environment. 

In fact, I have spent most of my life seeking an altar as sacred as my father’s drawing board with its paint flecks, glue and paper shreds entombed in lacquer, moist color drips shed from horsehair trees, where creation constantly decomposed into the rich stuff that churns and nourishes the red clay of process. My father’s fingers are the priestly caste preparing the daily offering on this altar. 

My brother and I were different from most of our friends, because we knew exactly what our father did all day. We always knew exactly where he was and exactly what he was doing.

Grashow installing cardboard monkeys for the “Trash Menagerie” exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum, 2009.  Photo by Lisa Kosan

We would watch his work develop from beginning to end. Often, when my father was working right up to (or a little past) his deadline, as soon as the piece was finished it would be whisked away. It always seemed a little unfair that we didn’t get to enjoy the finished piece for long, that a stranger would get to take it, and we’d never see it again. The stranger may have paid for it, but we raised it. However, we learned to expect this. To recognize that this was actually healthy. The work that had been so painstakingly birthed was meant to live out in the world. You could hope it would have a good home. You could hope it would be cherished, not exposed to direct sunlight, matted comfortably and complimentarily. Pray that it wasn’t destined for storage. But in the end, it wasn’t up to you at all. 

I joined my father a few times at Pratt, where he taught drawing for many years, sitting with the grad students sketching amid poufs and plumes of charcoal. My father would set a timer and ask the students to fill as much of a page as possible in 30 seconds. He was teaching them to conquer space, and their fear of a void. Sometimes students would come to work with him in the studio. I would slink behind the sculptures jealously, thinking the student wanted to take him as their own dad, or that my father might feel closer to one of them than to me, because they had some special drawing talent. Sometimes they would bring their portfolios for him to review. I would listen to his constructive critiques, and I would wonder what teachings he had reserved for me, had I become a visual artist. 

I wonder still, what would he have taught me about metaphor and movement? Which gallery owners might he have introduced me to? Would he like my work? Then I remember that he did teach me all of those things. 

When I deliver a eulogy in a chapel, I am not so different from him, working alone in his studio piecing tiny shingles on a little house he’s built upon a wood stem. We both work to create something special — he with paper, me with words, we both try to breathe the breath of eternity into something very fragile. There is nothing so beautiful as that which death can touch. 

My father always works with mediums that have breath and fragility — thin rice paper, Swiss pear wood, dyed thread. They age and fade in the sun. Although his works will probably outlive their maker and the collectors who own them now, each piece bears the fingerprints of exposure to sun and air, arguments and agreements and the living breath of countless flawed faces examining it up close. When I officiate life-cycle ceremonies, I always feel as if I am trying to weave something strong out of delicate fibers. At weddings, I try to help build a solid foundation out of very feathery dreams. At a birth, I try to infuse joy and light into an entirely mysterious future. At death, I take the tiny strands of an infinitely complex life and try to weave them into something sacred.

My father believes that what marks an artist isn’t so much the subject he portrays, but the materials he uses. He feels that there is something different about a person who chooses watercolor from one who chooses oil paint. Until recently, he always used paper and wood. With his printmaking, the Swiss pear wood is polished and silky, the rice paper delicate as antique lace.

Countless times I heard my father speak of his choice of materials as a reflection of his fear of mortality. I remember one sunny day, walking with him, both of us holding ice cream cones, the summer trees luxuriating in their greenery. I asked him why he didn’t work in marble. I had never questioned it before, but suddenly it didn’t make sense. If you are so afraid of death, why not choose material that is sure to outlast you, your children and grandchildren? Why use material that fades in direct sunlight, swells in humidity and bears every effect of time’s passing? 

My father nodded. He said, “Maybe it’s about my feelings of fragility. My doubts about self-worth.”

I did understand fear of mortality. We pass to our children our legacies of fear as well as glory, and of my father’s necrophobia, I was the legatee. The panic of death made me tremble and weep in the night. A fallen eyelash stirred deep anxiety that I would someday too fall away, feel nothing, forget and be forgotten. One of my father’s prints hung across from my bed, a work titled “Goodnight Zoë.” It showed me sleeping, with my hands folded under my head, and dreaming of all the animals in the forest wearing pajamas. Even the trees were in their PJs, as was the moon, and the cow jumping over it. That image was the last thing I looked at before falling asleep every night. It now hangs in my office at the temple. 

People deal with fear of mortality in different ways. Some build great monuments of stone. Some drown the sense of foreboding with loud living. Then there are some like my father, who, realizing they can’t outrun death, decide instead to turn around and face it, opening up their hands as if inviting the grim reaper to dance. My father’s work in paper and wood was, to me, courageous and heroic. 

I have my own obsession with wrangling time, bending, transcending and unspooling it, seeking rhythm with the ceaseless metronome of seconds ticking away. I became a rabbi and arranged my career as a sort of life-long exposure-therapy to death — sitting with the dying, eulogizing beside graves. Rather than run, I’ve tried to take up the steps of the dance my father began, moving with the moons and tides, taking solace in the great Sabbaths that stand outside our chronologies. 

So I understood when my father moved from wood and paper to working with cardboard, a valueless material. When his razor carves through the brown sheets, he is tapping into a timeless stream of creativity, extending back to when he built rockets out of refrigerator boxes, a natural force unimpeded by permanence and finish. 

Rabbi Zoë Klein with her parents, James and Lesley Grashow.  Photo courtesy of Rabbi Zoë Klein

Recently, my father created a large cardboard installation at the DeCordova Museum outside Boston called “The Great Monkey Project.” When people saw his cardboard monkeys swinging over the museum’s grand staircase, they laughed with joy and amazement at the sheer multitude of whimsical characters. Some noticed that the monkeys’ eyes were made from toilet paper tubes, and others paused to study the lines and abstract negative spaces of the installation, which make all of my father’s work feel like walk-through living paintings. 

At one point, I found my father moping that people weren’t understanding that the cardboard monkeys were, in fact, empty and impermanent, and that we are their descendants. The whole experience of the work, for him, was edged with solitude and mourning. They were a burst of life born out of the trash bin for which we were all ultimately destined. 

I thought to myself, “If you wanted to say something dark and existential, why did you go and have to make them so darn adorable?”

But the playfulness, for my father, was deliberate. Cardboard was once garbage, but he was giving it a second chance. Out of the dust heap, it became a revolutionary celebration, an acrobatic frenzy of living. My father’s willingness to let the cardboard play is itself an act of protest. 

He decided to create a show that would also walk this beloved medium from rebirth to its end. 

It would be a cardboard fountain, based on Bernini’s famous 17th-century “Fountain of the Four Rivers” in Rome, but built from material that water would destroy. Poseidon would rise up from the center carrying his trident, horses riding outward upon corrugated waves, with dolphins and fish, and nymphs blowing long trumpets. It would be triumphant, mythic. And yet, all the power and arrogance of the Roman god of oceans, earthquakes and horses would be mitigated by the humbleness of the material from which it was constructed. The legacy of “Corrugated Fountain” would be its honesty. Unpainted, unfinished, it would be a revelation of its own naked process, a tribute not to the god whose will controls tides, but to the currents of change, the turbulent sea of seasons, whether we will it or not. The fountain would elevate the power and meaning of the moment, which is ever ours, over any glorified eternity.

My father used to tell his students a mythic story he’d made up, about two lovers, Pencilus and Erasemeus. The tragedy was that whatever Pencilus created, Erasemeus was destined to destroy. The story ended with my father holding up a pencil, explaining that creation and destruction are married to one another. Then he would give out awards to each of the students, a golden-winged pencil on a stand, so they’d remember the myth.

My father worked on his fountain for four years, always intending it to be installed in an outdoor location, allowing it to disintegrate over time. When the work was finally installed at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Va., the curator wanted to put ropes in front of it, so people couldn’t touch or damage the piece, but my father wouldn’t hear of it. The whole point of the piece was to live, and to live is to be touched and risk damage. He wanted the fountain and its audience to interact with one another. The unfinished surfaces invite eyes to supply color. At the installation’s opening at the Taubman, my father gave away wooden coins to everyone there. One side was stamped with a portrait of Poseidon and the name of the show. The other showed a mermaid tail and the coin’s value: “One wish.” On the count of three, everyone was invited to throw their coin into the fountain, and people of all ages instinctively closed their eyes and whispered wishes into their wooden coins. Then, with great cheer, hundreds of coins were aloft, filled with private dreams and hopes, plinking on and around the sculpture, and onto the floor. 

Even so, when the rainstorm finally came and destroyed the fountain, my father fell into gloom. He laid flowers before the mush, as if visiting his own remains.

Grashow’s “Corrugated Fountain,” based on a fountain by the Italian sculptor Bernini, seen here in an image from the documentary film “Cardboard Bernini” by Olympia Stone. 

When I look at images of that fountain, I see the whole evolution of my father’s work and all the lessons I’ve learned from him, some overt and some whose meanings, mysterious and hinted, will continue to unfurl over time. For example, once when I asked my father what his most important life lesson was, he responded simply, “Use sharp tools and change blades often.” 

There are two great treasures I have acquired from being an artist’s daughter. One is the love of process. Growing up, we were constantly immersed in process. Things were always rising up in the studio, paper phoenixes off the plywood floor. I learned to love process and could sit for hours with pen and paper, writing story after story. I remember telling my father that I wanted to be a writer, and he said that he would not call me a writer until I finished one book. It didn’t matter if it was published or not; it just had to be finished. And so, this is the second treasure I acquired: understanding the importance of finishing. It was not enough to love process; there had to be finish. Process was purposeful, leading toward an end. The day in college that I finished my first novel, I was so excited to tell my family. My father said to me, “Now you are a writer.” That book was never published, but I had learned to muster the stamina, passion and will to transform the ideas in my head into creations of substance in the world. 

A great Jewish man once taught me that an artist must listen to her material and pay close attention to its grain and its longing, instead of imposing her will upon it. He taught me that a page or a canvas is pristine and perfect in its natural state, and that we are called to establish a covenant with that original oneness. Revelation came out of the desert, he taught me, which itself is like the blank parchment. The Torah is the creative dance of human and divine. 

A great Jewish man once said: “If you go into a kindergarten class and ask who is an artist, everyone raises their hand. If you go back a few years later and ask who is an artist, everyone points at one or two kids.” But at our beginning, we were all artists, our imaginations lit up. When God created man, God was primarily Creator, yet to be identified as King, Warrior, Friend or any other epithet. Man was created not only in God’s image, but more specifically in God-as-Creator’s image. We are generators, our hands designed to be fruitful. 

A great Jewish man once said, “As we grow older, we unlearn how to dream.” 

During the High Holy Days, I stand in a white robe, a pristine year stretching out before our community. The ark is opened. We open our mouths, and our breath is the paintbrush hovering over the canvas, preparing to mark the first mark. And then we sing Avinu Malkeinu, my Father, my King, calling to the one who sketched us into being. We are all works in progress, and God is the great Animator, breathing into us motion, spirit and mystery. But we are also our own colorists, and by our own hands, we color our days as happy or gloomy, joyful or remorseful, and we choose to dip into the palate of the past, or the promising pinks and golds of tomorrow, elevating our dents and dings into lives of beauty, wisdom and virtue, our masterworks. 

A rabbi once said to a great Jewish man, “Thank you for teaching me, for watching over me, for taking me through your process and encouraging me through mine. Thank you for fathering me, and for being my dad.”

Zoë Klein is senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles and the author of two novels, “Drawing in the Dust” and “The Scroll of Anatiya.”