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From LA to the Jerusalem Theatre

The Jerusalem Theatre has been hosting an exhibit of Los Angeles native David Schmidt, “Mesirus Nefesh” (literally “Self-Sacrifice”).
[additional-authors]
August 23, 2023
From left to right: First Responder Carrying Wounded Child, Bereavement, and Davening at Dawn

The Jerusalem Theatre has been hosting an exhibit of Los Angeles native David Schmidt, “Mesirus Nefesh” (literally “Self-Sacrifice”). It features large digital prints and mixed-media collages on life in the Israel Defense Forces. The curator, Dr. Batsheva Ida, writes, “The viewer is confronted with a difficult reality. The IDF soldiers, a source of heroic and national aspirations, are seen at moments of fragility and compassion.” Dr. Ida compares his methods to those of Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Beuys, and to the iconic 1920 tower of Vladimir Tatlin in their “monumentality.”

Schmidt received his degree in Fine Arts at UCLA Fine Arts in the mid-1960s. “When I finished, I got a studio in Venice, like a lot of the professors that I had at UCLA. People would come down on Thursday night from Bel Air and Brentwood looking for the next big success, but no one knew who that might be, so people bought anything they could get their hands on and we did very well.” 

In 1969 he met his wife, Shoshana, and they got married on the beach at sunset. Then they went to Spain. They returned to the US when his father became very sick, and when he died, Schmidt had to deal with his own autoimmune illness for a year-and-a-half. “When I woke up from being sick, my wife reminded me that I needed a job. So, I looked in the phone book. The only thing I’d ever done up until then, other than painting, was teaching some art classes in Watts.” 

He found a section for executive placement and another for physical work. “I said, well, I’d rather be an executive, so I applied at one of the biggest executive search firms in California. When I got that job I got a haircut, put on a suit …  In two years, they folded, and I opened my own firm. 

“By the time I stopped doing that, after about 20 years, I had one of the most important executive search firms in the United States. If they were in academia, they were aspiring Nobel laureates. If they were in the government, they were at the very least an undersecretary.” He is still a senior advisor in that firm, called Insight; his son Aaron is the president and CEO.

Schmidt describes his religious metamorphosis. “I’m walking down the street in Laguna Beach and this guy crosses the street in front of me, and he says to me, ’Would you like to learn something about Jewish mysticism?’ I say, ‘Sure.’ He says, ’Come on, the class starts in about 15 minutes.’ So I walked over, and I really liked it.

“I started a course on Tanya, and about halfway through the book, I encouraged Shoshana to light Shabbos candles. She says, ‘I’m not going to do something if I don’t know what it means.’ So she started working with the Rebbetzin. And no one moves faster than Shoshana.” 

Shoshana adds: “I kashered the kitchen in 1992. In October, 1993, Laguna Beach had one of its famous forest fires. 200 houses burned, including ours. Everything was gone, even some of David’s paintings. 

“The house we rented after the fire was closer to the Chabad shul, although a mile straight up a huge hill, in an area called ‘Top of the World.’ The Chabad rabbi said to my husband, ‘If you walk down the hill to shul, after kiddush I will walk up with you.’ This is when we became shomer Shabbos.” 

Rabbi Eli Goorevitch had escaped from Russia with his family, and was sent to be with the Rebbe in New York. “When he came out to California, he didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak the language,” says David. “We helped him at the time to get a building and organize a minyan.”

In 1996 the Schmidts moved to Israel, to the Old City of Jerusalem, and after 27 years, to Rehavia. David credits Shoshana with urging them to make Aliyah. He flew back and forth to his business in America. Four of their five children live in Israel. One daughter returned to Laguna Beach, where she is a personal trainer and an author. Two of their sons were in the army. One of those is a Mixed Martial Arts and Krav Maga instructor. Schmidt kvells, “Each year they would select one person from each of their units to compete against each other in Krav Maga and he came in first two years in a row.” He has a grandson who was in Egoz, one of the Special Forces.

He would take a piece of foam board and pin up pieces until he had the shape and the expression of the figure that he wanted. He gestures to one of the collages. “All these are individual pieces, and they give a real liveliness. So down to the core, these are soldiers.” 

After being a successful businessman for 20 years, Shoshana said to him, “Come home to the studio and start doing that again.” When their sons were in the IDF, Schmidt said, “they’d come home for Shabbos. After Shoshana laundered their uniforms, and they dried, I photographed the material. I had stacks of swatches, in different tones.” Then he would take a piece of foam board and pin up pieces until he had the shape and the expression of the figure that he wanted. He gestures to one of the collages. “All these are individual pieces, and they give a real liveliness. So down to the core, these are soldiers.” 

He shares some of the stories behind the collages. 

“This one is called ’Achi, My brother.’ One Friday afternoon I was sitting up there on the balcony of the theater, and I looked down here and there were people gathered around this picture, listening to their cell phones. I came down and I asked them, ’What are you looking at?’ They told him, ’This picture! They’re talking about it all over the news! There were two soldiers who were struck by a pipe bomb in Jenin. They couldn’t get out and they were hoping for the medics to arrive. And they were holding each other together. How did you make the picture so quickly?’ I said, ’This was done seven years ago. In 2016.’  Nothing changes in Israel.”

Edge of Night

He described “The Edge of Night”: The soldier is walking along on graphic lines. From his perspective, he’s asleep. This happened to one of my grandsons and one of my sons. They had night hikes. The colors are all very quiet and he’s falling asleep, so, he is in a different reality.” Stopping at “Davening at Dawn in the Judean Hills, he said “this was positioned by the curator, Dr. Batsheva Ida, in the center of the wall … It speaks for the exhibit.” 

Looking at “The Hidden Tsadik,” he explained his process: “It’s made up of scores of little pieces of paper. I kept adjusting it and adjusting it, so he ended up with the sweetest face in the world. Yet he has a big gun. He can’t be too sweet in Israel.” 

Another work, “The Agony of Staying Awake,” is about guard duty, “the most hated job in the army,” Schmidt said, “but it’s very high stakes because if you fall asleep, people can get killed. The whole base could be overrun.” 

One of the collages, called “Shattered Hand,” is about his son Ari, who was wounded in Ramallah a number of years ago. 

“His hand was shattered. He had four surgeries and they didn’t know what to do. And it was just getting worse.” David found the most prominent hand surgeon in Israel. “She put him in a gurney outside her office door and gave him an IV drip for infection. When the infection was over, she said, ’We’re going to send him home now. We’ve done what we can.”

Shoshana adds: “Ari was shot, survived, thrived, went back to school during corona and is now in hi-tech.”

There are collages called “First Responders,” “Rage,” “The Road to Jericho,” “Don’t Ask What I’m Feeling,” “No Soldier Left Behind,” “Hypothermia,” “Soldier at Kotel,” “The Most Compassionate Army on the Face of the Earth” and others. “I come here, in the museum,” he said, “and I go further up, to the highest level, and I look down at this space, and I think, How did I get here? That’s why I’m working on the next step, because I can’t drop the ball at this point.” 

Is his exhibit being shown somewhere sponsored by the Army? “No, but they should,” because among other reasons, he says, there are pictures of soldiers in wheelchairs. “This one is called ‘Getting Back in Action.’ This is a big push of theirs. They’ve decided talk therapy is not helping very much.” He has also reached out to the Minister of Culture, hoping to have the exhibit continue in new places, including at the Knesset.

As I walked from collage to collage, being a wife, mother and mother-in-law of soldiers, past and present, I felt the tears well up inside of me as I perused the exquisitely haunting, moving images, and I cried. And felt hopeful. And proud.

As I walked from collage to collage, being a wife, mother and mother-in-law of soldiers, past and present, I felt the tears well up inside of me as I perused the exquisitely haunting, moving images, and I cried. And felt hopeful. And proud.

The exhibit will be at the Jerusalem Theatre until August 30, 2023. David Schmidt’s gallery is at 31 Ben Yehuda St., Jerusalem. His website is https://davidschmidt.art. 


Toby Klein Greenwald is an award-winning journalist, theater director and the editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com.

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