There are many ways to tell one's story. Here is one of them. ( I hope a second one will be forthcoming shortly).
I have always felt blessed in that there has been a certain parallelism between my "spiritual" interests and my calligraphic life.
It all started when I was sitting in the back of a shul, and on one of the walls was this poster - a warning poster. It had an enlarged picture of the letter yud (see image to the right) and it said that if an entire Torah scroll was written correctly, but one yud was missing that little oketz (number 9 in the image), the entire Torah scroll would be invalid for ritual use.
Wow, I said to myself. What mystical secrets must lie in that oketz? I was drawn to these letters and I decided to learn to be a Sofer STaM - a religious scribe ( I was a chemistry teacher at the time) and involve myself in writing this sacred aleph-bet. I worked at this for several years, after which I felt I had reached a certain plateau. I felt flat both in my religious learning and my profession.
Around this time I was exposed to a "new" (for me) approach to learning (religious studies). It was very different from my Yeshiva education and it was exciting and refreshing. I was exposed to texts that I had never seen before (though they were from the same religious sources as I had always studied). I was very moved by these texts and I very much wanted to take the texts out of the books and present them to the world; to show how wonderful, beautiful, important and relevant Judaism can be.
At around the same time I was for the first time exposed to the wider world of calligraphy. I saw what calligraphers around the world were doing - with texts, with words and even just with letters and it very deeply moved and excited me. I decided to study calligraphy and design and, after studying privately a bit with Lili Wronker and Alice, decided to go to London's Roehampton Institute, then under the direction of Ann Camp. I studied there for 2 years before coming back to Israel, where I continued working as a freelance calligrapher. There was a happy balance between my Torah learning and my expression of many of these texts calligraphically.
But then I encountered a crisis. A slow crumbling of my belief in texts and the study of texts to transform one's self on a deep level. The example I often give is one can be sitting in the study hall and learn a Talmudic text such as "One must always be as soft as a reed but never as unyielding as the cedar" (Taanit 21:a). A nice idea, and since the Talmud says one shall always be like that - okay I'll take it on myself. And so one tries to apply this to one's being - to be more flexible, not to be harsh, etc. One can even fool oneself that one has become that. Then comes a day, you're waiting in line at the Post Office or the bank, and someone cuts in front of the line (happens a lot in Israel) and bam - furious- as hard as the cedar.
This is, I feel, because one has "learnt" the principle only from the neck up. It is all in the head and one hasn't internalized the learning into one's "kishkes" - one's guts.
At the same time I was learning Tai Chi. There is a part of Tai Chi where one works with a partner. It is called Push Hands. There you face your opponent and try, with very delicate movements, to find his center of balance and push him off balance. At the same time your partner has his hands on you trying to push you off balance. Well, the instinctive response when someone has his hands on you trying to push you is to become "hard" at that spot. "You aren't going to push me around!" The irony is the harder you make yourself, the easier it is to push you off balance. You must learn to "be soft" - not to think soft, but to become soft - soft throughout your whole being. Then the opponent has no real target to push (and it becomes relatively easy to push him off balance)
So here I was, a calligrapher with no faith in words, or texts. Not a good spot to be in for a calligrapher - what do I write?
At this point the focus of my calligraphy changed, and turned inwards. Instead of concern with what I was writing, I became interested in how I was writing. Writing became a sort of meditation; Writing while being aware of my breathing, my thoughts, my body, trying to notice tensions, with the belief that if I could indeed write in a state of "as soft as a reed", it would somehow make my writing more meaningful, and this would be expressed in my writing, and hopefully, felt by the viewer.
This of course did not happen in a vacuum. I was for a long time appreciative of the Japanese and Chinese calligraphic tradition, and their artistic esthetic. I was also aware of the Zen Calligraphy tradition. When one studies one of the Zen arts, one does not simply study to learn the techniques of the art. You may have noticed that many of the Japanese arts end with the word "do" - Aikido, Judo, etc. Calligraphy is called Shodo. "Do" means "the way" - meaning a way of life, a way to grow and develop as a human - to learn about oneself and to learn the nature of "reality". In this search one has to face the obstacle of one's ego. If one can get past this, one encounters one's true self. It is with one's true self that one can have significant encounters - whether with the divine, nature, fellow human beings or even just the brush.
I stated in the beginning that there has always been a parallel to my Jewish learning. Here too, at around the same time I was readong about Zen I was also learning Chassidut and to my astonishment (or perhaps not) I find very similar terms being used. Whether it is of bittul atzmi (a transparency of the ego) or preparing oneself to be a vessel for something higher to flow through one's self, or in the Pryshischa and Kotsk tradition, the severe demand for authenticity and one's personal truth.
I am of course not in any way claiming that Zen and Chassidut are the same - - but I do feel that their concerns in many areas overlap.
And so today, I try to write with awareness in everything I do (and not only in writing). In this way it is not so much the results that matter but rather the process, which has become so much more interesting and meaningful.
It is of course my hope that this does not remain just an internal process but is actually expressed in the writing and felt by the viewer.
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Calligraphic Journey - version 1