Hilu’s genre scenes depict multiple settings including “portraits” of local New York shuls including Chabad Zichron Moshe, Congregation Derech Emunah and Chasam Sofer; an exploration of his experiences as a U.S. Army soldier at Nuremberg and Buchenwald, personal events, scenes of local Jewish life and depictions of Jewish life and lore in general. The aforementioned How the Rabbi Ties His Shoes is one such example of the latter, as well as his masterful Lag B’Omer. On one level his image is a homage to the Klausenberger Rebbe (now in Heaven he tells us). The Rebbe stands proudly before us holding an approximation of a green bow and arrow. Surrounded by dancing chassidim, he explains that “the reason we shoot the bows and arrows on Lag B’Omer, according to the pious, is the bow symbolizes the ark of the wondrous rainbow that will appear in the sky on the day of the Messiah’s coming.” The didactic nature of the text almost overwhelms the image but for the power and vibrancy of the color and restless line. Hilu’s passionate painterly gestures, from the sweep of the Rebbe’s burnt sienna streimel to the agitated blue beard (blue beard!), convince us that this is no primitive rendering of reality. Rather this is artistic invention at its finest in the service of a passionate belief in the vibrancy of a Torah life.
A similar theme drawn from Jewish lore is The Dybbuk, illustrating a story told to Hilu by the Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Spiegel, rav of the Romanian shul Khal Shaarei Shomayim. Evidently the Chofetz Chaim and his student Rav Elchonan Wasserman performed an exorcism on a young girl. We see the two rabbis sternly approaching the girl from the right, each holding a candle. The Chofetz Chaim seems to be brandishing a rooster in addition to his siddur. The shtetl behind them tilts precipitously as does the maiden possessed. Out of her mouth a skeletal blue demon escapes in a fury. The predominately blue nighttime tone of the image is punctuated by the red of the rabbi’s candles and hands, red shutters in the town beyond as well as a lone red bonnet of a girl watching from the background. The dynamic composition moves first from right to left and then surges diagonally to the upper right and finally returns to Miss Red Bonnet on the left, perhaps telling us that there is more than one exorcism scheduled for that night. After all, one can never tell where demons hide themselves in the human heart.
Pidyon HaBen returns us to the more mundane world of Jewish ritual celebrations. From the collaged illustration that forms the background in what appears to be the study hall of the Home of the Sages on Bialystoker Place this simcha has all the markings of a family event on the Lower East Side. Each participant is explicitly named (Suzy, Sally, Steve, US Navy, and the baby of honor Alexander) and music, food and drinks are appropriately in evidence at the joyous redemption of the first born. But as is usual in Hilu’s art, it is the text that elevates the image to a more profound realm. In a yellow word balloon Suzy proclaims, “‘The whole world is a narrow bridge; have no fear at all.’ R Nahman of Breslaw” This initially unnerving admonition casts the whole event into another light, making us all realize both the precarious seriousness of life’s journey and the faith-based courage that will sustain us with the innocence of a child.
Artists like Nathan Hilu are easy to dismiss as merely simple folk artists. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed his sophistication and insights summon the giants of Torah commentators and rival a myriad of art-world stars. The Postmodern literalism evidenced by his textual quotations is combined with a deeply poetic visual sensibility. And, shockingly, his work is potentially open to everyone by the virtue of his translations and explicit declaration of sources.
Hilu has spent his creative life making Torah values manifest in his artwork. Our Jewish lives, history and sacred texts are the medium through which he proclaims his message. It is a sacred gift; live it and make it art.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org