If the producers of the hit show “Shtisel” ever need another artist to create paintings, they might want to hire Canadian painter Elie Benzaquen. The 55-year-old Chabadnik and rabbi said he became a fan of the show and realized how a central part of it was similar to his life.
In the first season of “Shtisel,” Akiva, or Kive as he is called, is a teacher by profession. But he desires to become a painter – a source of friction with his father with whom he lives.
Benzaquen said his father was not quite as harsh as the character of the father, Shulem Shtisel, but he certainly wasn’t jumping for joy.
“My dad thought the only thing of value was yeshiva learning, so for me it was tolerated but not encouraged,” Benzaquen said.
Benzaquen studied in a yeshiva is Israel for a few years and said that while he is not a pulpit rabbi, he transmits his message through art.
“I give many speeches and divrei Torah, no problem,” he said. “But I like to say my art is my shtender.
“There are some who come up to me and say that being a painter contradicts Torah and I tell them Torah and art are interconnected. I tell them about Parshas Ki Tetze, when Hashem instructs Moshe to get Betzalel to do the artwork for the Mishkan and Hashem says, ‘I will infuse him with chachma, bina and da’at.’ I think to be a great artist you have to have those three things.” (The term Chabad is an acronym for chachma, bina and da’at.)
Whereas on the show, not every woman who Kive dated was impressed with his art at first, Benzaquen said his wife was immediately impressed. She had seen one of his best pieces, seven different depictions of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson to match the seven kabbalistic sephirot, done in charcoal. He said she saw his talent, encouraged his art, and the two married in 1990.
When he came across the Facebook group “Shtisel – Let’s Talk About it,” that now has an astounding 33,500 members, he saw some other artists who were making paintings of characters of the show, so he decided to do some of Shulem Shtisel, played by actor Doval’e Glickman.
Benzaquen, who was born in England and also attended a Chabad yeshiva in Flatbush, Brooklyn, says he’s lived in many places but his art has always been with him wherever he’s gone.
“It came out of necessity,” he explained. “I always enjoyed drawing but I had a hard time studying Talmud. I was never diagnosed, but I think I definitely had Attention Deficit Disorder. I of course never felt I wanted to give up an inch of my Judaism, but I had to find the place where I could truly be myself and I found it in painting.”
The Ottawa resident said he never went to art school and taught himself.
“I don’t know what would have happened to me if I would have gone to art school,” he said. “Maybe it would have corrupted me spiritually or maybe not. Who knows?”
He said it took years to refine his craft and he originally sold his paintings for too low a price.
“Good artists can never be their own agents because they can see what’s wrong with it and will never ask for what it’s really worth,” he said, adding that it’s not uncommon for him to be commissioned to do a portrait of a rabbi for $1,000.
He said he is a big fan of “Shtisel” but took issue with one scene in the second season when Kive paints a portrait of his mother nursing a baby and the head of the art gallery named Kaufman goes wild over it and says that will be featured for the art exhibition.
“I don’t want to sound like a heretic because I love the show and I think it’s amazing, but that painting was supposed to be such a masterpiece?” he asked. “I wasn’t that impressed. But maybe I have to take a step back and say that for Kive, at his level, it was very impressive.”
Benzaquen who has also worked in Internet Technology for the Canadian government said “Shtisel” is a great show because it shows the universality of chasidim and has even caused non-Jews to view them with a sense of respect. “I think the show can also bring Jews closer to Judaism,” he said.
When it comes to what he will paint, he said he has one love.
“I love to draw people. People ask me why I don’t draw landscapes or fruit, but it doesn’t interest me as much. If you get an apple wrong, nobody will know. But if you do a portrait it has to be precise and you have to be able to see the soul of a person.”
He said he was thrilled to see the third season of “Shtisel” and hopes there is a fourth season. He said he’s considering having an exhibition in New York City that would include “Shtisel” characters but he has to check certain legal issues.
The father of several children was asked if he would mind if any of them became painters and followed in his footsteps. “I wouldn’t be mad but I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said. “I have one son who is a doctor. I think that’s easier.”
To see more of Benzaquen’s paintings, visit www.artistrabbi.com.