David and Bathsheba, acrylic, 36" x 36," $2500
Since David and Bathsheba was part of my 1972 Tel-Aviv exhibition, I attach the following narrative.
Aviva and I
Two weeks after my arrival in Boston in 1973 I sat in the office of the rabbi. He did not know me. We had never met nor spoken before, nor had he really time to see me; but when I mentioned the name of a mutual acquaintance to his secretary he received me immediately. During our interview I sat in a red leather chair while he sat opposite me stroking his long silvered beard.
"Rabbi," I confided, "I live around the corner. Every day I pass your house. Finally I decided to visit you. I have come to you about spiritual matters. Look, I just came from Israel...."
"How long were you in Israel?"
"A little less than two years."
"And what did you do there?"
"I am an artist. I was living in Haifa."
"And do you know Dr. Moshe Greenblatt?"
"No? But Haifa is such a small place."
"Rabbi, only I know how small Haifa is. Never have I ever felt as much at home as there. Never have I ever been treated with such hospitality. In Haifa my life was a poem. At times I was actually floating on a cloud. But perhaps I should start my story in Israel itself. You see, my life is governed by spiritual influences. Let me explain. At the lowest level of the spiritual world there exist coincidences which may be taken as omens, signs, guideposts. Few people know how to read these messages."
"I say only that I am aware of their existence."
"Rabbi, omens appear to me at pivotal moments. When I was about to fly to Israel I had to surrender my passport to a young girl at the El Al desk and I looked at the button on her lapel. She had the same name as I. I ask you, how many times do I meet people with my name? Never. And here I was departing to Israel. A year later I am in Haifa. Many things had happened in the interval. I had even attended a yeshiva in Jerusalem."
"You say you were in a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Which yeshiva?"
"The one on Mount Zion."
"I have heard about it."
"But have you heard of Reb Mordechai? Reb Mordechai is a saint. The last time I saw him at the yeshiva he said to me that he would make a zaddok out of me. Ha!"
"Why the laugh?"
"Perhaps I should have taken his advice and enrolled full-time in the yeshiva. Sometimes life is very clear if we only have the eyes to see. Rabbi, why have I come to you? Because I have reached a point where I need advice."
"Did you go to Reb Mordechai for advice too?"
"That is not the proper question. With Reb Mordechai it is a matter of his being sent to me, not of my appearing before him."
"Perhaps you were sent to each other."
"Hardly. I am not a saint."
"The Zohar asks, 'Who are the pious?' And it answers, 'Those who consider each day as their last and repent accordingly.'"
"Who am I to approach the level of the Zohar? That is reserved for Reb Mordechai. Every morning he would sit on a small pillar in the garden giving lessons about the Torah. I remember the first time I met him. I asked him his name but he would not tell me. I inquired a second time but instead he asked me who the uncle of Esther was. When I answered, "Mordechai," he smiled. But when I wanted to know his last name he said nothing, only taking from his vest pocket a letter addressed to himself and handing it to me."
"Reb Mordechai wanted to teach you a lesson. Do you know what it was?"
"The unimportance of a name."
"Yes, our name is only the outer layer of our inner reality."
"At this time I was living in Ein Kerem outside Jerusalem. There I lived for four months in an old domed Arab house. Because it is thought that St. John the Baptist was born in Ein Kerem the town is studded with churches and religious establishments-- a perfect place for an artist like myself. Nor was Ein Kerem lacking in excitement. It had become the hiding place of Zachariah the Yemenite, a thief, who the previous year had stolen precious icons and lamps from the nearby Russian convent. There was also Joachim whom I knew from the yeshiva on Mount Zion. He lived in a room with his wife Rachel and two infants not a stone's throw from Mary's Well, a Neolithic spring. One Friday night Joachim invited me for supper and after eating I turned to him and asked, 'What is a Jew?' He answered, 'A Jew is someone who studies the Torah." Whereupon I replied, 'And what about all the Jews in Israel who do not study the Torah?' He was emphatic. 'They are not Jews." I turned red and asked, 'And if they are not Jews what are they?' He spat out, 'Goyim!' I stood up indignantly. I excused myself and left. The following morning I asked Reb Mordechai the same question and I got the same reply. At that point I walked out of the yeshiva in disgust. Rabbi, how do we escape materialism? That is my major problem. All my life I steered clear of materialism until I arrived in Israel. There even I began to think of nothing but money. But, after all, that is part of the price one pays to be an artist. What is an artist? A decorator of the walls of the rich. Nothing more. The artist creates luxury items for affluent snobs interested in a name. I remember the opening of my one-man-show at Aviva's in Tel-Aviv....."
"Who is Aviva?"
"I first met Aviva through Rick. Take him for all in all, Rick was a great guy. For some inscrutable reason we hit it off together from the moment we were introduced at a party in Jerusalem. His Mercedes-Benz, his military air, his needle-sharp mind-- in the Tel-Aviv haut monde at least half a dozen women would have committed hara kiri just to jump in bed with Rick. Aviva, that Ilse Koch, was one of them."
"Aren't you being a bit uncharitable?"
"Am I? I ask you, Rabbi, what did Aviva know about charity? Even Rick who never said a bad word about anyone called Aviva a bitch. A sheep among wolves, I fell into her trap. Okay, tit-for-tat, I say. One evening Rick mentioned his friend Aviva who had a genius for quadrupling the price of paintings. Of course Rick never knew anything about Aviva's bogus transactions. So I can't blame him. Who is to blame? Maybe just materialism. Aviva liked my paintings and her Dizengoff Street gallery dazzled me with the brilliance of her taste. At this point in time my first meeting with Aviva has taken on the character of an idyll. With her velvet turban and puckered eyebrows and club Mediterranean tan ( She had just come back from Achzib when Rick and I arrived at her gallery with my portfolio ) Aviva was-- pardon me, Rabbi-- a classic cock-teaser. Who was the wooed and who did the wooing? 'Eat, drink, and be merry1' she kept saying in three languages as she poured the Chateau Yquem at dinner. I was chained to the spot. At thirty this sabra had been a jack-of-all-trades. Now at thirty-five she had moved into the Big Time. An urban sophisticate. Or so it seemed. And she offered to give me a one-man-show in September. The deal was too good to be true. Aviva was paying for everything-- the frames, the invitations, the sangria. Everything! 'Now get back to Haifa,' she said, 'I'll come to see you in a few months after I return from Caracas.'
"So hot-from-Tel-Aviv I bussed back to Haifa where for the next four months I put on my thinking cap and paced the lion's cage of my Mount Carmel studio while outside the sky shone crystalline on the boats plying to and fro below in the harbor. I slaved. I squared the circle of my fantasies, and when Aviva finally arrived from Caracas I ate up her praise. 'You've broken the mold of Israeli art,' she purred. So the die was cast. My lease up in September, I crossed my Israeli Rubicon: I moved in with Rick smack in the center of Dizengoff Street in Tel-Aviv.
"At first my mind would grasshopper to visions of Paris when I emerged from Rick's dank basement apartment into the crowds. Who was I to care about the cockroaches, the noise, and the lack of light in our flat? I was in Avivaland and rarin' to go. Tossing my money around as if I had printed it myself, I hobnobbed with Rick's entourage of Bridget Bardots. So what if I was going broke? There was a note of the fabulous about my life then. And all this time Aviva was busy with Giuliano, her sculptor from Milan, so that I saw little of her until we dined out one night in Jaffa with Rick. 'Caro amico,' she whispered looking at the menu, 'I eat only in luxury restaurants these days. This place is so petit-bourgeois!' Okay, let's call a spade a spade. Aviva was in the ninety-percent income bracket. Her old man was in the Knesset. Her treasures were the envy of half of Tel-Aviv. But as she rattled on, like Scheherazade, ho-humming, 'You know, most of my boyfriends are not Israelis. I can't stand sabras,' I felt the temperature drop down to zero. I'll level with you, Rabbi. I earn peanuts. I'm no Aviva. But what was I to do? Aviva was dreaming of Rick. You bet your sweet ass that's what she wanted. And Aviva was using me to bait Rick."
"You mean to say that Aviva was exhibiting your paintings to get in good with Rick?"
"Not exactly. When Aviva finally saw that Rick wouldn't touch her, she turned to me. Aviva was hungry, of course. Even Moshe HaCohen said that my one mistake with Aviva was....."
"Wait! Who is Moshe HaCohen?"
"An artist I met an hour after Aviva's first hysterical outburst with me. Curious to know how much Mishka the framemaker was charging Aviva for the frames, I stepped into the gallery. By this time visiting Aviva had already become a minor nightmare. Seated at her desk and surrounded by her Dalis and her Matisse, Aviva had just finagled $5000 from a tourist. Thus she was cooing when I broached the subject of the frames. 'What do you mean that I should pay for the frames?' she cried pounding her desk with her fist, 'Who ever heard of such things in Tel-Aviv?' Nothing I said was able to change Aviva's mind. Right then and there I should have walked out. In ten minutes Aviva was in tears. Powdering her nose, she jabbered away about all that she had done for me. Okay. So Aviva gave me expensive German brushes. I deny nothing.She she let me use her gallery over weekends to paint in while she sunned herself in Achzib. Okay. Her generosity was above and beyond the call of duty. But when I left nothing had been decided about the frames except that I had to dish out five hundred bucks.."
"So what did you do?"
"I strolled down Dizengoff Street to Kassit's, the artist's cafe, where I bumped into Moshe HaCohen. You should have heard HaCohen. For hours he sat playing with his koumbologi beads while he described his seduction of Aviva ten years before. A Greek immigrant from Salonika, HaCohen covered a whole lecture on Amphissa olives with a thick impasto of anecdotes about Aviva's sex habits. Later in his apartment on Spinoza Street HaCohen positively bubbled as he led me about to examine his paintings. Rabbi, I search the tablets of my memory and find them blank to make comparisons with HaCohen's doodles. HaCohen poured me a drink. 'To Aviva!' he cried. In Tel-Aviv cafe society there circulated around HaCohen, as I later learned, a whole stream of black syrupy rumors about him and Aviva. That HaCohen had poisoned Aviva's husband with glove cleaning fluid in Acco is unlikely. Let us give HaCohen the benefit of the doubt. What is certain is that HaCohen wanted revenge, however meager, on Aviva. 'We shall make frames tomorrow,' he announced, 'Why should Mishka get $500? We can do it for a third.'
"Exultant, I returned to the flat to talk to Rick who was shacked up that week with Tamara, a geneticist from Kiev. Look, Rabbi, I'll let you into a dirty little secret about the Russians. Rick had nothing to bellyache about. A finer human being you would never want to meet, a mensch, an idealist, a real chalutznik. If he had connections with the CIA, what did I care? Live and let live, they say. Rick had a lot on the ball and he was a samaritan to boot-- a regular Baal Shem Tov devoting his Shabbats to Yemenite orphans and Wednesdays arranging outings to Galilee for new immigrants. But even Rick sometimes went off his rocker about the way the sabras were treating the new Russians. Me-- I had no complaints. I didn't have Tamara's problems. I hadn't expected Israel to be a paradise. So I plopped down on the couch and Tamara, her eyes swollen with tears, came up to me and said, 'I suffered in Russia. Now I am suffering in Israel. I shall always suffer. This is my fate.' Surfacing from his beauty sleep in the next room Rick, who was nobody's fool, shouted, 'Then fly back to Kiev!' When I told him about Aviva and the frames, Rick commented that as long as Aviva saw me as the key to him as a potential lover I held the winning cards. But already I was a two-time loser. Once infatuated up to her ears with Rick, some split-off part of Aviva had instead fastened its attentions on me. Should I have made a pass? Rick said yes. But I'll level with you: each time I pictured myself grunting and oinking with Aviva I felt a death-sweat. Who was I to play the fool for love? When it came to feelings, all was null and void between Aviva and me. All that remained was a business relationship.
"That's what it had become. How else to explain Aviva's conduct the next morning? For when two of her friends entered the gallery Aviva, who always prided herself on her breeding, snapped to me, 'I can't see you now!' Despite Aviva's belief that I knew too little Hebrew, I understood most of her prattle. Look, Rabbi, I earn peanuts and Aviva lives in a penthouse, but I am not envious. I don't create paintings to earn money. I create paintings because I have to. And here I was about to set out with Moshe HaCohen to schnorr around Tel-Aviv to find cheap plate glass and Aviva was prattling about vacations on the Costa del Sol. The vertebrae at the base of my neck were just beginning to grate when Aviva's two cronies at last left. You should have heard her. 'Go ahead,' she screamed, 'Make your own frames. You think the public knows anything about paintings? They buy them for the frames. You're telling me?' I stormed out of the gallery with two of my creations and met Moshe HaCohen at Kassit's.
"Moshe HaCohen and myself in Tel-Aviv-- that was a scene! But I'll spare you the details. Only one anecdote. We went to a party in Herzlia and whom do I bump into but Rosalie. Of Rosalie it might be said that in the spiritual world she held no place."
"Is that possible?"
"Rosalie was an aesthete. She believed only in the visible. Her Johannesburg background never explained her obsession with the products of the palette knife. She was schizzy, super-smart, and played cops-and-robbers with me for over two months, but I don't squark. Employed at the Tel-Aviv Art Museum, Rosalie was a kind of para-professional within the interstices of the art jungle and she had already dubbed my patroness 'Wheeler-Dealer-Aviva.' When I told Rosalie about the frames, she took on the airs of a late-late show grande dame. 'You mean it was not in the contract?' she huffed. What had I to do with contracts? Aviva was my friend. She was going to be my mistress. Now there was talk of contracts. To make a long story short: a week later Aviva announced that I had to pay for the invitations to the opening as well. On the one hand Rick was advising me to get out of Tel-Aviv. On the other hand Rosalie was trying to talk me into going to the lawyers. Rosalie was extra-helpful. Nothing was off-limits for her in her attempt to say 'Gotcha!' whenever she entered our bachelor pad on Dizengoff Street. As the result of her genius for lapidary culture-chatter Rosalie belonged to an inter-Atlantic troupe of art experts one of whose lawyers happened to be her cousin whose law partner was in the Israeli cabinet. The postscript was that at no expense the Minister himself wrote an eight page contract for Aviva to sign. Rosalie wanted a shoot-out between Aviva and me. 'Forget your fantasies of rags-to-riches. Present her with the contract.'
"So I was at an impasse-- to be a dupe and not present Aviva with the contract or to give Aviva the contract triggering off a final seismic scene. Already we were at loggerheads over payment once Aviva declared that most Israelis purchase paintings on the installment plan whereas I insisted that in my case such a procedure was impossible since I was leaving for Paris after the exhibition. 'What do you mean?' Aviva cried, 'not trusting me? Do you think that I cannot smuggle dollars out of Israel and send them to you abroad?' By this time Aviva had begun to dread the sight of me-- and vice versa. There were no more oohs and ahs from me about her collection, no more rousing cheers from her about my productivity. All that we both hoped for was to scoop up some cash from the exhibition which was to begin in three days. Things had reached a crisis when I met HaCohen that evening at Kassit's. The place had been raided the night before by the police and all around me there was a hue and a cry when HaCohen arrived with four transvestites from HaYarkon Street. 'Give her the contract,' he said, 'Don't be a fool or the bitch will sell your paintings and you'll never see the money.' I wolfed down my drink and left the cafe. For hours, my nostrils filled with smoke, I wandered through the streets of Tel-Aviv trying to decide what to do. Finally I hit upon a plan. At eight in the morning I would go to Mishka to fetch the canvases he had not yet framed. An hour later I would go to Aviva's with an ultimatum: either I get my whole payment at the end of the exhibition or I was calling the show off. I would say nothing about the contract. Since a thousand invitations had already been mailed, I had Aviva over the barrel and because Mishka had left his work to the last minute I could walk out with the minimum loss of the cost of the invitations. Aviva however would have to explain to half of Tel-Aviv why the show was canceled. I didn't intend to get the short end of the stick.
"Aviva cold-eyed me the next morning when I entered in the middle of her transactions with some tourists. I had already removed the canvases from Mishka's and I stood now on the balcony observing the street until the customers left. From behind I heard, 'Why did you take the paintings from Mishka?' Mishka had telephoned her, she announced indignantly. For once Aviva looked confused and in her eyes I saw fear. But there was nothing textbookese about Aviva. With her best party smile she invited me to sit down for coffee. I explained my sentiments about the payments-- that I wanted to leave Israel with no debts behind me. She was accommodating but typically deceitful in her claim of never having discussed installment buying with me before. Suddenly Aviva grimaced. 'So that's why you took the paintings from Mishka! Blackmail!' she screamed getting up and spilling her coffee on the carpet, 'I'll have none of it. The exhibit is off. I'll put notices in the newspapers. Now get out. I'm sick and tired of your games.' My refusal to budge plunged her into hysterics and she goose-stepped to the toilet where for five full minutes she remained incommunicado planning her next ploy. With a do-or-die expression on her face she emerged, like some generalissimo, and said, "I'll give you five minutes to return the canvases to Mishka. Otherwise everything is off.'"
So what did you do?'
"I brought the canvases back to Mishka. What else could I do? Look, already I had spent a fortune in Tel-Aviv. I was broke and thus at Aviva's mercy. Such is the life of the artist and this is only a smorgasbord sampling of what he goes through."