Someone was painting the bochurim. Ever since the Rabbi noticed the first portrait hanging from the artist’s studio, the paintings seemed to multiply, until there were almost as many as the students themselves. Each night after zal ended and the boys went to sleep, the Rabbi walked past the darkened storefront where their familiar faces posed. There he recognized Zalman from shiur aleph, his ears keeping his black hat afloat; there was Yossi with the desperate first strokes of a mustache. The Rabbi noticed the way the artist tinged all their black jackets with blue, turned their faces into a rough collision of lines, painted the eyes soft and almost empty, with thick, lined lashes like girls or baby calves. Behind the window, the Rabbi could see stacks and stacks of canvasses, and, if he squinted his eyes, the shape of teenage boys sloped on each one.
The Rabbi wondered how the artist knew each student’s likeness. He considered that she must have first seen them on their daily route past her storefront window, at the corner of Lunt and California in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, right between the boys’ dorm and the yeshiva building. Still, the Rabbi wasn’t sure how she captured the boys in such detail. Did she step outside her studio at seven in the morning or twelve in the afternoon, stare at the boys and then imprint their images onto her memory? What would the parents say when they visited and noticed images of their sons, hanging in the street for everyone to see?
The Rabbi knew the artist was a woman. It wasn’t just the heavy lashes she painted—he saw her himself, standing at the window one morning and arranging a new portrait for display. She was middle-aged and chubby with curly hair that appeared frizzier in the display lighting. Her clothes were dark and oversized, and when she lifted her arms to hang one of her newest portraits, a stretch-marked patch of stomach fell out, causing the Rabbi to turn in embarrassment and walk away.
As far as the Rabbi knew, the artist had never come into contact with his students. He had never seen her visit the yeshiva, and she had no way of knowing where the dorms were located. The students had a strict schedule: studying lasted from early in the morning until long after sunset, and breaks between learning were rarely spent away from the yeshiva’s property. During lunch, the bochurim ate at the yeshiva or the dorms, and during breaks they played basketball in the parking lot behind the school. In the evenings they walked to the park under the supervision of the dorm counselor, and curfew was at 9PM sharp. Besides, the artist’s studio closed at five each day. The only time the boys were permitted to leave the neighborhood was on Friday afternoons, when they went on mivtzoyim, wandering the city’s streets in search of Jews who would lay tefillin. But the Rabbi knew they wouldn’t lay tefillin on a woman. All possibilities exhausted, he continued his walking past the portraits in perpetual unease, seeing the pictures without seeing them entirely.
“Baila Rochel,” the Rabbi finally said to his wife one evening, as they sat down for dinner, just the two of them, over meatloaf and soup. All eight of their children already had children of their own, and suppertime was a delayed honeymoon—they hadn’t been alone since the ten months after their marriage. “Do you think it’s illegal to paint someone without their permission?”
Baila Rochel held her spoon mid-air as if asking him to elaborate.
“I mean, say you walk past a store front, for instance, and see a painting of someone you recognize, someone who didn’t give the artist permission to paint them.”
Baila Rochel resumed her eating. “Are you talking about the studio on Lunt and California?”
“Yes,” the Rabbi said, relieved he no longer had to explain.
“I drove past it the other day, it’s very strange.”
“Have you looked closely at the paintings? If you look, you’ll see that she captured the bochurim exactly, their faces…It’s like she has the whole yeshiva in her studio.”
“What do you make of it? You think she’s Jewish?”
The Rabbi pushed his bowl up the table. “I’ve never seen her before.”
Baila Rochel stood up and collected her husband’s bowl, pouring his leftover soup into hers.
“Well, I think it’s scary,” she declared, and then stacked the bowls together, as if to say that she’d made up her mind and was done with the conversation.
The Rabbi pondered this assessment for a moment while Baila Rochel walked into the kitchen and filled the house with the familiar sound of rushing water.
“What do you think?” he shouted. “Should I at least talk to her?”
But Baila Rochel didn’t seem to hear, or at least she pretended not to, leaving the Rabbi to conclude that it was better not to make a fuss.
After speaking with Baila Rochel, the Rabbi kept his eyes from stopping at the portraits as he walked past them, ignoring the bochurim behind the stranger’s glass window. It was already spring when the portraits began to appear, almost exactly a year after his youngest son’s wedding. They all thought Mendel would never get married. But he did, the Rabbi reminded himself, he finally did get married. Of course, Mendel’s wife developed certain suspicions and read some messages in Mendel’s phone, messages between Mendel and a non-Jewish man. Mendel did not confirm or deny a relationship between him and the other man, yet their daughter-in-law seemed convinced regardless, and wanted a divorce. But Mendel didn’t confirm, and the Rabbi’s thoughts returned to this small comfort, that she could easily be reading too much into the situation. Mendel and his wife had only been married for a year, but she was already six months pregnant, with Mendel on a half salary at the cheder. If they did divorce, she would take the Rabbi’s grandchild.
The painted boys in the window seemed to ask him about these troubles, though their real-life counterparts were undoubtedly unaware of Mendel’s secret. The Rabbi heard their voices during his own rounds past the storefront window between the yeshiva and the dorm.
Maybe they won’t get divorced, the line drawings whispered. She is pregnant after all.
The Rabbi continued walking past, thinking over which sections of the Talmud he might drill the students on. The portraits remained suspended this way for some time, present in the Rabbi’s periphery, until he received a call from one of the boys’ mothers, asking if it would be possible for her son, Shmuel Shapiro, to take art lessons. The Rabbi was so surprised by the suggestion he almost wasn’t sure he heard her right.
“What do you mean?” the Rabbi tried to keep polite. Mrs. Shapiro and her husband were ba’alay teshuvah from Richmond, Virginia, who only recently became Lubavitchers. Unlike most ba’alay teshuvah who came from completely secular backgrounds, the Shapiros were modern orthodox before they turned ultra-orthodox, a transition that wasn’t too drastic for their son, Shmuel. That was the only reason the Rabbi accepted Shmuel into the yeshiva – usually he would recommend Morristown, or other, more suitable environments. But Shmuel had a good head for Gemara, and a gentle disposition. He seemed genuinely enthusiastic about joining the yeshiva, and the Rabbi got the sense that it was his choice, and not his parents’. Besides, Shmuel was one of two children and his father made a lot of money, enough to pay full tuition, making Shmuel a bit too valuable for the yeshiva to lose.
“Well, Sam has been saying that he feels like he needs a bit of an outlet,” Mrs. Shapiro explained.
The use of Shmuel’s English name made the Rabbi cringe.
“That’s why we give the boys a break every day after lunch,” the Rabbi said, keeping an even tone. “For the bochurim to channel their energy outside of class.”
“Yes, yes, he told me about that,” Shmuel’s mother replied. “But you know, Sam isn’t much of a sports guy, he really doesn’t like to play basketball. And he’s always been so creative, we think it’d be nice for him to continue it there at the yeshiva.”
“We’ve never really had a student take art lessons before.” The Rabbi felt uncomfortable. They didn’t teach math, science, or history—the idea of art lessons was absurd.
“Besides,” he added, “there really isn’t time in the schedule.”
“Oh, I know the boys are so busy,” Mrs. Shapiro said, unbothered by the Rabbi’s hesitance, or perhaps unaware, “but Sam told me about this lovely lady around the corner who offers art lessons for a very reasonable price. Couldn’t he go during the basketball time?”
“Shmuel has been going into the art studio?”
Mrs. Shapiro said something in response, but the Rabbi didn’t hear. He stared at the calendar in his office and tried to remember when paintings of his students began to appear, whether he’d ever noticed a student inside the woman’s studio.
“Let me think about it,” the Rabbi said, and then he hung up the phone. He brushed a couple of long, dark beard hairs off his jacket and absentmindedly lifted a pen off his desk, clicking it with his thumb. The Rabbi wondered why it never occurred to him before. The woman was able to capture the boy’s faces because she had met them. The bochurim were posing for her.
The Rabbi sat on his secret knowledge through spring as though it were information with the potential to damage him and not just his students. He considered asking the boys about it, and then thought the better of it. He hoped he were wrong, and none of the boys ever noticed the artist, in which case it wouldn’t be right to bring her and her paintings to the yeshiva’s attention. He developed a habit of walking two blocks out of the way so as to avoid the studio entirely, curving around Lunt Street and walking towards the yeshiva through the alley as if the portraits could disappear by his very will. Stranger things had happened throughout history after all.
One Shabbos in late April, the Rabbi and Baila Rochel were invited to a meal hosted by the Rifkins, the couple that ran the girls’ elementary school. The two of them walked to the Rifkin house in distracted silence after shul. The weather was pleasant: cold enough for black suit jackets to be comfortable and not oppressive, but not so cold as to require extra layers.
Rabbi Rifkin and his wife had invited no other guests. The meal was small and intimate; the four of them leisurely enjoying their aging process; anxieties of rearing young children already far behind them. Baila Rochel thrived in her new role as grandmother, and the Rabbi felt he and his wife were closer than ever, even one of the same mind. When Mrs. Rifkin asked about Mendel, the Rabbi and Baila Rochel answered that Mendel was good, boruch hashem, neither one looking to the other before replying. Rabbi and Mrs. Rifkin murmured their assent, gently remembering how hard it was for Mendel to find someone. They all agreed Mendel’s wife was very special. The Rabbi asked about the Rifkin children, and the laughter came easy again, just how the Rabbi preferred. Once kiddush was made and the salads were eaten, Mrs. Rifkin began to discuss a recent issue they were struggling with at the girl’s school: the use of Yiddish in the classrooms.
“It’s a problem,” Mrs. Rifkin explained. “Many of the parents have started calling me to complain about the Yiddish-only policy.”
The Rabbi listened sympathetically. He, his wife, and the Rifkins were part of another class of Lubavitchers: children of old, prestigious families, unlike the other members of their young Chicago community, most of whom returned to religiosity in their twenties, or even later, possessing little knowledge of Judaism. These fresh adherents struggled with reading Hebrew, and Yiddish was a second language twice removed, patched together from too many other languages and insider references for any newcomer to remember.
“They should be happy their children are learning Yiddish,” Baila Rochel said. “If they don’t learn it in cheder, where else? Their parents don’t speak it to them.”
“That’s the problem,” Mrs. Rifkin told her. “The parents feel like they can’t help their children with the homework because they don’t understand the language.”
The Rabbi didn’t see how this was a problem. “The Rebbe spoke in Yiddish because he thought Yiddish was important. The parents should see that as well.”
Mrs. Rifkin struggled to articulate herself. “I agree that it’s important, but I don’t know…many of the students do poorly in Yiddish, but have no problem in English classes. It’s frustrating for them, and it’s frustrating for the parents. They worry their children aren’t properly learning either language.”
“That’s because the parents still have goyish values,” Rabbi Rifkin said, responding to his wife, but addressing the other Rabbi.
The Rabbi agreed. “A lot of them don’t understand the essence of what Judaism is.” He remembered the conversation he had with Shmuel’s mother. “You know I actually had a parent call me up and ask if her son could take art classes? Never, in all my years of teaching, has anyone ever asked me if their son could take art classes. No one would have even considered such a thing when I was in yeshiva.”
Rabbi Rifkin leaned back in his chair and pushed his plate away, prompting his wife and the other rebbetzin to stand up and clear the table.
“It was just a different time,” he mused.
“I suppose,” the Rabbi said, and then he paused. The two Rabbis shared an anxious silence as the dishes steadily disappeared from the table. Rabbi Rifkin hummed a nigun and the Rabbi tugged at his beard, letting the uncertainty linger between him and his old friend. He joined along with Rabbi Rifkin’s nigun, singing the wordless tune loudly, the emotive familiarity buried in the song’s dips and rises. As he sang the familiar melody, etched into the muscle memory of his jaw so that it rushed out without premeditation, the Rabbi considered the fate of their next generation. The two Rabbis banged their fists on the emptied table and sang out the painful questions they had no answers for. Why did the Rebbe abandon them twenty years before and never return? Why had their leader tasked them with searching out new followers—Jews with no religious background or understanding—who threatened to dissolve the fabric of the community once they joined? They harbored the superstitious fear, one incapable of verbalization, that the world they so zealously guarded would end with their generation. But most of all, they feared the approaching extinction was their own doing. They feared the outreach they had devoted themselves to meant looking outwards instead of inwards; so that for each young man or woman coaxed into the tiny neighborhood of their lives, another son or daughter found an opening and slipped out.
“Do you want tea?” Mrs. Rifkin asked the Rabbi. Not waiting for his reply, she brought out a tray, balancing a teapot and little painted teacups.
Once the wives settled back into their seats, the conversation about the elementary school resumed. “Something very strange happened to me the other day,” Mrs. Rifkin told the others.
“A woman named Lisa came to the cheder and told me she was an artist, and that she wanted to paint the girls. She was wondering if she could take pictures of them. I told her no, of course, and then asked her why she’d been painting the bochurim.” At this, Mrs. Rifkin looked to the Rabbi, who looked down at his teacup and began to stir.
“This is the woman on Lunt and California?” Baila Rochel asked, even though everyone knew which artist Mrs. Rifkin was talking about.
“Yeah, you know, the one who has the big portraits of the boys hanging in the studio window.” Mrs. Rifkin stretched her hands as she said “big,” as if to emphasize her innocence in the face of artistic practices.
“It’s creepy,” Rabbi Rifkin weighed in. “And besides, she’s not a very good artist. The paintings don’t look anything like the bochurim. I think she’s trying to make it abstract.”
“Really?” the Rabbi interrupted his friend. “You don’t think the pictures don’t look like them? For me, I can recognize the face of every student.”
“That’s the thing,” Mrs. Rifkin continued. “She’s painting them from photographs, that’s what the woman told me. Did you know that?” she asked the Rabbi, turning to address him directly. “Apparently during their Friday rounds, one of the boys went into her studio and asked if her husband was Jewish. She said, yes, my husband is Jewish. So, they asked if he would put on tefillin. She said only if they would pose for a painting. The boys said no, of course, but they let her husband photograph them instead. Now every week, a different pair of boys goes into her studio for her husband to take pictures of them, and in exchange he puts on tefillin.”
Upon finishing her story, Mrs. Rifkin looked around the table, but none of the other three ventured a response.
“Well…” Baila Rochel finally said. “At least her husband is doing a mitzvah, right?”
“You think that’s what the Rebbe would have wanted?” Rabbi Rifkin said, and the Rabbi startled at the sharp tone in his friend’s voice. Baila Rochel said nothing.
“Who knows what the Rebbe would have wanted,” the Rabbi added softly. He knew his friend did not expect an answer from anyone.
That evening the Rabbi went to shul for mincha, and when Shabbos ended, he walked home along California Avenue instead of his usual route, following the street to the woman’s studio on Lunt. Once he turned off Devon, the streets were empty, besides for occasional cars and other Jews making their way home from shul. California was the border street that separated houses from apartments, the Jewish community from the rest of Rogers Park, and to the Rabbi it felt like venturing down a long strip of the city’s seams, masquerading as concrete. They had only moved to that neighborhood thirty years ago, in 1979, fifteen years before the Rebbe abandoned them on earth. And since then, a few families had grown to hundreds of families, one shul to numerous shuls fanned beyond the original streets. The Rabbi resigned himself to the transience of their lives, and arrived at the darkened storefront where the portraits of his students hung. He looked around at the empty street and took a step forward to examine the paintings up close, his upper half bent towards the studio window.
In some ways, he noted, she painted them all the same. Each boy was shaped with angular shoulders and extra bony hands, as if the fingers on yeshiva boys’ hands bent in five places instead of three. But the shoulders and hands were where the similarities ended. The faces reflected the individual students he knew so well, students from around the world that he himself painstakingly selected from a pile of applications. Students he lectured at each morning as they stretched and yawned and picked at the white plastic tablecloths covering the yeshiva’s folding tables.
And yet, staring at the boys in the clean space of a portrait felt like encountering them for the first time. The Rabbi noticed, to his surprise, how young they all were; that their limbs seemed to float in their black hats and jackets, those signifiers of membership they wore so awkwardly and proudly. None of the boys tucked in their shirts, which gave them a haphazard appearance when studied individually, though this quirk appeared organized and neat when they sat before him as a collective in the school building. They all buttoned up the same way, keeping the top button undone so the collars flapped around their throats and the eager protrusions of their necks leaped from their dress shirts.
Taking in each painting, the Rabbi noticed a detail he had entirely missed all those months he walked past the portraits. In the corner of each one, the boys had signed their names in both Hebrew and English as if to approvingly say, Yes, this is me. The Rabbi’s eyes traveled from portrait to portrait and took in all the names scrawled in the corners of the paintings, evidence of something he could not place just yet. Yossi Feldman, Chaim Kornberg, Yitzchak Bogomilsky, Zalman Rapaport. He mouthed each bochur’s name and wondered how this woman’s project had managed to develop so innocuously, completely within his purview.
The Rabbi abruptly pulled himself away, moving faster than he had before. He resolved to email the teachers that evening. He would instruct them, he decided, to forbid the students from visiting the studio on Friday or any other day for that matter. Finally, he would personally visit the studio and ask the woman to take the paintings down.
As he neared his own block, the Rabbi removed his hands from his pockets and slowed his moving feet. He thought of the leaping necks and open eyes. It occurred to him that his bochurim were so unaware of themselves, the way they gingerly posed beneath the artist’s brush, their interior lives never coming into contact with the world’s perception of them.
He thought once again–the thousandth time since the news was relayed to him–of the troubles he was having with Mendel. The Rabbi couldn’t shake from his mind an image of Mendel as a young boy, so similar to those propped up in the window, yet different—drastically different. Mendel was already too conscious of his limbs at that age, and they met the clothing he wore with ease, took up natural residence in the four-cornered frame Mendel carried with him wherever he went, forcing everyone to encounter him as an individual, despite his black pants and greying button down. Mendel possessed a vanity that none of the other boys seemed to know they were capable of discovering—a oneness of body and spirit—and it disturbed the Rabbi to recognize this harmony in his own son. But these boys, these bochurim, they didn’t have to know about the four corners a body could carry around the world with it. The Rabbi wanted his yeshiva boys to live like they didn’t ever imprint themselves on another person’s mind, and it wasn’t right for the artist to take that away from them.
At home the Rabbi drafted an email to the other teachers at the yeshiva, and then read the daily portions before shutting off the lights in the various corners of his home. He passed his sleeping wife on the way to the bathroom, and brushed his teeth in the dark, his hands finding the toothpaste and toothbrush automatically. After rinsing out his mouth, the Rabbi paused and then turned on the bathroom light, examining the reflection before him in the mirror. He searched his features for remnants of continuity, something of the past that could be buried in his face. Under his eyes, the veins shone over dark circles, and the hairs of his beard crept so far up his cheeks that the space between his beard and his baggy eyes was almost negligible. The Rabbi tried to wriggle out of his own body and watch the face as though it were not his face at all, but he wasn’t sure how. All he saw was the skin he had breathed and sweated in for so many years, the functional collection of arteries and muscles, and the millions and millions of pores.
The Rabbi shut off the bathroom light and carried himself into bed. His wife turned over to adjust the blankets, and when he saw that she was still awake, he whispered,
“Did you speak to Mendel tonight?”
“No,” she whispered back. “He didn’t call.”
“I’ve decided to stop the boys from visiting that woman’s studio.”
“That’s good,” Baila Rochel said. “They shouldn’t visit.”
“No,” the Rabbi agreed. “They shouldn’t.” Then the two of them fell quiet, each breathing the blanket up and down in their separate beds.
“Baila Rochel?” The Rabbi finally said.
“Do you ever think about your body?”
“Do I ever think about my body?
“What do you mean?”
The Rabbi thought into the silence again. “I mean, if you ever think about how the world sees you, what you look like to them?” It wasn’t what he meant to ask, but it was close.
“All the time,” Baila Rochel replied. “But I don’t really have to think about it, because I already know. Do you notice how people talk to us differently? Like we’re not one of them? Sometimes I’ll be at the grocery store and I’ll hear how the person behind the counter changes their voice when it’s my turn. Everyone becomes politer, more reserved, but kinder too, as if I’m a child.”
The Rabbi hesitated and collected his thoughts again. “I guess I mean what you think about your body, what you see when you imagine yourself.”
“Well, let me think.”
The Rabbi waited.
“I guess I just imagine me,” Baila Rochel said after a while. “My shaytl and my face, and maybe that I look older.”
She paused, and then continued talking, in that slow, absorbed way people talk when thinking about something for the first time.
“It’s always a surprise to think about how much older I look. Whenever I imagine myself, the first thing I see is me before all the children, myself at twenty, but really, I’ve spent more time with my body as a mother, myself after all the pregnancies.” She sat up and looked at him in the thinning dark.
“Why do you ask? Is this about the paintings?”
“I don’t know,” the Rabbi sighed. “I’m really not sure.”
In the morning, Shmuel’s mother called the Rabbi again, reminding him of the unpleasant task he was to take care of that day. Though she seemed to have forgotten about the art classes, at least for the time being, and was calling about an online math program for her son.
“I understand that the yeshiva doesn’t have time for secular subjects,” Mrs. Shapiro said, “but Sam is thinking of going to college someday. He’d like to be an engineer. Maybe he could skip some Gemara in the afternoon and take a math class online.”
“I see, I see,” the Rabbi murmured in response. He wanted to tell her that the Rebbe didn’t support college, or at least only supported college in special cases, and surely not before marriage. But because Mrs. Shapiro was so new he wasn’t sure whether it would be right to tell her. Maybe he could tell the boy one on one. They could speak in his office and the Rabbi would give Shmuel some letters from the Rebbe on college. The Rabbi already knew what the boy would say. He would protest that the Rebbe went to college, the Sorbonne no less, and ask how it could be that the Rebbe went to college and he, Shmuel, shouldn’t be allowed to go. The Rabbi sighed.
“I understand your concerns, Mrs. Shapiro. Let me schedule a meeting with Shmuel and see where he is holding in Gemara. You understand he is a little behind the other students. I will see where he is holding, and try to understand from him what he’s looking for.”
“Ok, thank you Rabbi,” Mrs. Shapiro said, and she hung up the phone.
The Rabbi put on a light jacket and left the house. He headed towards the art studio on Lunt and California, letting his eyes search for another reflection in the storefront windows. Not just the image that existed in his own mind, but the reflection others might see: his black hat, his long beard, the rolling belly, and his dark colored shoes, walking with stiff purpose.
Inside the studio, the Rabbi dizzied at the colorful paintings overwhelming the small room, paintings papered from floor to ceiling with piles more around the studio. Most of the paintings on the walls were of women, older women, detailed in the same bony, angular way the artist had made the bochurim, except bursting with earthy reds and greens with almost no blue. In the bright, bizarrely colored room, the bochurim stood out like a mistake, the only canvasses lacking in deep color.
“Hello?” the Rabbi called out cautiously, stepping slowly into the packed space.
“Yes, I’m coming! One moment!” A voice shouted from the back room. The Rabbi almost turned around and left. Swallowing the impulse, he placed his hands in his pant pockets instead, and rocked his weight between his heels and his toes, glancing from one painting to the next, and skipping his glance over the ones depicting nudes.
From the back of the room came the squeak of a faucet, and then the woman herself. She wiped her hands on her long tunic and pushed back her frizzy hair with a breathless gesture.
“Hello,” she said, sounding surprised but not unpleasantly so. “I would offer you my handshake but I know you guys don’t do that.”
The Rabbi smiled politely. “I see you’ve met my students.”
“Oh!” the woman said, her eyes brightening. “So you’re in charge of the school?”
“Yes, I’m the principal.”
“Maybe they told me about you. They’re such sweet boys, you know. When I first saw them walking down the street, I couldn’t tell the difference between them.”
She laughed at herself, and then quickly added, “I don’t mean that in an offensive way.” She held out her hand as if to reassure him, before letting it fall to her side again.
“Just that, well, they all dress the same, and it’s almost impossible to tell any difference from afar. But when I started painting them, I couldn’t understand how I ever mixed them up in the first place! They all seem so different to me now, even in the way they wear their hats or button their shirts, there’s such personality within the uniform. Do you notice that, too?”
The Rabbi had never considered the bochurim to be indistinguishable from one another, or at least not in the way she described.
“Oh!” she said abruptly, jumping up and turning to her back room. “I should show you.”
The artist disappeared into the back and came out again, carrying out a large painted canvas. When the Rabbi saw the beginning etches of his Rebbe, the leader’s likeness taking form in the strokes of paint, he felt something like shock, or maybe anger.
“The boys kept bringing me this man’s photo and asking me to paint him,” the artist explained, chuckling a little. “Do you know who he is?” She didn’t wait for a response. “I told them I would only paint him if they brought me a photo of him smiling. ‘He’s always frowning!’ I said. ‘Why are you always bringing me angry photos?’ But then they brought me this very nice picture of him smiling, so I started painting that one.”
The Rebbe was indeed smiling as he took shape on the big, white square. His eyes crinkled in the corners, and his cheeks bubbled up underneath them, two crescent moons pushed into a smile by the lively mustache and the upturned mouth. The Rabbi could almost hear the sounds of nigunim, he could see the Rebbe’s fist lifted high above his smile, shaking and pushing through the air with enthusiasm, moving together with the livening rhythm. The Rabbi swallowed and buttoned his jacket, a slight shake in his fingers. It wasn’t the woman’s place to paint the Rebbe and bring him to life. From the portrait, the Rebbe seemed to be smiling at him, telling the Rabbi that it was okay, he knew, he had allowed it to happen. It was all part of a master plan, the Rebbe’s eyes winked from the canvas, but the familiar feeling of the doubt prevented the Rabbi from falling into the Rebbe’s image.
The Rabbi turned away from the painting and made as if to leave.
“Please take down the portraits of my students,” he said near the door, “and do not distribute or sell any of them.”
The artist looked at him curiously, warmth still lingering in her face.
“The parents are upset. The students are minors. You have no permission to paint them. Please remove the portraits or we’ll be forced to take further action.”
The woman’s face flushed; whether she was embarrassed or upset the Rabbi could not tell.
“Ok,” she finally said, after studying the Rabbi’s face for a few stifled minutes, searching for a clear emotion. “I’ll take them down.”
The artist made true to her promise, and by the next day, his students’ portraits were already gone. In their place stood canvases full of naked women, shoulders peeking out from reds and purples that barely covered their breasts. During morning class the students did not seem considerably changed. They sat and yawned and slouched as they usually did, and a few even asked questions. There was no indication that anything had shifted, that they had ceased to exist outside the world of their own minds. The relative calm that followed the tense events of the previous month gave the Rabbi a mournful relief. He allowed himself to settle into the calm, until a student knocked on his door, bearing the smiling painting of the Rebbe from the day before.
“Sorry to bother you,” the student said. It was Shmuel. He held the painting carefully, like it was holy or still wet. “The woman down the street gave this to me,” Shmuel stretched the painting towards the Rabbi, who didn’t make any motion to accept it. “Have you seen her paintings of everyone? She stopped by today with a crate full of them and gave us each a picture. She said to give this one to you.”
“Thank you, Shmuel.” The Rabbi gestured to a corner on the floor. “You can just put it there. I’ll figure out what to do with it.”
Shmuel put down the picture. The Rabbi leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach. He returned his attention to Shmuel.
“I received a call from your mother yesterday.”
Shmuel nodded. “She told me about it.”
“Come see me tomorrow and we’ll speak some more. In the meantime, I think you should read the Rebbe’s letters on college. Ask the other boys, they’ll show you where to find them.”
“Ok,” Shmuel said, and he turned to go.
As he watched Shmuel walk away, the Rabbi was interrupted by another memory of his son Mendel at that age, the way Mendel’s shoulders sliced through the air like Shmuel’s. For a second, the Rabbi thought he saw Shmuel’s shoulders blur and then subsequently sharpen, turning angular and rough like those of the portrait that used to hang in the studio window. The Rabbi blinked, and Shmuel’s back straightened out again, the lines became clear and the colors more realistic.
The Rabbi studied the portrait on his office floor. There, among the Rebbe’s features, the Rabbi saw his own. It wasn’t just the beard they shared, or the shadow of a hat brim. He saw, even in the first sketchings of the deceased man’s image, the sum of his life. Everything he had tried to be, every word or thought he shaped for the past fifty years. There was his father in the Rebbe’s eyes. There was his mother in the crinkles at the eye’s corners. His wedding day, the first day of his job, his children’s faces, his son Mendel underneath the chuppah. All of it rested in the curve of the Rebbe’s smile.
The Rabbi was hit with a disturbing awareness. His leader, his Rebbe, the man smiling from the painting, had become unfamiliar to him. Taking care not to smudge the paint, the Rabbi lifted the canvas and carefully placed it in his office closet. He cleared out any objects in its way and gently positioned the portrait upright so that nothing would crush it.
Cover Image: O’Keeffe, Georgia. “A Storm.” 1922. Pastel on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
by Tova Benjamin
First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize