After Tragic Fire, Israeli Artist Brings Bible to Life

July 8, 2018

4 min read

Israeli artist Yoram Raanan, whose Hebrew name connotes eternal freshness, lost his art studio and most of his life’s work in November 2016, when a wildfire tore through Beit Meir, a small Jewish community situated just west of Jerusalem. Ironically, the fire occurred on the 40th anniversary of Raanan’s move to Israel.

After the loss, Breaking Israel News reported that Raanan was helped by “the immediate outpouring of love and generosity from Christian Zionists around the world.” Rabbi Tuly Weisz, publisher of Breaking Israel News and founder of Israel365 “wrote a check from the donations to the artist, explaining that Christians and Jews from around the world have sent their prayers and blessings to him and all who have suffered through these fires.”

Raanan has since rebuilt. And he just published a massive coffee table book called Art of Revelation: A Visual Encounter with the Jewish Bible. The book follows the Hebrew Bible and offers an image connected to each of the weekly Torah readings.

Faith in God helped Raanan cope with the loss of 40 years of his irreplaceable work, only a small fraction of which had been professionally photographed.

“The good materialized immediately,” he told Breaking Israel News. “There was a positive response from everybody. I rebuilt very quickly. I started with a 60-meter studio that’s now 300 meters. The studio is 1000% better than before. My original studio was a converted chicken coop. This one has light from the north, high ceilings and is airy and spacious. The fire even opened a view of the scenery.”

After the blaze, Raanan noticed, “I had a new attitude. I didn’t have to prove anything anymore. Even though the body of work hadn’t been documented, I could do whatever I wanted now. I was just going to go forward, not trying to do anything in particular. I was free to change my approach.

“I feel a tremendous amount of emuna (faith) in my life in general. Everything is God. Whatever happens is God to me. I felt that and believed that. I immediately realized that a lot of good would come out of [the fire]. God is a great script writer.”

Speaking about the appeal of his Biblical art to Christians, Raanan said, “We share a common language of Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) and respect for the Creator and relationship with Him.

“There was someone who came to my studio recently She comes from a deeply evangelical family in Texas. She discovered me on [where his art is used to illustrate Torah articles]. She looked at my website and felt a deep connection to my work. Christians who like my work are extremely enthusiastic about it. [Unlike Jews], Christians have had [a history of] visual art. My work is more suggestive.”

One thing Raanan is certain of is that his audience isn’t other artists. He admits to being “bothered by the whole stigma of the Bible in the non-religious world. They can’t even look at it.” He is equally certain that his natural audience “is other Bible-based people,” like Christians and religious Jews.

An immigrant from the United States, Raanan’s work is influenced by living in Israel. “The Land of Israel and Jerusalem are key elements of my work. Right now, I’m working on a series of paintings called Jerusalem Starry Night, but I don’t know what that really looks like. Each one is different.

“I love living here. I feel connected to living here. It’s my home. I feel very safe, very secure, no matter what. The light, the energy, the people, the holiness, God’s eyes are upon us. People here are trying to serve the Lord and learn Torah. There’s a great vibe that seems to be getting better.”

It is a land which Hashem your God looks after, on which Hashem your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end. Deuteronomy 11:12

In the book’s Afterword, Torah scholar Dr. Michael Chigel addresses the tension between creating Biblical art like Yoram Raanan’s and the prohibitions of the Second Commandment.

You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. Exodus 20:4

Chigel describes the “suggested figuration” of Raanan’s art in this way. “His paintings do not really represent anything, and this already places them at a safe distance from the idolatrous circumstances in which the plastic arts made their historical debut…

“[T]he forms are simply absent, mere upright shadows with no bodies casting the shadows. These scenes are inhabited by pure shadow-men and pure shadow-women. And this tricky technique may be recognized as yet another effective means for circumventing the old problem of iconography, the idolization of the human form which has been the driving force behind so much Western high art.”

Reflecting on the spiritual side of his creative process, Raanan said, “There’s a principle that I try to apply to my life. Bitul. Self-nullification. Getting rid of the ego. Make pure expression without thinking about it. [I begin work] not knowing what I’m going to do. Things get suggested to me, making something larger or smaller or changing color. That process allows a spiritual energy to come out. I try to find it and cultivate it.”

As he prepares to create an image to accompany a Torah portion, Raanan said he is “highly-focused, looking in as many sources as possible to get a image. Looking at Rabbinic sources gives me a greater imagination. A lot of images that come out in my paintings are not planned or conceived consciously. They just appear. I feel like I’m a vessel. I splash water on oil and things appear. I don’t have a concrete vision ever.”

“In life, everything I’m trying to do is trying to be a vessel for God’s will. It can’t be about what I want. I follow my intuition, but whatever happens, Hashem (God) runs the world. The thing is to be open to life and God’s reality, as opposed to what I want.”

Raanan hopes that those who view the Biblical images in Art of Revelation will gain “a sense of the richness, depth and breath of Torah and all the layers, a sense of wanting to know more [Torah] and appreciating what they do know.

“The commentary [written by his wife Meira] is done very well. She’s really good at it. She gives a guide to looking at the art and the Torah and her commentary touches on ideas that are varied and informed. It’s a worthwhile read and a book to keep going back to,” he concluded.

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