How Torah Rescues Me from the Wilderness of Art Despair
By Susan Kaplow | March 2, 2021
Mikveh by Susan Kaplow
Stepping out of the lobby onto an icy Broadway, I think: why not go back to the warmth and safety of my apartment? I feel too tired for the 40 minute subway ride and what’s become a chronic struggle in the studio. Almost against my will, something propels me down into the subway, where I catch the 1 train. At Times Square I change for the 7 to Long Island City, rushing through crowds of people, some without masks. My heart pounds with fear. More ice and slush as I pick my way slowly between Court Square and the studio building, sure I will slip and fall at any moment. When I reach the building, I sigh at the sight of the cafe, once a lively scene with great food, now closed for all these months. The hallways are empty. No one to catch the virus from. No one to even say hello to.
In the studio I move restlessly between half-completed projects. I don’t have the right materials. The tools I used to be able to borrow are no longer available. I can’t realize this project without someone to show me how, in person: not happening. I start to sweep up just completed works that now look pathetic or pointless. I am ready to dump them in the trash and go back home when I hear a bat kol (divine voice) whispering to me: “Suzele: this is the midbar, the wilderness, the place of revelation.”
I am stopped in my tracks. Tears well up in my eyes. My body remembers before my mind the words of the Piaseczno Rebbe to his Hasidim in the Warsaw ghetto. “...the fact that God gave the Torah to the Jewish people in the wilderness was of great significance. ...we must never say, “In this place I can worship God but in another place it would not be possible. Wherever we are we must worship God.”
My deepest form of worshipping ha-Shem is making art, especially now that synagogue services appear only in disembodied, zoom form. Surely, I think, if the Rebbe could pray and study in the terrible and terrifying conditions of the ghetto, I could continue making art in this spacious, warm and light-filled studio where no one is threatening me. “...to become a Jew, one must leave home and be on the road, in the wilderness,” the Rebbe said. So, too, to become and keep becoming an artist.
Susan Kaplow is a visual artist whose work is inspired by Jewish sources. Visit her website: susankaplow.com. She thanks R. Lauren Tuchman for introducing her to the Piaseczno Rebbe. See the course Cultivating Spiritual Resilience with the Aish Kodesh.