I signed up for my first art class in twenty years. I was nervous. I went down into my basement to pull out some art supplies to bring with me, supplies I had moved with many times but hadn’t actually used in years. I showed up to the community center classroom, and the teacher explained that this was a space for playing with art, not to worry about creating masterpieces.
We went around the room and introduced ourselves. Most people said they had done a bit of art as a kid. I wondered if I should share my background – the years of training, the many media I’d mastered, the weekends spent shlepping to the Museum of Fine Arts to sketch in the galleries, my constant presence in the high school art rooms, the college admission portfolio, the decision not to go to art school after all. In the end I said something like, “I have a pretty extensive background in visual arts, but life has gotten in the way, and I’m glad to be back.”
This week’s Torah portion begins with God telling Avram to “lech lecha,” to go out, to leave his home for a place unknown. God tells Avram in the famous lines,
“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse the one who curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”
The Hebrew phrase is a bit odd – “lech lecha.” It’s a doubling of the verb for added emphasis, like “go, go.” A Chassidic reading of the Hebrew “lech lecha” renders it literal, taking the second word “lecha” and instead of reading it as a doubled “go,” reads it as the second person pronoun: “Go to yourself.”
What does it mean to go to yourself? In different chapters in my life, it has meant different things. In my teens and twenties, it was going out to try to find myself: who was I, and what did I want to become. I had to leave what I knew to search. In my thirties, it was more about steadying myself in that person I was building, re-centering on the calling I was trying to answer, trying on new ways of being. Now, I would say I am trying to return to who I am and have been to see the continuity in this journey.
In the last eleven years since the birth of my first child, I’ve focused on a couple of aspects of who I am – developing as a rabbi, as a mother, as a spouse. My daughter knows about my background in visual arts; she herself is blessed with the art gene, and we discuss her art and think of ideas together. But I don’t actually make art with her. I’m usually cooking dinner, scheduling doctor’s appointments, or juggling business trips and extracurriculars.
When I told her I had signed up for an art class, she was overjoyed for me. “Oh, Mommy, I’m so proud of you! I’m so excited for you!” she said. When I arrived at the class, I took out my two art supply bins – they’re like small toolboxes. I started running my fingers over the treasures inside. There was gold powder from my grandmother, herself an artist who taught me so much. There were brushes I had once known like friends, each one selected for a purpose. The kneadable eraser smelled like toiling over a drawing. The India ink had dried out and rattled when I shook it. Everything was covered in pencil dust, and my finger turned black as I used the colored pencils. But there was something about it that made me feel whole. Like I was returning to myself.
Rabbi Julia Appel is Clal’s Senior Director of Innovation, helping Jewish professionals and lay leaders revitalize their communities by serving their people better. She is passionate about creating Jewish community that meets the challenges of the 21st century – in which Jewish identity is a choice, not an obligation. Her writing has been featured in such publications as The Forward, The Globe and Mail, and The Canadian Jewish News, among others.