American Jewish Library Association Speech

How to Draw a Picture of God: The Midrashim of My Life

In 1991 I was faced with a dilemma I had looked forward to all my life; how do you draw a picture of God? As a child I loved to draw. I drew before I could walk or talk. Crawling around the house I drew on the floor. I drew on the walls. My parents encouraged me. I went to art classes for kids. I went to art school. They never taught me to how to draw God. There were drawing lessons in the comic books I loved; a bunch of adjacent ellipses miraculously became a perfect likeness of Mickey Mouse. But there was nothing similar to help me draw God. In 1991 wanted to make a picture book based on a Midrash about Moses and God. I knew what Moses looked like – forget Charlton Heston – Moses was my grandfather Willie with a beard. I thought at first I knew what God looked like too; I’d known since I was very little, but the more I worked on it, the less sure I became.

And then, I was surprised to be confronted with the question of whether I should draw God at all. Or whether anyone should draw anything. When the painter Ad Rhinehart was asked why he only painted pictures that were completely black he said, “because thou shalt make no graven image of anything in heaven or on earth or in the sea!” Which is one of the best explanations and justifications I’ve ever heard for abstract art: God likes it. Out of only Ten commandments, the one against making images is number two, before thou shalt not kill, or commit adultery – how is it most of us illustrators dare to just ignore it? Jewish illustrators in medieval Europe became devious when they illustrated their Hagaddahs; there were no people in them, just bizarre bird- beaked reptiles like something out of Star Wars, because they weren’t, “any thing seen on heaven or on earth,” or even under the sea.

Where do we get the Chutzpah to draw anything anywhere – not to mention God? Well, obviously, the world is full of graven images of all kinds, and getting fuller, and many of them, in various ways, are worshiped, and the world goes on – or seems to. Maybe if, as some lawmakers urge, we hang up the Ten Commandments in every school room, it will cut down not only on murder and adultery, but also on the future numbers of graven images. But I, like countless other visual artists, thinking maybe, there is safety in numbers and the fact that humans have done it ever since drawing was invented 30,000 years ago, blithely ignore the second Commandment. Maybe some day all of us will wake up and find out we made a big mistake.

As I said, I thought I knew what God looked like; by which I mean, the way He is pictured in the western tradition of which I am a part. My memories of childhood are very vivid and close to me, and there were pictures. My parents filled the house with pictures. My parents amaze me. My amazing father came to this country from Poland at the age of nine or ten, and was put into a Chicago Kindergarten where he learned English, and in his teens, ran off from his Orthodox family to New York to become an actor and playwright. He never went to college, wound up in Los Angeles, and spent his life working in the wholesale grocery business, but he eventually wrote plays. My amazing mother, whose father and illiterate mother were Odessan immigrants, and whose own education went no further than a year of junior college, hung the walls of our tiny basement flat with reproductions cut from books on Picasso and Cezanne, that austere father of modern art. How did she know about Cezanne? My mother made a scrapbook of pictures cut from Life magazine. It was really a homemade art book and the first book I can remember. On my belly on the rug I turned its pages over and over. I was especially fascinated with a picture of a white robed and bearded old man kneeling on a cloud and leaning out beyond it with a large measuring device. Who is this and what is he doing? I was told it was God making the world; one of the great William Blake’s illustrations for the book of Job. Fearless Blake dared draw God and everything else in heaven and earth and the sea, and said he never drew anything he hadn’t seen with his own eyes. There were also his drawings of God making Adam out of dust, and the morning stars singing together. There was also Michelangelo’s God reaching out to touch Adam’s finger. These also are Midrashim. Later when I asked my Grandpa Willie what made the rain, and he told me the old guy is peeing up there, thanks to William Blake and Michelangelo, I knew exactly who he meant. My Grandma Bluma would look through the book with me and tell me her stories about the pictures: The Mona Lisa is happy because her grandson is coming to visit and she just made poppy seed cookies for him. These are the legends of my family.

I seem to have always known the stories from the Torah, as if I’d absorbed them by osmosis, as if they were a part my own story and that of my family. When I was about five, a stocky old man with a short, bristly. white beard came to sit next to me at our dining room table and teach me the Aleph Base. He smelled of the old prayer books in the morning glory covered wooden synagogue in East Los Angeles we called shul. He taught me the names of the Hebrew letters and how they sounded, but no stories. I believe I was introduced to the biblical world by songs and pictures. I remember one morning being riveted by a voice from the radio singing, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls come Tumbling down!” and singing, “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land. Tell old Pharaoh, Let my People GO!” and knowing somehow that those people were my people. I know now that the voice was Paul Robeson, and I think that these songs are Midrashim. I also heard a song about how old man Moses kicked the bucket, and also one about how Jonah he lived in a whale, and he made his home in that fish’s abdomen.

Our earliest memories are our personal myths and legends, which include our hearings and misunderstandings of family legends and stories, and the Bible people – Samson with his hair of power, Noah and his ark – are part of my family and yours. They are us. The Garden of Eden for me was Wabash Avenue where we lived, I was a five-year-old Adam and Eve was Shirley, my friend next door, and because the lady with the parrot across the alley saw what Shirley and I did together under the back porch and told our mothers, sin, shame and learning not to get caught entered Eden, and Eden was Eden no longer.

At seven or eight, in Hebrew school, I did learn the stories of Cain and Able, Abraham and Isaac and Sarah, Joseph and his brothers, and what stories they are. These are stories of families: mothers and fathers and sons and brothers – and a few sisters – and of course, God.

It was no surprise, given my parents, that I became an artist. They wanted an artist. After high school, I went to art school; though when my younger brother’s guitar teacher, himself a world famous virtuoso, told my parents that my brother had potential for a concert career as a classical guitarist, they sent him off to college and eventually law school. One artist in the family was enough. At first I was going to be a painter, the highest, purest calling of a visual artist, though secretly, I always loved doing illustration, and even comic books, both far from art’s pure heights. And of the illustrations I would have loved to do, foremost were ones of the bible stories. After all, ever since I was little I knew how God looked.

I had to earn a living, got a job in an animated cartoon studio and painted nights. I also loved animated cartoons, especially Bugs Bunny, which I couldn’t admit to until pop art freed us all by destroying forever the idea of bad taste – a really cataclysmic emancipation of the human sensibility and the arts. I didn’t begin writing and illustrating picture books till my early forties, and, having very young somehow, become inoculated with the idea that you may not directly pursue your heart’s true desire, I put the idea of doing the Old Testament stories off into some ideal future.

In 1991 my mother was twenty years dead and my father, past eighty and stricken with advanced Parkinson’s, was in a nursing home in Los Angeles. He had retired and written plays, and seen some of them produced. Now he could no longer speak, and could barely move. At the same time, in San Francisco, my son Aram and his wife were expecting my first grandchild. Such is life. From where I lived with my wife and daughter in western Massachusetts, I went back and forth from father to son, needing to be with all of them. Being with my father was difficult because there was no longer conversation, and I decided to spend the time reading to him. Staying with my brother, I searched his bookshelves and pulled out a book titled The Folk Literature of the Kurdistani Jews, an Anthology, edited and translated by Jonah Sabar. I knew nothing of Kurdistani Jews, but I was sure there must be some because my mother always assured us there were Jews everywhere – China, Malaysia, India, you name it, you’ll find them. I opened the book to an ancient Midrash on the death of Moses. I take The definition of Midrash from Louis Ginzburg, the folklorist and scholar whose seven volume The Legends of the Jews is an invaluable treasure and resource. He says a Midrash is a legend about biblical characters used to teach a lesson or make a point. In this one, God tells Moses his time on earth is done, and Moses argues with God to let him live a little longer. “Please Lord, just a little longer! Make me into a butterfly, I’ll sleep on the wind, I won’t take up any room …” God says everything has a time to die, and even He cannot change it. Moses pleads with the hills, sun, and stars to intercede for him and change God’s mind, before finally, he submits himself to God’s law. Then God can’t find an angel willing to take Moses’ soul, he is so beloved in heaven, and finally God has to take his soul Himself, with a kiss of His mouth. And then, even though all the angels try to comfort him, saying Moses’ soul is with Him forever, God sits down and weeps with grief at the loss of His servant.

I read it and wept too. It was the most direct, unflinchingly honest thing I had ever read about death, and it spoke directly to my precise situation. I took it and began to read it to my father. When it became clear to him what the substance of it was, he shook his head vehemently and had me stop. Like Moses, he didn’t want to hear about it, but I began trying to turn it into a picture book.

Certain stories are perfect for picture books. I think of a picture book as a little theatre you hold in your hand, operated by turning the pages. It’s a cross between a poem, a movie and an opera. For me, the story has to have a clear, simple shape, and has to have a primal emotional content that’s meaningful t o everyone. Picture books are primarily for children, but all of us either are, or have been children, and a book idea has to be meaningful to me, my wife and friends as well as my fourteen-year-old daughter and my grandchildren. The key word is clarity, a clarity that always contains mysteries. A picture book should be provocative of conversation and discussion and most of all, questions. Good questions.

Moses was Grandpa Willie with a long beard and white robes, and at first, so was God; Just like William Blake and Michelangelo.
This upset my friend Norman, who was himself an expert, having written a fine novel called Learning About God. “You can’t show pictures of God,” he insisted. “It’s not Jewish! Thou shalt make no graven images! and Blake and Michelangelo got away with it because they weren’t Jewish.”

Norman touched the buried concern I found I had with depicting God. He reminded me how Moses himself demanded to see the face of God and was shown only his backside.

Some Midrashim interpret this as seeing the end – or back – of time, but Norman insisted Moses saw God’s posterior.

Norman’s concerns finally got to me. He was right. I had to abandon Blake’s and Michelangelo’s Yaweh and somehow depict an omnipresent invisible God. How do you draw invisible?

One picture, it is said, is worth a thousand words – sometimes. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”; draw that! In a way, any picture says less, the more specific you are, the fewer the possibilities. The illustrations of a Biblical story are themselves Midrashim because they tell us things about the nature of the people, of the world, of the deity; in Blake’s pictures, if the wind blowing through them blows to the left, the character will live, but if like my Moses, the beard blows to the right, he is moving toward death. The light in picture tells of the time of day, the time of life, the state of mind.

In this story I had to picture invisible things: God taking Moses’ soul with the kiss of his mouth (again, the words somehow say more than any picture). What does she look like, the soul? How can I make it clear what’s happening? How does God sit down and weep? In depicting, the pictures comment, explore, question. My Noah has red hair in a halo around his bald head; he resembles the sun that is sometimes the eye of God and that finally triumphs over the deluge. In my pictures Jonah is constantly trying to sleep and God is continually waking him up. At the end he is awake and enlightened. Each picture tells its own story of how big, how much, and what color. Color is language and tells its own stories.

After much experiment and struggle, I came up with a God who appears in the spaces between things, whose profile is seen where the clouds are not, whose eye is sometimes a bird, sometimes a star or sometimes the planet Jupiter. In this way, the pictures discuss the nature of God, and even provoke a game: can you find God in this picture? I showed pictures to Norman . . . and Norman saw that it was good. Norman was having his own argument with God over multiple sclerosis. Just this spring, like Moses, he conceded to God.

My father died the year my granddaughter Daisy was born. 1991. The story about Moses, The Shadow of a Flying Bird, as the book was called, became my first book to come out of the Jewish tradition, though not without additional struggle. The original publisher that had enthusiastically bought it, suddenly refused to publish it. They had shown the sales people the finished art; “Where’s God?” they asked. They said it was too religious and they couldn’t sell it. What kind of sales staff is that? I would have fired them. Instead they fired me.

Another publisher was found and I got to do something I always want to do every time I finish a book: do it over again the right way, now that I’ve learned how to do that book. The Shadow of a Flying Bird, was soon followed by the story of Jonah, and then Noah – and soon will be followed by the story of Esther and Mordicai. All the stories are enriched with Midrashim and legend, mostly from Ginzburg’s great compendium; legends that tell the reader what they really want to know: how many, how long, how far, why, what did it look like, and what happened afterward.

I love this Jewish tradition of creating stories and legends about the people that we know of through the stories of the Torah, our biblical uncles and aunts, Bobbas and Zadas. It is an interaction and makes the Torah a conversation, an exchange. Intellectual argument and discussion were honored pastimes in my family, and my mother was very proud of the Jewish tradition of arguing with God. The Kurdistani Jews have created their own version of Genesis in which Adam and Eve are forgiven and return to Eden to live in eternal bliss. I might write a Midrash in which Moses and my father and Norman – all of us – are allowed to live forever. Well, not forever, but maybe – please – a little longer.

Mordicai Gerstein – 2004