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The Artist’s Quest

The Artist’s Quest

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The citizens of Venice stood silently, waiting.

They had crammed into the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace, bodies pressed tightly together in a crude circle. Every so often they would try to shuffle closer to the people in front of them, craning their necks eagerly for a glimpse of the show to come. Far above them, the rich and the powerful leaned on banisters, gazing down in smug comfort.

In the middle of the circle was a large open space. The performers stood in its center.

Looking at them, one might be forgiven for believing them to be something unearthly, some race of flawless beings transcending the clumsy shackles of mortal form. Surely no human could ever be so graceful? Even the way they waited seemed effortlessly elegant. Some of the onlookers would later describe them like a majestic panther, poised before a leap; others would compare them to figures frozen in an artistic masterpiece. Here, a drummer slowly rubbed a cloth over his priceless African drum; there, a dancer stretched a leg, another watched his breath turn to mist in the wintry air. They moved in slow, careful motions, bodies tense with coiled energy, eyes fixed upwards.

“Up there!” The hoarse cry echoed through the courtyard.

The crowd looked up in unison to see a door open in the palace’s second floor. Jacopo Tiepolo, Doge of Venice, stepped out onto his balcony.

Cheers erupted, shattering the terse silence. The Doge bore the applause patiently for a few moments, smiling benevolently down at his subjects, before he raised a gloved hand for silence.

Once again, a hush fell over the crowd.

Still, they waited.

And then, from behind the Doge, the Artist stepped out.

He wasn’t much to look at, this artist. Dressed in a nondescript brown robe, frayed at the edges from dirt and lack of care, his close-cropped black beard was curiously unkempt, as if he had started grooming himself and then lost interest, and his immaculately cut finger nails were stained with ink and grime. He was of average height, his back straight with an arrogance born from indifference to those around him, and, for those close enough to see, there were heavy bags under his eyes.

Those eyes, though—those eyes burned.

The Artist stepped forward, coming to stand next to the Doge. He looked straight to the performers, seeming not to even see the ever-growing crowd. His face, as he gazed down, was devoid of emotion, as if the event happening beneath him was a meaningless routine.

In a passionless, imperial voice he spoke, his voice somehow carrying through the crowd.

“Begin.”

A gong sounded, echoing through the courtyard.

The performance began slowly, the musicians falling into a slow, haunting tune as the dancers twisted in the air like weightless feathers. The dance flowed effortlessly, merging seamlessly with the music, achingly graceful, hauntingly profound. The dancers and musicians became one, a soft flowing river that sped into a raging whirlwind, the slow dance becoming an impossibly frenetic flurry of motion, spinning, whirling, the dancer’s bodies defying gravity as they seemed to fly on strings of music. The crowd wept, cheered, offered heartfelt prayers of thanks that they had been blessed to witness such a display of grace and beauty.

Through it all, the Artist watched, impassive.

At last, the performance came to a close, the dancers landing on their feet and falling seamlessly into a bow as the musicians played their final note. As the last echoes resounded through the Piazza, the crowd looked up at the Artist.

The Artist stared back, expressionless. “Keep going.”

Sparing just a second to glance at their comrades in confusion, the performers began again, launching themselves into motion once more. They had barely finished a second time when the Artist impatiently gestured to them to keep going. So they continued, again and again, each time their movements slightly slower, a touch less graceful, as exhaustion began to seep in.

As the performers began to stumble, to make mistakes, emotion finally registered on the Artist's face. He shifted back and forth, jaw clenching and unclenching, muscles moving on his face as he commanded the performers to continue.

By the time the performers finished for the sixth time, their once graceful performance had become a clumsy stumble. The crowd began to shift, to mutter quietly among themselves. From behind the Artist, the Doge watched, face tight with anger.

The Artist seemed to force himself to speak through a clenched jaw.

"Keep going.”

The lead dancer lifted himself from his bow, body shaking in protest as he launched himself into the dance again. The others followed suit, stumbling to the barely recognizable music—one step, two, three. Then, with a grunt of pain, the lead dancer landed badly and fell to the floor.

"Keep going.”

Trembling, the dancer tried to raise himself from the ground. For a moment, it seemed like he might make it, then, with a groan, he slumped back down.

The Artist leapt forward, grasping the rail with white hands, his face red, eyes bulging, spittle flying from his mouth as he screamed, “KEEP GOING!”

The performers, exhausted, didn’t respond.

The Artist stared down at them, the emotion slowly draining from him he took a deep, shuddering breath, made himself unclench the railing. As his familiar mask of indifference fell over his face, he nodded once to himself and turned to leave.

The Doge stepped in his way. “One hour, Artist. You have one hour to leave Venice and never return. If you’re still within my walls after that, I will execute you.”

The Artist stared back, expressionless. He nodded once and walked out.


The Artist walked down the hallways of the palace, his few belongings slung in a satchel over his back. As he walked, his gaze snagged on a burning torch in a metal sconce, the fire mesmerizing him, drawing him in…

The fire is everywhere. He can feel it, smell it, see the flickering flames casting shadows on the wall. Footsteps echo through the room; they'd found him, they'd take him, burn him like they did the others ...

“Artist?”

Jostled out of his reverie, the Artist turned to see someone approaching. He dimly remembered that he had met the man—a minor noble—at some point. He had given no thought to memorizing his name.

The noble extended his hand. “Good to see you again, sir." The Artist didn't take the hand; the man let it drop. "Antonio, sir. I showed you the palace layout earlier.”

The Artist just waited, not even pretending to care that he had forgotten.

The noble frowned, but continued. “Forgive my bluntness, sir, but I heard that the performance today was not a success. And, well, it’s just that I’ve heard a rumor, about a synagogue of very wise Jewish scholars, in a village in Germany. I thought that maybe, if anyone could help you find your answers, maybe it could be them. Here.” The noble handed him a rolled parchment. “I found a map.”

The Artist frowned down at the map for a moment, then reached out his hand and took it. He looked up at Antonio, nodded—perhaps in thanks, perhaps merely in acknowledgement—and walked away.


The boy cringes, huddles lower in his crawl space. The footsteps come closer—closer, closer. They stop outside his hiding space. He sees feet, legs. The legs bend, a face comes into view...

Father! He leaps forward and hurls himself into his father’s arms.

His father squeezes him tight, buries his head in his hair. Then he pushes him away. “That was very clever, hiding like that. But you need to go back now, crawl deep so they won’t find you.”

“Father—”

“No. I can’t come with you. I can’t fit in there, and if I try, they’ll find us both. You need to hide. You need to live.”

The boy looks up at his father, not fully understanding.Please—

His father grabs him for a final hug. “Listen, my son. I love you, more than anything. And there is something I must tell you. Remember this, my son, always remember ...”


“We’re here.”

The Artist woke groggily from his sleep, looked up at the wagon driver. Then, nodding his head, he grabbed his pack and stepped down.

The village didn’t seem different to any of the countless other ones in this province. A lone dirt path split it in half, a few merchant stalls clustered nearby. Houses were crammed in on either side of the path, huddling close to it as if for warmth. In the distance, the path disappeared over a hill.

The Artist approached a villager. “Where is the synagogue?”

The villager glared at the Artist and walked away.

The Artist stared after him, brow furrowed, before grabbing another villager by the arm and turning him. “The synagogue. Where is it?”

The villager pointed. “Over the hill.”

The Artist followed the path to the hill. As he walked, he found himself unsettled by the eerie quiet, the strange smell that hung low in the air. He crested the hill, , looked down—

Charred wood, shattered timbers. Giant planks—once walls—smashed against the earth. Splintered doors.

Rust coated the scene, scattered (splattered?) everywhere.

The Artist stared down mutely at the synagogue’s skeleton. For a moment, he could not comprehend what he was seeing.

Then, slowly, a frown furrowed his brow.

Stepping forward, he realized that what he had mistaken for rust was dried blood.


“Crusaders.” The Artist turned as a young, clean-shaven man, dressed in fine clothes, sat down beside him. He’d been sitting for hours, staring down at the synagogue’s ruins, and had not even heard him approach. “On their way to some holy crusade. The synagogue wasn’t even in their path—they had to travel two days in the wrong direction. But they heard that there was a Jewish community here and, well”—the man smiled, a hollow, empty mockery of a smile—“I guess we can all spare a little time for murder.”

The man leaned back on his haunches. “You should have seen it when it stood. I mean, it wasn’t that impressive, not really. Always too cold in the winter, always too hot in the summer. The door creaked something awful, and there was a spot in the roof just,” he pointed, “over there that always leaked. Didn’t matter how many times they fixed it; if it rained, it leaked.

“But it was a happy community, warm and welcoming. Everyone loved each other. And the rabbi … oh, you should’ve seen the rabbi. So wise, so generous. The things he knew. Yet so caring too. He cared, you know, really cared about his students. There was one in particular, a young boy that constantly refused to focus. He’d sit by the window, staring out, dreaming of fancy parties and lavish wealth. But the rabbi never gave up on him, never lost his patience. Even when the boy grew up, decided he preferred wealth and privilege to religion—even when he left home and refused to return. The rabbi never gave up. They say he would make a Jewish calendar and send it to him every year, so that he would know when the festivals were. He never responded, that young man, but the rabbi never stopped writing.”

The Artist turned, looked at the man for a moment. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

His companion nodded. “You’re the man they call the Artist, right?”

The Artist turned his gaze back to the synagogue. “Yes, that’s me.”

“I heard you followed the wisest man in Europe for three years, just observing him.”

“Five, actually.”

The man whistled. “What happened to him?”

“He grew old. His mind started to slip. Slowly, at first; he would forget what page to find a specific reference on, or where he’d put his keys. Then faster. In a matter of months, he could barely remember his name.”

“And then there’s the story about the incorruptible judge. What happened with him?”

The Artist smiled, a humorless baring of teeth. “He wasn’t incorruptible after all.”

The man shook his head. “And all this in search of—what was it again? Permanent beauty?”

The Artist sighed. “Beauty that never fades. Beauty that always endures.”

“I take it you haven’t found it?”

The Artist didn’t respond.

The man stared at him, then began to laugh. It started as a snort, a chuckle, and then he was doubled over, clutching his knees, tears streaming from his eyes as he laughed and laughed and laughed.

The Artist turned around, shock registering on his usually implacable face. “What’s so funny?”

“You!” The man thrust a finger at him. “You’re what’s so funny. Look at you, sitting there, so confused that you can’t find permanent beauty. It’s hilarious!” He leaned in, all trace of humor gone. “Let me fill you in on a little secret, Artist.” He spat the word with derision. “Beauty is a lie, a pathetic notion we made up so we could hide from the ugliness of the world. Look down there–look!” He jabbed his finger down at the burnt synagogue, screaming his next words. “This is the real world! A world where men and women are burned alive for daring to be different, a world where those who persecute innocents are lauded as valiant saviors, a world where a selfless rabbi and his kind-hearted wife, who didn’t have a cruel bone in their body, who sacrificed everything for their faith—a world where they are are slaughtered, while their son, who turned his back on them for wealth and fame, LIVES!” He screamed the word, body shaking with emotion. He stared at the Artist, eyes wide, before he leaned back, wiped a trembling hand over his lips. “No, Artist. There is no beauty in this world. Only the lies we tell ourselves so that we can stomach it.”

The Artist listened in silence, then simply nodded, face expressionless once again. “You may very well be right.”

The man blinked. “Why do you care, anyway? Why do you need to find this permanent beauty so much?”

The Artist was silent for a long time, looking at the destruction in front of him. Fire. There had been so much fire that night. “I am Jewish, too. I was only a little boy when they came for us. I was able to hide, but my father ….” He sighed. “They took him. Before they did, he told me something.” Remember this, my son. “He told me that the Jewish soul is eternal, that it could never be quashed. That no matter what, the soul is always connected with G‑d.

“And then they burned him.

“I spent my life trying to understand those last words. How could the soul possibly be eternal? How could there exist anything in this world that can last forever? Yet he believed it—they burned him alive and he still believed it. So I set out to try to prove that there existed something, some sort of beauty that never ended. But I never found it. Dancers tire, musicians weaken. Paintings can be burned, diamonds can be crushed.” He gestured towards his companion. “The religious lose their faith. I came here hoping that there existed some wisdom that could answer my questions. But it appears I am too late. So perhaps you’re right. Perhaps there really is no such thing as permanent beauty.”

The man let out a breath. “I wish I could help you, Artist. But I’m beginning to think I know nothing about beauty.”

The Artist nodded.

They sat in silence for a while, watching the sun set behind the synagogue’s remains. As the sky grew dark, the Artist’s companion frowned. “Is it Wednesday or Thursday?”

The Artist blinked. “Thursday.”

“Before I left, I looked at one of the calendars the rab—” he sighed, “my father sent me. I haven’t glanced at them for years, but something compelled me to pick up this year’s calendar. I guess I felt that I should honor my last memory of him. If it’s Thursday, then that means that tonight is Simchat Torah.”

He stood up.

The Artist looked up at him. “Where are you going?”

“It’s Simchat Torah; a Jew is supposed to dance tonight. I’m going to dance.”

And dance he did, a slow, clumsy swaying of limbs. And as he danced, he haltingly began to sing.

The Artist stared at him, began to laugh. “Stop that. You look ridiculous! You turned your back on your faith. You have nothing to dance for.”

The man continued dancing. “Perhaps not. But I’m still a Jew.”

“You’re a Jew? What does that even mean? Your religion means nothing to you, your G‑d means nothing to you. What importance does your birth have?”

Still the man danced. “I don’t know. I just know that this feels right.”

The Artist shook his head violently, almost as if to himself. “No. No! It makes no sense. You turned away. The beauty’s gone! There’s nothing left to compel you to dance!”

The man didn’t respond, just kept dancing.

And, as the Artist watched the dance, he slowly began to weep.

Remember this, my son.

Tears streaming down his face, the Artist leapt up and joined the dance, voice raised in song. They danced for hours, the two of them, one in finery and one in rags, the burned synagogue casting a backdrop beside them. They danced to a nameless tune, driven by something they barely comprehended. They danced to all they had lost, they danced to all they had yet to discover.

They danced to the eternal beauty of the Jewish soul.

Eli Landes was ordained as a rabbi in South Africa, and is working to complete his Bachelor of Arts. Currently residing in Brooklyn, N.Y., he enjoys blending the esoteric depths of Chassidus with the creativity of writing.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Anonymous July 28, 2017

exquisitely designed
beautifully woven
it fits perfectly! Reply

Eli Landes Brooklyn November 27, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Thank you! Reply

Levi October 19, 2017

Bs"D

Very moving story! You bring out the point as only an artist can. Letting it shine forth from the scene and speak for itself.

Thank you very much for sharing of your talents in such a meaningful way. I very much enjoy your stories, they give a unique angle and deeper clarity on fundamental concepts. I hope you continue to write, and wish you much Hatzlachah in writing, and in continuing to move, inspire, encourage, and motivate others in their service of Hashem. May you be blessed with only abundant revealed good in all areas.

May we merit the immediate redemption with the coming of Moshiach now!!!

(A small comment. At the end of the story, when the Rabbi's son realizes that it is Simchat Torah he says "If it’s Wednesday, then that means that tonight is Simchat Torah." I just want to point out that nowadays with the fixed calendar Simchat Torah cannot be on wednesday night-Thursday. Maybe it should say that it was Thursday night?) Reply

Eli Landes October 26, 2017
in response to Levi:

Thank you, Levi, for your comment. I really appreciate the complements.

You're 100% right about the date. It should have been Thursday. That one slipped right by me. Reply

Levi October 26, 2017
in response to Eli Landes :

Thank you for looking into my comment about the date!

(A very minor detail. After I wrote that comment I realized that if Thursday night would be Simchat Torah than Wednesday night would be Shimini Atzeret, which is also a time of rejoicing, and may somewhat weaken his question of which day is it.

I'm wondering if you think his question should maybe be two other days of the week, for example Monday and Tuesday?

I'm only suggesting. As the author, you know what works for the story, and whether a change will improve or damage it.

(I wrote this point in a second comment shortly after my comment above, but it as it was not yet posted, I don't want it to appear as a response to your comment when it is posted. So I'm writing the point here.))

Thank you very much again for your deeply moving and thought provoking writing! Reply

SG shanghai August 6, 2017

beautiful, beautiful, story. Amazing. Reply

Eli Landes August 6, 2017
in response to SG:

Thank you! Reply

K. August 4, 2017

"... they danced to all they had yet to discover ..."

Beauty is Truth ... perfectionism? always needs a smelting pot.
When perfectionism reigns, therein the sin of pride takes hold, creating strife and competition with each turn of the story. Reply

Eli Landes August 6, 2017
in response to K. :

Hi K,

Thank you for your comment. You're right--beauty and truth are two different things. In an earlier story, Am I?, I discussed the truth of Judaism. This story is about something different--a brilliant yet damaged man trying to find the eternal beauty in a soul. That beauty isn't found in the devotion of the righteous--they've never been anything but righteous. Instead, he finds it in the words of our sages: even when a Jew sins, he remains a Jew. Even when we turn away and do the exact opposite of what G-d wants, our soul still yearns for Him and still is one with Him. It's there that he realizes that the beauty of a soul can never be vanquished. Reply

Yosef Peysin New Rochelle August 3, 2017

This story moved me... In a very profound way.. Reply

Eli Landes August 6, 2017
in response to Yosef Peysin:

Thank you so much for the compliment. Reply

Yaakov Wrightman Old Rochelle August 6, 2017
in response to Yosef Peysin:

Me too!

Beautifully written! Reply

Pinchas Chaim Johannesburg July 31, 2017

What a truly beautiful story, Many thanks, it brought tears to my eyes. Reply

Eli Landes August 6, 2017
in response to Pinchas Chaim:

Thank you for taking the time to share this. The greatest part of writing these is the chance to maybe inspire someone else. Reply

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