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The Burnt Offerings of a Master Painter

The Burnt Offerings of a Master Painter

After his studio goes up in flames, artist Yoram Raanan reflects on the loss of 40 years of work

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Acclaimed artist Yoram Raanan surveys the remains of his studio and 40 years of artwork that were destroyed in one of many arsonist blazes that swept through Israel. (Photo: Netanel Sharvit)
Acclaimed artist Yoram Raanan surveys the remains of his studio and 40 years of artwork that were destroyed in one of many arsonist blazes that swept through Israel. (Photo: Netanel Sharvit)

It was only last Monday that I took the bus to Beit Meir, the graceful little mountain-top village 20 kilometers west of Jerusalem, in order to visit Yoram Raanan. Yoram is a new friend, though the kind you feel you have known and cherished for years. When I first chanced upon a print by the artist a number of years ago—it was his masterpiece, “Mount Sinai”—it took my breath away, quite literally. And when I saw his work featured on Chabad.org, I grabbed the first opportunity to meet him in person.

Yoram and I paced up and down his lush studio, which was overgrown with exquisite paintings of biblical scenes and waterscapes and phosphorescent menorahs and glowing human souls—a veritable small Garden of Eden burgeoning with canvases, paint, and the uncanny ambience of something holy going on.

I remember our first meeting a few months ago. “I have no intention of flattering you,” I announced, just after shaking hands. “Good!” he snapped back instinctively, unafraid of insult.

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“I will not flatter you,” I said, “because I sincerely believe that your work is nothing less than an event in the history of painting.”

He accepted my words with a smile free of both vanity and false modesty. And I, for my part, followed through by writing a long article, a kind of exercise in “art criticism,” in which I have attempted to articulate why the oeuvre of Yoram Raanan marks an event in art history, certainly in the history of Jewish art, if not beyond.

Then the Fires Came . . .

In the middle of the night last Thursday, on the 24th of Cheshvan, the village of Beit Meir fell victim to fires suspected to have been started by Palestinian arsonists. Yoram’s studio was entirely burnt down.

When I heard the next morning what had happened from the artist’s wife, Meira Raanan, the news knocked the wind out of me. All those masterpieces! The luminescent “Shir HaMaalot,” which took one into the Beit HaMikdash! The awesome convulsion of the Sea of Reeds in “Beshalach” (behind Yoram in the photo below)! The haunting emerald “Esther” that had once been a painting of an eagle hanging in the Sheraton Plaza! The blazing menorah of “Vayakhel” in which gold of the candelabra had been alchemically transformed into pigmented fire!

Yoram Raanan with some of the art destroyed in the fire
Yoram Raanan with some of the art destroyed in the fire

The loss of so much beauty—all of it dedicated to G‑d, all of it reflecting subjects from Jewish life and Jewish history—constitutes an inestimable loss for Jewish culture. It goes without saying that Yoram has sold many paintings over the years. But there were certain landmark pieces, including all but one of the pieces I mention in my article that still patiently awaited appreciative buyers. Besides the hundreds of paintings stacked against the walls of the studio, there were hundreds upon hundreds of sketches and half-finished works stuffed in drawers, which had slowly accumulated over four decades of prolific labors.

The prospect of speaking to Yoram himself after this cataclysmic loss, I must confess, made me quite nervous. Finding adequate words to comfort someone who has lost an enormous amount of personal property is difficult enough. Lost property is labor lost. But how do you comfort an artist who has lost an enormous amount of expressions of his very heart and soul? How is one consoled for the loss of deeply personal, spiritual labor? Before we had a chance to speak, we exchanged a few furtive emails before Shabbat.

The artist in his studio a week before the fire
The artist in his studio a week before the fire

‘This, Too, Is for the Good’

Yoram wrote: “Studio total total loss.”

I wrote back: “Can you talk? I can’t imagine what you are going through.”

Yoram: “I know you can understand and appreciate your concern. House and kids OK. Everything in and of my studio and surrounding area are completely finished. Gam zu l’tova. Shabbat shalom.”

Gam zu l’tova. “This, too, is for the good.” The phrase is a wonderful profession of faith in the face of despair. But to my mind, a hundredfold more astonishing and more wonderful is the expression, jotted under such dark circumstances: “Shabbat shalom.”

After Shabbat, I have a chance to talk to Yoram face to face. He explains his feelings with the same characteristic simplicity: “With emunah, there are no half-measures. You either trust Hashem or you don’t.” He describes to me how, during the frantic evacuation of Beit Meir, he looked back toward the trees under which his studio lay and saw the conflagration rise into the black sky. “I resigned myself there and then,” he said. “Everything is in the hands of G‑d. G‑d knows what He’s doing. You know, it made me think of a korban [‘offering’].”

“Like an olah [burnt offering]?” I ask, immediately regretting my two cents.

 “Shir HaMaalot” (Artist: Yoram Raanan)
“Shir HaMaalot” (Artist: Yoram Raanan)

“Yup,” he says, with an almost melancholy smile. And he jokes about how often fire appears in his paintings—the flames of the menorah, the fire on the altar in the Temple, the fire of Torah.

Then, without batting an eyelash, Yoram immediately goes on to elaborate on how much good has already come of the destruction. “I can’t believe how many emails I’ve received! So many people are writing and calling and want to help out! People are coming to my website and discovering my art for the first time! It’s amazing!” His eyes are full of wonder and gratitude as he enumerates the acts of kindness and appreciation streaming in from all corners. He insists on seeing the destruction as an opportunity.

We talk about the various mundane issues that will now require his attention in the next months: the damage assessment, the police investigation, the plans to rebuild the studio (“It’ll be better than the last one, taller! More mental space to think higher! To paint bigger!”), the need to publish a book of his paintings and the prospects of finding a patron to fund the book.

“What about getting back to painting?” I ask.

“Yes!” his eyes light up and his mind begins to race, “Absolutely! As soon as I have a space to lay down some canvasses and start pouring out the paint! Let the phoenix rise from the ashes!” Yoram evidently intends to fight fire with fire—the profane fire of destruction with the holy fire in the Jewish soul.

I doubt many readers have the patience to plod through my “highbrow” analysis of Yoram’s work. I wish there were some simple way for me to communicate why supporting his work is, from the standpoint of Jewish culture, less like a luxury and more like a necessity. A number of very welcome initiatives have been set up to raise money to rebuild the studio.

Yoram himself muses: “Better than sending money, why not buy a print? It’s a ‘win-win’ that way.”

As a very biased fan of Yoram’s work and someone concerned with spreading the hallowed beauty of his art—no less than with seeing him resume his labors of love—I cordially invite the reader to check out his website: www.yoramraanan.com. And to keep an eye out for more to come from Beit Meir.

More of the artist's work that went up in flames
More of the artist's work that went up in flames
(Artist: Yoram Raanan)
(Artist: Yoram Raanan)
(Photo: Netanel Sharvit)
(Photo: Netanel Sharvit)


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Meira Raanan The Holy Land January 23, 2017

Thank you for capturing the spirit of the art and the artist and sharing it such a heartfelt way. I like what you wrote about Yoram watching his studio go up in flames like a "korban" sacrifice. I think he right then right away understood that the energy, the love, the passion that went into his paintings were being offered up on G-ds Holy Altar and only good could come from from the fire and that is why he could say wholeheartedly Gam Zu L’Tov. Thank G-d, we continue to see so much good. Reply

Jonathan Shelper London December 15, 2016

It looks like your standing in front of a Antony Caro sculpture. Very poignant story. Haslacha! Reply

Yasur CR December 6, 2016

This is a terrible tragedy. I just hope they recover from this.
Regards Reply

jim dallas December 5, 2016

your faith is you! do as you are given, and live! Reply

Anonymous hartford December 5, 2016

so sorry omg so sad Reply

רחל גן יאשיה בעמק חפר December 3, 2016

יצירת חיים לצייר המיוחד יורם רענן,
מה נורא לעמוד מול אפר יצירותיך המפוארות והמרגשות כל כך!
יתן ה' לך שלוות הנפש ותצליח לשחזר מלבך חלק הארי של היצירות.
יזכה גם עם ישראל והעולם כולו בעושר ואושר רוחניים כתוצאה מכך!
ה' עמך!
בהוקרה, רחל לשם. Reply

J LaLone Poughkeepsie, NY, US December 2, 2016

Condolences It is so sad to think of the loss of all of those beautiful works of art, a product of a creative mind and talented artist. May he be blessed with many more decades to create more beauty for the world. Reply

M. Diane Flushing, NY December 2, 2016

What Anonymous says. abd Shabbat Shalom Yesterday, in response to a post on this website about where the 3rd temple and alter should be located because of all the events that took place where the first and second temples stood, I was trying to figure out what sacrifice Adam made. Was it when G-d removed Adam's rib to create Eve? That seems like a type of "offering" made by G-d on Adam's behalf - a peace offering? (Also, animals died for G-d to make clothing for A&E. I figure G-d doesn't need a formal sacrifice reason if He wants to destroy some of 'this' to make something new. But if it were a sacrifice then probably it was to make peace between A&E.) My point is that the loss of Yoram's artwork and studio seems a lot like when G-d took something away from inside of Adam near his heart and then used that to make something brand new that 'came out of" Adam - Something that never was seen before ever - Something brand new! So, I expect to say "Woa Man!!" when we see what comes out of Yoram next. BTW, What WAS Adam's offering? Reply

Anonymous December 2, 2016

Beautiful. Thank you for posting! Reply

YY Israel December 2, 2016

Unfathomable... Certainly will this story, along with the significance of the loss, the magnitude of the events and the personality involved, certainly will this go down as an example of what it means to rise after a fall.

This attitude is what we need to bring Mashiach, may it happen soon!! Reply

Leyzer London December 2, 2016

Amazing Mr Raanan,
Your Emunah is amazing and inspiring. You didn't just lose a donkey, chicken and candle, but your life work. Yet you say Gam Zu Letovah.
IY"H I pray you will indeed see the Tovah that comes out of this. Reply

Anonymous libi bemizrach December 1, 2016

the expression was expressed! As an experienced art teacher; the only thought coming to mind is that the bridge from the heilige neshama of the artist to the world which was created by these inspiring paintings, is still in existence, (obviously in a deeper way).

The intensity of this nisayon should only give rise to more outpouring of the neshama and bring about the geulah sheleimah!

your sacrifice is for us all. Reply

Anonymous November 30, 2016

An artist's work is connected to his /her soul, it would have been like having a part of you being torn away. I remember being comletely captivated by 'Esther' when I came across it here at Chabad.org, very sad that its gone, yet I also understand how Mr.Raanan was able to think of it as a burnt offering. I hope we'll continue to see many more paintings by Mr.Raanan. Reply

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