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How Jacques Lipchitz Found G-d

How Jacques Lipchitz Found G-d

The Rabbi and the Sculptor

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Jacques Lipchitz at work
Jacques Lipchitz at work

It was at the festive meal following the Redemption of the Firstborn,1 the community rabbi placed his hand on the Chaim Yaakov's small head and blessed him. "My boy, the first thing that I wish for you is not to be a rabbi," he said. "You will nevertheless be a gadol b'yisroel, a great man in Israel."2

Chaimke, as he was known as a young child – later on they started to call him Jacob3 – was the first of six siblings, born in the small Lithuanian town of Druskieniki on August 22, 1891. The son of Abraham Lipchitz, one of the town's philanthropists, it was with great fanfare and in the presence of the Jewish community's leadership that, on the thirtieth day following his birth, he was "redeemed" by his father from a descendant of the High Priest Aaron. This ritual commemorates the final plague G‑d inflicted upon the Egyptians, when G‑d spared the Israelite firstborn from the fate suffered by their Egyptian counterparts.

Later in his life, the child's mother, Rachel Lipchitz, related to him this episode, and always reminded herself and him that he was bound for a great future.

And indeed, today, this boy's sculptures are prized pieces in museums and galleries; to this very day, Jacques Lipchitz's creations are displayed in prestigious landmarks across the globe. Lipchitz is considered to be the first Cubist sculptor. Cubism is the art of sculpting forms that give different impressions when viewed from different angles.

An Uneducated Sculptor

Abraham Lipchitz, a contractor amongst other trades, was hardly home. Chaimke was thus mainly reared by his mother. Chaya Feigel Krinsky, his maternal grandmother, a young widow, was also an integral part of his life as a youngster.

His schooling in the town's cheder, the religious schoolhouse where he learnt his Jewish studies, was not suited for his personality. After each school day was over, his mother sat and taught him all that she knew. He slowly developed a disdain for his father, following his many rebukes during those times when he was at home. His father was disappointed that Chaimke was not mastering his studies to his liking and standards.

From a young age, he was creating sculptures with whatever soft matter came to his hands, though at the time he did not know how to characterize his creations. On his few visits home, Abraham would publicly rebuke his son for his play sculptures: "What will become of this? You will be a worker with your hands? You need this like a corpse needs cuppings."

His mother on the other hand was encouraging. "How does it harm you?" she told her husband, "let the child play!"

Chaimke continued, learning much from his father's workers, the carpenters and builders that he employed. He took great pride in the strides he was making in learning their trade. But while his father wanted him to one day be the manager of his factories, he had other ideas.4

The Parisian Scene

Jacques Lipchitz in his Paris studio at the age of 20
Jacques Lipchitz in his Paris studio at the age of 20
With his mother's blessing, he traveled off to Paris in 1909, where he briefly attended art classes.

Once he was there, at his mother's encouragement, he wrote a letter to his father asking for forgiveness. He later said, "After I went to Paris, my father forgave me and as long as he was able to, he contributed to my support."5

In Paris he became close friends with famed artists of his days, such as Soutine, Modigliani, Chagall and Picasso.

It was there that he received his name Jacques, when he was registering at the police station, and a police official, translating from Russian, entered his name as Jacques instead of Jacob. It was also there that he married his first wife, Berthe Kitrosser.

It was during those days in Paris that he ceased observing Jewish law. When asked, though, if he identifies as a Jew he would responded, "Ich bin gemalt [I am circumcised]. I am a Jew and I am remaining a Jew. I am a believer and always was." And he went to the synagogue to say the Kaddish mourner's prayer after his father passed away.

Lipchitz lived the typical life of the early 20th century European Jew, first experiencing anti-Semitism at the age of five and then later experiencing and survived the Nazi atrocities in German-occupied France.

These harsh experiences influenced his sculptures. Later in his life, as his observance of Jewish practices grew, his Jewish identity had an even greater impact on his work.

A New Country, A New Life

Lipchitz and his only child Lolya
Lipchitz and his only child Lolya
In 1942 he arrived in the United States of America, assisted by the Museum of Modern Art and the American Rescue Committee.

"When I first left France in 1941," related Lipchitz, "I had been forced to leave everything—my studio, my house, my collection—and I was reconciled to the idea that everything was lost or destroyed. I had begun a new life in the United States."

In 1946, following the war, Lipchitz was requested to do an exhibit in Paris. He used this as an excuse to see what had happened with his home, studio and art collection.

It was when he was there in France that Berthe, his wife, told him that she did not like the United States and that she did not want to return to the States. "She did not want to come, so I went back alone."6 They later were civilly divorced.

It was a friend, Leib Jaffe, who introduced him to Yulla Haberstadt, who worked for the American Jewish Congress. She was born in Berlin to a Chassidic family,7 in contrast to Jacques' family which counted itself amongst the opponents of Chassidism, or Mitnagdim, as they are known.8 That did not stand in the way of both of them taking a liking to each other.

Yulla had been married before, and was the mother of two children: Hanno and Frankie Mott. Hanno was with his father when his mother remarried, and Frankie was with Yulla's parents. As religious Jews, her parents had given Frankie a Jewish religious upbringing and education. When Frankie later moved in with Yulla, her new husband, Jacques, being so removed from Jewish life, stopped Frankie's Jewish education, though he did accommodate his Jewish needs.9

Yulla was disturbed by Jacques' disenchantment with religion. "My wife comes from a very religious orthodox family," Lipchitz later recounted. "She was bothered by the fact that although I think of myself as a faithful Jew, have not been as orthodox in the observation of the rites of Judaism."10

Healing that Brought Clarity

"War" by Jacques Lipchitz, presented to the Rebbe by the sculptor
"War" by Jacques Lipchitz, presented to the Rebbe by the sculptor
It was an odd morning on November 20, 1958. Waking as usual a little before six, Lipchitz turned off the alarm so that it would not ring and disturb his sleeping wife. He sat up in bed, convulsed by a sudden tremor, closed his eyes and vomited; he felt blood. But his first thought was, "I won't be able to work today."11

He got up and dragged himself to the door, where he fell and hemorrhaged again. His crying daughter Lolya was then standing above him and Lipchitz said, "Darling, please call Mama." Yulla had also heard his fall. She quickly appeared, vanished, and again appeared with a blanket which she wrapped around him. She called the doctor, who told her not to move him.

Lipchitz was conscious and he felt that he was drifting toward blanking out. The ambulance came and as the medics carried him down to the ambulance, he hemorrhaged again on the landing. At some point during the trip to the hospital he fell into blackness.

Lipchitz felt that he was moving again, being lifted, set down, swaying persistently; needles of light pressing vertically into his eyelids alternating with long spans of dark and stillness. Always the locked rigidity of his body even when his mind was conscious, even when he could make out Yulla, who was present in his darkened plunge from which he kept receding into.

Mutely, she waited. She felt powerless other than her ability to pray, "Let him live, O G‑d, let him live."

When he was startled suddenly from unconsciousness, he looked for Yulla near his bed. She was there, seated near the window. She spoke to him softly, telling him that he had been very ill, had had several blood transfusions and that he had cancer of the stomach. She told him that he had undergone gastric surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital—which was where he currently was.

Thoughts raced through his mind, he started questioning his chance of survival. He must now be ready every day to say farewell and must live every day as though it were his last. He thought about his art; would he ever work again? "This was obviously a major problem in my life, because I was facing death," he recalled.

"They gave me transfusions because I lost seventy percent of my blood. Now no one can say that I'm not a full-blooded American..."

She came back to the hospital and told her husband what the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had told her. "If I live, I will go to see him," he responded. Yulla asked her brother, a religious Jew, for advice.12 "Go see the Lubavitcher Rebbe," he suggested, "and ask him to pray for your husband." She followed his suggestion. The Rebbe listened while she told her story, and said, "I know. I know you and I know him. Go home, and don't bother. He will be all right. He will live.13 When he gets out of the hospital, ask him to come to see me."14

She came back to the hospital and told her husband what the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had told her. "If I live, I will go to see him," he responded.15

"It did not take a long time and miraculously I overcame the sickness," said Lipshitz.16

When he first emerged from his hospital bed that spring, he had to learn to walk. Yulla stood beside him as he took his faltering steps. He then went into his studio, seated himself on a chair and worked to the panting rhythm of his breath.

Autumn came and all the sculptures that he had begun prior to his illness were completed. The entire force of his life had rushed back into his heart, his spirit was incarnated.

"I thought a great deal during this illness," said Lipchitz years after he recovered, "I felt that it would be a pity for me if I died because there were so many things that I still wanted to do. I had had a difficult but wonderful life. There were so many things that I wanted to do.

"I have to say here that my wife, Yulla, was marvelous throughout this entire period, and without her help I could not possibly have been back at work as soon as I was."

He had penetrated a new world, a world of exaltation and acceptance. Struggling through the haunted dream of death, he had achieved his fullest power. He had learned the meaning of time, the impermanence of flesh, the enduring fiber of the spirit. He had come into a new life.

He asked himself, "how to signify return [to daily life], that was given to him by the Master of creation, not only in the essence but in the word and deed?"17

The Sculptor and the Rebbe Meet

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, around the time of his first meeting with Lipchitz.
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, around the time of his first meeting with Lipchitz.
The summer passed and Jacques was feeling much better. "I said to my wife let's go see the Rebbe," he recalled, "I put on my beret and off we went to see the Rebbe."18

"I remember the night that Mr. Lipchitz and his wife came to see the Rebbe," recalls Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky, at the time an aide to the Rebbe, "I remember the cane and the support he needed. He was on the way to recovery when he came to see the Rebbe. He was not what he was years later, physically speaking a beautiful specimen."19

"I told him everything," recalled Lipchitz, "on my doings, about my sins. I detailed before him everything, I did not hide from him anything. I told him about my sculptures that were standing in churches.

"The Rebbe listened to everything, he did not discuss anything about my work, he did not say a word about it."20

The only thing that the Rebbe questioned Lipchitz about was his Jewishness. Lipchitz told the Rebbe, "I'm not kosher. I do not pray; I do not go to synagogue. I sculpted a virgin for the Catholic Church."21

The Rebbe made two requests. First he asked Lipchitz to don phylacteries and pray every morning.22

"He also asked me to divorce my ex-wife according to Jewish law," said Lipchitz, "and that I should marry my wife under the Chuppah," referring to a Jewish wedding ceremony that takes place beneath a canopy.23

When Lipchitz emerged from his audience with the Rebbe, he would not repeat what had transpired. "This may not be touched," he whispered.24

An Integral Part of Life

"A few days later [the Rebbe] sent a man with tefillin," said Lipchitz.

Putting on the ritual phylacteries, known as tefillin, worn on the head and arm, was something that he practiced until the age of eighteen when he left to Paris. At the Rebbe's request, he again began wearing them at the age of sixty-seven.25

"Since then, I daven [pray] every morning," he said, "It is of great help to me. He really did something for me by advising me to do that, because I cannot take a step during the day if I do not daven."

On why he felt it so important for him to pray and put on tefillin he said, "It puts me together with all my people. I am with them. And I am near to my L-rd, to the Almighty. I speak with Him. I cannot make any individual prayers, but I speak to Him. He gives me strength for the day. I could not move otherwise."

When asked why the Rebbe chose the mitzvah of tefillin and not any other: "I can't speak for him," Lipchitz responded. "I know that it did something very important for me. I could not live any more without it."26

The Sculptor Dressed Youthfully

Lipchitz with his wife Yulla and daughter Lolya
Lipchitz with his wife Yulla and daughter Lolya
"I followed the Rebbe's instructions," says Lipchitz about the Rebbe's request for him to divorce and marry according to Jewish law, "I found my first wife in Paris27 and after much effort I arranged a religious divorce."28

This is the way their wedding is described as the closing scene of his 1962 biography:

They came into the room; Yulla in pale gold with a small head-veil, he in the garments of his youth. In this voyage into time he had traversed the perfect circle, returning to the honeycomb of ancient ritual to seek his liberation.

They had gone over the river to the area of the city where nothing had stilled the springs of faith so that it poured into the daily lives of these people who sat at the feet of their sage who had purified his heart and tongue and limbs and upon whom the spirit of prophecy had descended. Men in curled earlocks and skullcaps or brimmed hats, beards, and frock coats. The accents of the shtetl.

A handsome old man with a long beard and sweet, naive eyes came to greet them. "We have a minyan," he said pointing to the ten men, "and there are the refreshments." Over a goblet of wine from which they both sipped, the rabbi pronounced the betrothal benedictions.

She was led around him seven times and her golden veil was lifted. The goblet from which they had sipped was placed on the ground and broken. "Mazel tov!" they shouted. He had ever known this: one must be consumed by everything around one.

Sculpture was the sun that can be reached by the hand. Yet sculpture did not begin to live until it received light and man did not begin to live until he received light. He would surrender himself now to the light illuminating the mysterious and the manifest. He had believed himself to be looking backward and now he saw that he had been searching for the future. Beginnings...29

The Relationship Blossoms

"We became good friends," said Lipchitz about his relationship with the Rebbe, "he is a fabulous man and a mystic. We stay in touch and I like him very much."30

According to Lipchitz, the Rebbe was actually acquainted with him prior to their meeting. "He knew a good deal about me," he said, "because his father-in-law [Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, of righteous memory, the sixth Chabad Rebbe] had lived in a hotel which had belonged to my mother in our little Russian village. When he was a young rabbi he would from time to time visit his father-in-law.

"The old rabbi told my mother that his son-in-law was living in Paris and studying at the Sorbonne. My mother told him that she had a son in Paris. The son-in-law, when he came back to Paris, inquired and found out everything about me."31

Lipchitz made efforts to come to Lubavitch World Headquarters to join the crowd listening to the Rebbe's public talks, known as a farbrengen or Chassidic gathering. "I try to go," he said, "and it is always an extraordinary experience."32 He later penned an appreciation of these gatherings.

"My encounters with Chabad have been at many levels," wrote Lipchitz, "each stimulating and rewarding in its own way -- but I wish it was possible for everyone to attend a farbrengen of the Rebbe.

"The Rebbe speaks. His words, flowing as from a fountain of youth, are literally absorbed by thousands of ears, devoured by thousands of eyes burning with hope, and inspire thousands of souls with a love of their faith and their fellow.

"Anyone witnessing this scene in the midst of twentieth-century New York must be convinced that here beats a generous heart radiating faith, knowledge and hope to us all."33

"We met many times," Lipchitz said in one of his final interviews, given in honor of his eightieth birthday, "in our audiences we spoke about all different topics, however, I never heard from him good or bad about my work and creations.

"I often come to the Lubavitch 'courtyard'; I find there my true tranquility. Many times following my shows or a cocktail, where everything is radiant and glistening, I slip out and run there. I sit there with the elder Chassidim -- I sing and dance with them. Then there is no end to my happiness."

In the Rebbe's last known letter to the sculptor, the Rebbe discussed Lipchitz's health and a lesson to be learned from art (February 2, 1972):

The Rebbe's letter
The Rebbe's letter
I was sorry to hear that you were not feeling too well, but I trust that by the time this letter reaches you, your health will have improved satisfactorily. Inasmuch as there is always room for improvement in all things, I wish you further improvement and a Refuo Shlemo [complete recovery].

Not knowing what sort of a patient you are, I take the liberty of expressing my confident hope that you follow your doctors' instructions. Even if this may entail an enforced period of rest and interruption in your work, which no doubt you would be inclined to militate against, nevertheless I am confident that you will overcome this, so as to expedite your complete recuperation.

It is customary for Jews to connect everything with the Weekly Portion of the Torah. Significantly, we read in this week's Sedra ורפא ירפא ["and he shall provide for his cure"], which our Sages explain to be the mandate of physicians to heal and cure. Moreover, our illustrious teacher the Rambam [Maimonides], who was a famous physician in the plain sense, as well as a great spiritual healer, made it a point in his great Code -- היות הגוף בריא ושלם מדרכי ה' הוא (הל' דעות ר"פ ד') ["The body being healthy and whole is from the ways of G‑d"].

To paraphrase the Rambam, and apply it in the area which we had occasion to discuss, we may say that what the Rambam is expressing here is that in order that the physical body be fit to serve G‑d, that is to say to elevate and sublimate the physical into the spiritual, or to bring out the spirituality of the material, which is the key to the all-embracing Divine Unity -- it is necessary that the physical body be in a good state and healthy. I might add that in your own sphere of sculpture, this is also self evident. For, in order to create an idea out of a piece of inert matter, whether metal, wood or stone, it is, of course, necessary that the material be in a good state.

I trust you will not consider me presumptuous in trespassing upon your domain. However, I only wish to impress upon you the essential thing, namely the need to follow your doctors' instructions.

Wishing you a Refuo Shlemo, and with kindest regards to you and your family,

With blessing,

M. Schneerson

Visiting Jewish Communities

Lipchitz (center), his wife Yulla and Chassidic artist Hendel Lieberman at the Chassidic Art Exhibition in Detroit, Michigan
Lipchitz (center), his wife Yulla and Chassidic artist Hendel Lieberman at the Chassidic Art Exhibition in Detroit, Michigan
At one point in their ongoing relationship, Lipchitz asked the Rebbe how he could repay him for all the good he has done for him.

"Every place where you go and there are Lubavitch emissaries, you should call them on the phone and say you are Jacques Lipchitz and you would like to help them," Lipchitz paraphrased the Rebbe.

"The Rebbe said, 'They [the emissaries] will not know who you are. So tell them that they should talk to their supporters, their supporters will know who you are.'"34

From then on, Lipchitz assisted Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries. Following are some examples of the assistance he provided.

Detroit, Michigan

"The exhibition of Hasidic art," wrote the Detroit Jewish News on December 15, 1967, "opened at the Wayne State University Community Arts Exhibit Hall on Tuesday evening.

"It was an unusual combination that marked the appearance of distinguished artists, eminent Hasidic spokesmen, community personalities from many areas of activity—in addition to the display of the works of two Hasidim whose paintings certainly merit the widest interest.

"Jacques Lipchitz, considered the greatest living Jewish sculptor, came to the opening session of the art exhibition and spoke at the dinner that featured the initial function. He was here with Mrs. Lipchitz and he spoke also at a reception in their honor on Monday at the home of Mrs. Emma Schaver in Southfield."

A month prior to the event Lipchitz responded to a letter by Lubavitch of Michigan:

September 17 1967

Pieve Di Camaiore (Lucca) Italia

Dear Rabbi Berel Shemtov,

Lipchitz's letter to Rabbi Shemtov of Lubavitch of Michigan in 1967
Lipchitz's letter to Rabbi Shemtov of Lubavitch of Michigan in 1967
Thank you for your kind invitation to come to your dinner and the Hassidic Art Exhibition. I feel very honored to be with all of you together at this occasion. By the end of October I will be back in the States and only then will I be able to send you the material you requested.

Thank you for your wishes, and if a poor "misnaged" can send his blessing to a Hassidic Rabbi, let me wish you, yours and כל[ל] ישראל [the Jewish nation] a Kesivah Vechasima Tova [inscription for a good year].

Respectfully yours

חיים יעקב ליפשיץ [Chaim Yaakov Lipchitz]

The Rebbe sent his greetings to the event in a letter dated December 7, 1967:

...I would like to take this opportunity to make a further point, which I had occasion to mention to our very distinguished friend Mr. Chaim Yaakov Lipchitz who, I am glad to note, is going to open the Exhibition. I have known Mr. Lipchitz for many years, and know of his sincere interest in all good things, especially those connected with our people. The point is that those who have been Divinely gifted in art, whether sculpture or painting and the like, have the privilege of being able to convert an inanimate thing, such as a brush, paint and canvas, or wood and stone, etc., into living form. In a deeper sense, it is the ability to transform to a certain extent the material into spiritual, even where the creation is in still life, and certainly where the artistic work has to do with living creatures and humans. How much more so if the art medium is used to advance ideas, especially reflecting Torah and Mitzvoth, which would raise the artistic skill to its highest level.

Indeed, this is the ultimate purpose of the Exhibition, which hopefully will impress and inspire the viewers with higher emotions and concepts of Yiddishkeit imbued with the spirit of Chassidus, and make them, too, vehicles of disseminating Yiddishkeit in their environment, and particularly through the educational institutions...

At the event, Lipchitz spoke about his association with the Rebbe and that he put on tefillin every day. He said that an artist needs inspiration, that he has to wait for a certain thing to come down -- he called it the "holy spirit" -- and for him, putting on tefillin gave him his inspiration for the day.35

The Detroit Jewish News on the Chassidic Art Exhibition attended by Lipchitz
The Detroit Jewish News on the Chassidic Art Exhibition attended by Lipchitz

Los Angeles, California

In a letter (on May 5, 1969), the Rebbe writes to Lipchitz ("Chaim Yaakov Lipchitz") who was at that time staying in La Quinta, California:

Thank you very much for your letter of the 21st of April. I was delighted to note that you feel much better in health.

...I just received a good report from Rabbi Krinsky that your stay in your present surroundings is satisfactory. He also told me that you expressed your readiness to meet with some of our representatives on the West Coast who are active in the dissemination of Yiddishkeit [Judaism] in that area. I trust that this encounter will be of mutual benefit, to you no less than to them.

I send you my prayerful wishes and warm personal regards.

Lipchitz at a Chabad of California event as Rabbi Shlomo Cunin speaks
Lipchitz at a Chabad of California event as Rabbi Shlomo Cunin speaks
One day, Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad of the West Coast, received a call.

"Hello, my name is Jacques Lipchitz, do you know who I am?"

"Hello, my name is Rabbi Cunin, do you know who I am?"

Lipchitz started laughing and told him that the Rebbe sent him to speak to him about doing something for him.

Cunin, who had not heard of Lipchitz, turned to one of the supporters of Chabad-Lubavitch in California, Alan Lazaroff, who arranged a parlor meeting in his home.

At the event, he said that he dons tefillin daily, binding himself with G‑d, His Torah, His people and the rest of the world.36

Pietrasanta, Italy

"I first went to Italy in 1962," said Lipchitz about his purchase of a villa in Pietrasanta, in the province of Lucca, Italy, "at the invitation of a lady who was an acquaintance of ours, primarily because she told me that there was a good foundry near where she lived."

Lipchitz during the construction of one his sculptures at his villa on Capri Island in Italy
Lipchitz during the construction of one his sculptures at his villa on Capri Island in Italy
It was there that Lipchitz continued doing a large bulk of his work for eight months a year, for the rest he would return to New York. He later purchased a home there, "even thought it is much too big and expensive for us and we had to do enormous amount of work to make it habitable."37

In a post script to a letter to Lipchitz (June 7, 1962), the Rebbe writes about his future trip to Italy:

In view of your mentioning that you plan a trip to Europe and to work in Italy, I trust you may have an opportunity to visit Milan and get acquainted with a young couple, Rabbi and Mrs. Garelik (Via Giulio Uberti 41). Rabbi Garelik was born, and for the first decade of his life brought up, under the Bolshevik regime. His wife is an American born girl, who gave up all the amenities of American life to join her husband in a mission to spread Yiddishkeit in Italy, especially among the young generation. Despite initial difficulties and the language problem, they have succeeded in their work thanks to their dedication and inspiration which have won them recognition and admiration. It goes to emphasize the common bonds which unite Jewish people everywhere by means of the Torah and Mitzvoth which are eternal and know of no boundaries. In a sense, the art of sculpture is analogous, in that by means of the creative idea it animates the inanimate raw material, giving it form and life that evoke responses in the viewer.

The Gareliks maintained a connection with the Lipchitzes throughout their stay in the country. Prior to the Jewish holidays they would go visit them to bring holiday provisions. In 1979, following Lipchitz's passing, his wife Yulla donated their property to Lubavitch of Milan. Chabad later moved their overnight camp, Camp Gan Israel, to the site, where it is until this very day.38

Kfar Chabad, Israel

On a trip in Israel in 1971, Lipchitz traveled to Kfar Chabad to celebrate his upcoming 80th birthday.39 He came with his wife Yulla and her son Hanno Mott; they celebrated and danced in the girl's school and then together toured the small village.

During the event, which lasted over two and a half hours, Lipchitz spoke about his childhood and about Chassidic dance -- which he said gives him strength in his work.40

Lipchitz celebrating his eightieth birthday in Kfar Chabad. The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot reports on the Chassidic dancing that erupted during the event.
Lipchitz celebrating his eightieth birthday in Kfar Chabad. The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot reports on the Chassidic dancing that erupted during the event.

Lipchitz's Last Request

"I visited Lipchitz frequently at his home at Hastings-on-Hudson," Rabbi Krinsky related, "and Lipchitz visited me. He didn't come to my house for the luxury or the good food. I don't live in that kind of palatial apartment. I lived in a couple of rooms upstairs, and yet he enjoyed it tremendously--the family, the kids. He came because he wanted to."

Lipchitz would write to the Krinskys during his frequent trips abroad to work in his studio in Italy and he would telephone them as soon as he returned to New York. The first question he would ask Rabbi Krinsky was, "How is the Rebbe?"

Lipchitz was in New York a month before his death; he arrived, strangely, the day Picasso died. The death was a great shock to him. "He spoke at length about Picasso," Krinsky said, "of how Picasso thought he had a lot of Jewish blood in him, that he came from Marranos, and that is why he loved the Jews and tried to be good to them."

Lipchitz sketched a plate sculpt,41 from which gold and silver plates could be produced and sold for the benefit of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. "A week later he called me," said Krinsky, "he wanted some help with the Hebrew lettering." Krinsky went to his home and was about to leave when Lipchitz embraced him and said goodbye.

"I had known him for a long time," said Krinsky, "and we were very close, but this was the first time he did this. That was our last meeting."

He had asked to be buried by Lubavitch Chasidim in Jerusalem when he died.

When informed of Lipchitz's death on May 26, 1973, on the Island of Capri, the Rebbe dispatched to the island Rabbi Gershon Garelik from Milan together with a burial society (chevra kadisha) to prepare the body for burial. There was a transport problem, but after a couple of days the body was on the way to Israel. Chassidim and Chabad-Lubavitch leaders from Kfar Chabad came to the airport and took the coffin to Jerusalem. They remained with it until burial.

The custom of Chabad is not to deliver any eulogies. So there were none. Though Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem and a close friend of Lipchitz, said a few words at the graveside.42

Seeing the Positive

A version of Lipchitz’s Our Tree of Life, representing the history of the Jewish nation. One hundred prints of the lithograph were presented to the Rebbe.
A version of Lipchitz’s Our Tree of Life, representing the history of the Jewish nation. One hundred prints of the lithograph were presented to the Rebbe.
Rabbi Krinsky relates this episode that followed Lipchitz's passing:

"The widow of Jacques Lipchitz, the renowned sculptor, had come for a private audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe shortly after her husband's sudden passing.

"In the course of her meeting with the Rebbe, she mentioned that when her husband died, he was nearing completion of a massive sculpture of a phoenix in abstract, a work commissioned by Hadassah Women's Organization for the Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, in Jerusalem.

"As an artist and sculptor in her own right, she said that she would have liked to complete her husband's work, but, she told the Rebbe, she had been advised by Jewish leaders that the phoenix is a non-Jewish symbol. How could that be placed, in Jerusalem -- no less!

"I was standing near the door to the Rebbe's office that night when he called for me and asked that I bring him the book of Job from his bookshelf, which I did.

"The Rebbe turned to Chapter 29, verse 18: 'I shall multiply my days like the Chol.'

"And then the Rebbe proceeded to explain to Mrs. Lipchitz the Midrashic commentary on this verse which describes the Chol as a bird that lives for a thousand years, then dies, and is later resurrected from its ashes.

"Clearly then, a Jewish symbol.

"Mrs. Lipchitz was absolutely delighted and the project was completed soon thereafter.

"True to his nature, the Rebbe discerned the positive where conventional wisdom saw only negativism."

Shortly after the audience, on March 17, 1975, the Rebbe wrote to Yulla. Here are some points from the letter:43

1) I was glad to hear from Rabbi Krinsky that everything worked out with regards to the sculpture. G‑d should grant that all the other details that still have not been worked out should be resolved.

2) Thank you for sending the lithograph "Our Tree of Life." I will hold onto it for its great symbolic meaning. It's an expression of the warm feelings that your husband, of blessed memory, shared with me for many years.

3) Let me add that this creation has great meaning. The eternity of the soul is a staple in the Jewish faith. Nevertheless, the eternity is expressed through the good deeds and the contributions the individual made during his lifetime on earth. This is emphasized when an individual is blessed from Above with exceptional talents. Your husband was blessed with such talents, that merited him great fame worldwide. He also had great influence in the worlds of spirit and ideas and he served as an example in these areas.

4) The symbolism of a tree is especially relevant, since the tree is a metaphor for, utility, creativity and the generational continuum.

5) Through sculpture one takes something an inanimate object and infuses it with life, making it a vehicle for ideas, feelings and aspirations.

I would like to acknowledge those that greatly assisted in the research for this article, a first in a series on this fascinating relationship.

The staff of the Agudas Chasidei Chabad Library: Rabbis Sholom Ber Levine, Yitzchak Wilhelm, Zalman Levine and Ephraim Keller.

Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin (Los Angeles, California), Mrs. Bas Sheva Shemtov (Detroit, Michigan), Mrs. Bassie Garelik (Milan, Italy), Rabbi Chaim Nachum Cunin (Los Angeles, California), and Rabbi Avrohom Laber (Troy, New York).

Rabbis Yisroel Elfenbein, Michoel Seligson and Levi Garelik.

Deborah Stott for taking her precious time to give me leads for more information.

Finally, Jacques' step-son Hanno Mott who was so kind to give me the Rebbe's correspondence with Jacques Lipchitz and responded to my many queries.

Footnotes
1.
The description of this event is from Encounters: The life of Jacques Lipchitz by Irene Patai (Funk and Wagnalls Company, NY, 1961). Referred to from hereon as Encounters. The history of his childhood is culled from this biography, besides where referenced otherwise.
2.
This quote is from an interview with William Berkowitz in 1961, apparently from the radio show he hosted. A transcript of the interview was first published in The Reconstructionist shortly following Lipchitz's passing (vol. XL/Shevat 5734 [January, 1974]). Referred to from hence on as Berkowitz Interview.
3.
Encounters.
4.
"My father was opposed because as he did more business, and became more prosperous and started to buy factories, he wanted me to be an engineer who would take care of all these factories," Lipchitz told Berkowitz.
5.
From an interview with Deborah Stott that was later published in My Life in Sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz in 1969 together with H. H. Aronson (New York, The Viking Press). From now on referred to as the Stott Interview.
6.
Stott Interview.
7.
Ibid.
8.
From a letter to Rabbi Berel Shemtov of Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan, copied in its entirety below.
9.
Encounters p. 359.
10.
Stott Interview.
11.
Most of the description of this event is from Encounters and the Stott Interview, unless otherwise referenced.
12.
This detail is from a Yediot Acharonot interview in Hebrew on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Referred to from now on as the Yediot Interview.
13.
"He will live," is from the Stott Interview.
14.
Berkowitz Interview.
15.
Encounters.
16.
Yediot Interview.
17.
Paraphrased in Encounters.
18.
Yediot Interview.
19.
From an interview to The London Jewish Chronicle on June 15, 1973. Referred to from now on as Jewish Chronicle.
20.
Yediot Interview.
21.
He told Berkowitz, "You know, I never have seen this sculpture installed. I have never gone there."
22.
Stott and Berkowitz interviews.
23.
Yediot Interview.
24.
Encounters.
25.
Berkowitz Interview.
26.
Berkowitz Interview.
27.
In Encounters it says: "Berthe wrote to Yulla from Paris that she had heard of his grave illness, that she herself had been hit by a car and was hospitalized for months, that she had succeeded in getting her son Andre out of Russia, that she proposed a continuing correspondence."
28.
Yediot Interview.
29.
From Encounters.
30.
Stott Interview.
31.
Berkowitz Interview.
32.
Stott Interview.
33.
Published in Challenge: An Encounter with Chabad-Lubavitch, London, 1970, p. 273.
34.
As told by Lipchitz to Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the West Coast. From an interview with Rabbi Cunin on 5/27/2008.
35.
Jewish Chronicle.
36.
The Bnai Brith Messenger 12/6/1974.
37.
Stott Interview.
38.
Interview with Bassie Garelik on 6/25/2008.
39.
Yediot Achronot, August 8, 1971: "There they call him Reb Chaim Yaakov and not Jacques."
40.
The details are culled from a letter penned to the Rebbe by Rabbi Efrayim Wolf, director of Chabad-Lubavitch institutions in Israel (courtesy of his family).
41.
This is in addition to a sculpture and lithographs he gave to the Rebbe. Though the exact circumstances and dates are unknown.
42.
Jewish Chronicle
43.
Translated from a Hebrew draft of the letter in Kfar Chabad Magazine issue 1259.
Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Mr. Richard Raff August 6, 2009

I really don't know what to say, that was very real to me .I have started to make the path of the dot to dot.Why is it even my dot is connected to so many other dots in the Jewish world. It is so important to slow down and remember those who are trying to help me out along the way.My focus is ok but it really can be so much better and can also be even better than that. I will find my way it just takes time to understand the art work of the map that guides me to some of details of the whole picture .I am only a fraction of the whole art piece I need that other fraction to make my journey complete.Great story Reply

Kayo Tokyo, Japan August 3, 2009

It is very heart-warming story. I enjoyed very much. Reply