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Green Thoughts

Jonathan Rosen
February 14, 2005

Hanging in my office is a drawing by Moico Yaker. It shows a man, neatly dressed, wearing a prayer shawl, his left arm wrapped in tefillin. An open book rests between the man’s legs, presumably a prayer book although the pages are blank. There is something casually elegant about the man—which makes it all the stranger that where his head ought to be, there is instead a great branching tree filled with birds.

The drawing [now on loan to Having Trouble to Pray, at the Yeshiva University Museum] delighted me from the first moment I saw it pinned to the wall of Moico’s studio more than two years ago. For one thing I am a bird watcher and spend a lot of time with my head, metaphorically, filled with birds. I immediately sympathized with the man’s plight, having often found myself with my head in the clouds when it was expected to be somewhere else. But I had seldom put on tefillin since my bar mitzvah and the man, on closer examination, did not seem wholly relevant to my self-conception. The suited figure, wrapped in his prayer shawl and tefillin, seemed a little overt, perhaps, not quite in tune with my own tangled tension between tradition and individual freedom.

But then something strange began to happen. Not long after I acquired the drawing, my father died. Every morning I woke up early and went to synagogue—to put on the tefillin I had not worn in many years and to say kaddish. Some mornings I did this with simple devotion and some mornings I did it with pain and distraction and resentment. I began in winter and moved through spring and summer and fall. During that time I did not have the leisure, or the wherewithal, to go bird watching—I became a kind of indoor man, but my head was full of outdoor dreams. I became the man in Moico’s drawing.

But who was this man?

The longer he hung above my desk, the more ambiguous he became. What had seemed a sort of visual one-liner was now filled with complex meaning for me. Was the man merely the butt of the artist’s joke? Had he been turned into a tree—a pagan metamorphosis at the very moment when he ought to be bent on Hebraic intensity? Or was the tree somehow rooted in the man—anchored in human consciousness and religious tradition, not at odds with it? Was it possible that the tree was an affirmation of the man’s religious devotion, not a mocking deviation from it?

The tradition itself is not clear about these questions. One famous rabbinic dictum declares that if a man pauses in the midst of Torah study to look at a beautiful tree, Scripture regards him “as if he had committed a deadly sin.” Another states that if the Torah had not been given to the Jews, they could have learned its teachings from contemplation of nature.

“They will be like a well-watered garden,” Jeremiah declares of the Israelites, looking toward the time Jews are once again gathered into God’s presence. The natural world and the human world and the divine world are not always divisible into separate realms. The “tree of life” is not a tree, it is the Torah. And yet we are told there really is a tree of life growing in Eden, and we were expelled so that we would not find it because it would make us even more like God.

Moico’s drawing does not resolve these tensions. Like a Talmudic point and counterpoint, the rooted man and the soaring branches live in splendid, fruitful tension. And ultimately, it is the hand of the artist, offering his own sort of prayer, that binds these two worlds together.

Jonathan Rosen is the editor of the NextBook Press Jewish Encounters book series.

Jonathan Rosen is the editor of the NextBook Press Jewish Encounters book series.