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Midrash Manicurist

An aspiring rabbi interprets the Torah on her fingernails

Joshua J. Friedman
October 08, 2009
Simchat Torah nails: an unfurled Torah scroll.(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)
Simchat Torah nails: an unfurled Torah scroll.(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)

When Yael Buechler was growing up, her Conservative synagogue in Dix Hills, New York celebrated Simchat Torah by taking out a Torah scroll and unfurling it around the entire perimeter of the sanctuary. All the adults—her father was the rabbi—would spread out around the edge of the room, clasping the parchment, while the children ran underneath. Buechler, now 23, remembers it as a striking visual experience. Gazing around, she could see the whole sweep of the biblical narrative. Passages with unusual textual layouts, like the song of Parshat Ha’azinu in Deuteronomy and the Song of the Sea in Exodus, seemed to mark inflection points. Where one bold column of text diverged into three delicate columns of poetry, she would think, “Oh, this is the splitting of the Red Sea. This is ‘Az Yashir,’ the song of redemption.”

This early insight into the Torah’s visual aspect stayed with Buechler as she grew older, attended high school and college, traveled to Israel, and entered rabbinical school, at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York—and has culminated in an unusual practice. Each week, usually on Friday morning, Buechler reads the weekly parasha, or Torah portion, in Hebrew. Then she studies ancient commentaries, followed by modern ones. In the process, a particular image or scene, or occasionally a phrase, will emerge as a visual distillation of the reading that she paints on her fingernails. “This becomes a nice way of ending my study period for the morning,” Buechler says. “And this way I have something to look at and think about over Shabbat.”

Nearly every week for 10 years, she has painted iconic scenes (the great flood), powerful phrases (u’vcharta b’chaim—“choose life”), and holiday symbols (dreidels, sukkahs) on her nails. She invests small choices with great creativity and thought. When she paints the first Passover plague, rivers filled with blood, should a small fish be swimming around as a reminder that the river is a source of life? She associates her nail-painting with midrash, a type of commentary that fills in narrative and logical gaps in the Torah. Midrashic stories, often imaginative, are tools for thought. “This is not written midrash,” Buechler says, “but this is artistic midrash.”

Her current practice evolved from something much simpler. In middle school, inspired by teachers who got their nails done, she began to paint her nails each week, in solid colors according to the season: browns for the fall, mulberry and maroon for the winter, whites for the spring. In high school, she found that giving herself a manicure was a way to relieve stress, unwinding Thursday nights while watching television, sometimes with friends. She started by painting smiley faces, then seasonal icons—snowflakes for winter, turkeys for Thanksgiving. “And suddenly it hit me that I could make this something more meaningful,” she says.

Not only Buechler but the people around her find meaning in her nail-painting. Rabbinical-school classmates approach her with their own ideas for images and phrases, which means that somehow her practice has crept into their study sessions. And they ask questions. For Hanukkah this year, will she paint one menorah or one candle on each finger? (Undecided). Has she ever done the splitting of the Red Sea? (Yes.) She also gets noticed in the wider world. Curious shop owners get a crash course in parasha study. Buechler’s bat mitzvah student has negotiated a deal where after they finish studying the parasha together, Buechler will paint her nails with an image from it.

I visited Buechler last month, just before Rosh Hashanah and a few weeks before Simchat Torah, when congregations celebrate the completion of the year’s Torah cycle and prepare to begin reading it anew, starting from Genesis. She took a break from writing sermons to paint her nails with several favorite designs. For a brush, she used an unusual kind of toothpick that looks like a thin, flat rectangle, and which she buys whenever she comes across them. (She once used the point of a paper clip, until it started to hurt.) She worked quickly but precisely, using each hand with equal skill. In front of her sat more than 50 bottles of polish, which she picks with a particular subject in mind (“I was running low on brown, and I wanted it for my shofars,” she explained).

As we talked, Buechler interjected reflections about small details. Working on an intricate Sukkot design, she said, “I have to leave room for the schach” (the sukkah’s thatch roof). And later: “I’m not doing bamboo. Sorry.” Toward the end, she said, “I’m putting oranges in right now.” And the brush darted into the bottle of bright orange polish and dabbed each nail. “I think we’re going to do oranges and cherries. Or grapes. I’ll do grapes.”

Joshua J. Friedman, a former editor at The Atlantic and the Boston Review, is a writer in New York City.

Joshua J. Friedman, a former editor at The Atlantic and the Boston Review, is a writer in New York City.