Two weeks have passed since a fire destroyed Yoram Raanan’s studio—and his life’s work—but the U.S.-born Israeli painter refuses to succumb to despair. “There is a lot of negative but I’m not looking at it,” Raanan said of that fateful night. “I’m only looking at the positive.”
These sentiments from one of Israel’s hardest working and most successful artists, who lost close to 2,000 works of art—40 years of work which he will never be able to replace.
On the morning of November 25, a Monday, a fire aggravated by high winds and extremely dry weather swept through Beit Meir, a pastoral moshav in the Jerusalem corridor where Raanan lives and works with his wife Meira. Police initially apprehended two of five suspects in what appeared to be a case of politically motivated arson; no injuries were reported.
Listing the plusses on what seems like a non-zero-sum equation, Raanan points out that despite a prolonged evacuation there were no injuries or casualties. The only damage was to property as several homes were destroyed, and Raanan’s own loss of the products of his career.
On the night of the fire, Raanan, who made aliyah four decades ago, was asleep in his studio when his wife Meira woke him up, essentially saving his life. “I grabbed my talis and tefillin and my wallet and ran,” he recalled in an interview. Police instructed residents to get into their cars and leave but the fire still burned on both sides of the road and the exit. For several hours, almost a thousand people, including the elderly, young children and yeshiva students sat in their cars waiting to be told that it was safe for them to leave.
It was during those tense hours that Raanan watched his studio go up in flames. “Because there were so many flammable materials, canvasses, wood stretchers, oil paint and turpentine, it was an amazing flame,” he says. Once again his initial reaction was stoic: “I said, ‘There it goes.’ ”
Among the losses were many large canvasses rendered in a style Raanan calls “contemporary Jewish expressionism,” drawing from Bible or nature for inspiration.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Raanan graduated from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 1975, arriving in Israel a year later settling first in Jerusalem and then moving to Beit Meir with his family—Meira, four and (now) several grandchildren—in 1994. Now, Raanan’s paintings hang in Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel and Wolfson Museum as well as Vienna’s Berger Museum and in the homes of many private collectors including the centenarian actor Kirk Douglas.
When the story went public there was a huge outpouring of support which has yet to let up. “People stop me on the street with tears in their eyes. I never knew that so many people responded to my work,” he said. Though he presently has no studio and is unable to paint, he has received offers from gallery owners and is hopeful about his career and even excited.
As to the future, Raanan doesn’t yet know direction his work will take but he’s hopeful. “Gam zu l’Tova,” he said quoting the ancient maxim meaning “All is for the best,” attributed to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva. “I get to start again with a very clean slate,” he said. “I get to rebuild.”
Carol Ungar is the author of Jewish Soul Food: Traditional Fare and What It Means, and a prize-winning writer who blogs about traditional Jewish food at Kosher Home Cooking.