One of my favorite interviews was with Raychel and her daughter Liana as they talked of their experience in coming to the US from the former Soviet Union. To do a painting, I need to ponder the essence of their story and as I reread the interview I was struck with the way in which legacy was passed through food and song from mother to daughter. Even at a time when practice of religion was difficult the cultural handoffs managed to keep that history alive.
This theme came up many times. When I asked about food I was regaled with stories of making gefilte fish, an old family recipe that Raychel had learned from her mother and she in turn from hers. Raychel recalled her mother leading them in song at the Pesach table and shared the songs that she had learned from her mother. When I asked about religious practice itself I was told that Raychel’s mother (who would have been born around the late 1800s) was proudly Jewish and sang Jewish songs and celebrated Jewish holidays. Raychel was born around the time of the revolution when religions, especially Judaism, were persecuted, but she knew about the holidays from her mother and what she remembered she told her daughter. I began to imagine a long line of women extending back in time, each passing on the traditions. Having it go from mother to daughter felt especially meaningful in that being Jewish is passed through the mother. I looked at images I had taken of Raychel singing and decided to start with that image.
I also was interested in the stories I had heard about the Russian passport that indicated if one were Jewish. This designation often contributed to job discrimination for Jews. As it was on line five, the question, “Is your line 5 OK?" took on additional meaning. It meant that if your line 5 indicated you were Jewish you would encounter difficulties. I originally was thinking of overlaying the passport to incorporate this part of the story.
As the painting developed I had to edit. The challenge with many stories is one can have too much of a good thing and end up with confusion. I discarded the idea of the passport and thought perhaps it might find its way to its own painting. I developed the image of Raychel and a line of women behind her. I then pictured them all sitting at a table and began to sketch in ovals before each woman, imagining them blending into one table that they shared.
One of the things that I have always found fascinating about cemeteries is the way they compress time, joining those of different generations and time periods around one table. I had that same sense of compression as I developed this painting. Food, song and culture compressed time, joining different generations together.
I sketched in the Kiev Synagogue to the side. Liana had told me that only those who had nothing to lose would go there as she would have been persecuted had she gone. Around Raychel’s neck she wore a Star of David. We had talked about its significance for them as they could not have worn any Judaica in the Soviet Union. To be able to now say who they are and express their pride in it is very special. As I drew in Raychel’s necklace, I also added it to all of the women who came before her.
I now had a shape that resembled a shofar going back in time, filled with generations of women in a figurative horn of plenty. Hmm, maybe there was a way to put the suggestion of the passport in. Where the line of women ended, I drew the number five, behind it another smaller 5 and behind that yet another. The five was in fact symbolic of their Jewish identity so it became a proxy for the women themselves.
So the painting is developing and now I need to live with it to develop it further. I like the way it intersects with story in a way I hadn't fully anticipated when I began. And of course the name of the painting is From Her Mother to reflect the tradition handed from one woman to the next.