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Returning to the start

Returning to the start

My very first Blog post was in June 2011. It was called “Dancing Along Autobiographical Lines.” In that post, I introduced my  novel “Living From the Inside Out”. I had just finished writing it, and re-editing it for the tenth time. I thought it was finished. A few months ago, I took a few weeks and re-edited it again. It finally felt finished. Now, I am returning to that first post (which I had completely forgotten about) to sort of finalize the message  I wrote those years ago.

Everyone has at least one book in them. I think I may have about twenty. I have been writing consistently for 18 years. I began my writing with a novel in 1996. My first writing was done on a typewriter. When I finished that first attempt, the first iteration of “Joseph’s Bones”, I tried to sell it, to get it published. I did it the right way, with a great deal of research and spending a fortune on shipping. I got 96 rejection letters. My favorite was from an editor who sent me a photocopied sheet listing dozens of authors and how many rejections they suffered. If I remember correctly, Jack London topped the list with more than 800 rejections! So, I set about trying the whole process again, in order to get an Agent, thinking that might be more successful. It proved just as difficult. I only received 38 rejections.

Well, I kept writing; not sure why, I guess I’m just stubborn like that. Some people call it “faithful”. I suppose, all I know is that I felt impelled to write, driven to write, at first, and later it changed to being a way to work out my demons, a way to think out on paper what I am doing wrong and right. We Jews are a strange people; delving into our souls and minds to determine what is down inside; looking at ourselves in the mirror in order to change. It even has a name in Judaism, it’s called “Heshbon ha-Nefesh“, meaning “examination of the soul”. (I have written about this in my book “Pictures“). Well, I used my writing to do Heshbon ha-nefesh, to record the examinations I did of my soul; no matter how revealing and no matter how difficult. Writing helped me get my head wrapped around many things.

Nine years ago, my congregation, Derech Olam, which I led for 13 and a half years,  began to come apart at the seams, it began to crumble. I called a meeting of all my male friends in the congregation so that they could vent their frustrations on me; tell me all the mistakes I had made; list for me my ruination and the foolishness I modeled on a daily basis. I did this so that I could get my head wrapped around my problems and what I was doing wrong, so that I could fix it – so  that I could fix myself. They were not kind. Which would have been all right, except for the fact that they did not have the goal of making things better. One of the most ironic events concerning this is a comment made by one those men. He excoriated me, telling me, “You’re always writing, but you don’t understand anything. You don’t change! You need to stop writing and change!” It was the writing itself that gave me the understanding of many of the things I did not understand; could not understand, because I had never been told or taught them. It took years to change, but it came largely because of those attempts at heshbon ha-nefesh, and the writing I did to wrestle with it.

What was so ironic about that friend’s comments is that it is that very writing – all that heshbon ha-Nefesh-y stuff about my personal problems and lack of understanding – that I later compiled into a novel. And just recently, I signed a contract to publish my first novel with Tate Publishing! It was odd to me that of all the things I have written that would be my first published written work. My first published work is the 86 pencil Illustrations I did for the Tree Of Life Version Messianic Bible due out very soon. But to get writing published, for an artist, is a strange feeling.

The novel Living From The Inside Out will take more than half a year to finally come out in print. And because it is being printed through a Publisher, I will take it down from my site (under the Purple Pages under My Writings). It is very early in the process and I don’t know if the strange message of the book, and the strange slant of the book will find any success at all. It is semi-autobiographical, about a Jewish boy who grows up in El Paso and leaves to become a Conservative rabbi in New York. Much later, he goes on a journey to “find out about Jesus”. He is not a Messianic Jew; he knows nothing of Yeshua, he just wants to find out about Jesus; how he fits into the puzzle of history, why everything seems to swirl around him, and questions such as this. And although the story is very strange; drifting into the supernatural, the absurd and the romantic, the core of the story is the emotional, and personal changes that the main character Michael goes through, and how an American hellenized Jew who lacks common sense or spiritual knowledge becomes a more whole and healed man. It’s pretty heady stuff. And it’s funny too.

Publishing is a very competitive  realm. More than 30 books are published each and every day! Tens of thousands are published each year. There are hundreds of very accomplished, amazing writers, who never become authors. I have no illusions that Living From the Inside Out will find much acceptance or attention. I’ll do what I can to promote it, but there are two things about it that makes me happy. One is that it may open the door for me to help to advocate for Yeshua as an organic part of Judaism – not Christ, Yeshua. The second thing is that I have 3 other novels waiting in the wings, and thousands of pages of beautiful spiritual Jewish truths that  I hope to someday publish as well.  Here is what the cover of the book looks like at this time – early in the process. I pray that it is a blessing to many.

 

God is strange

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THREE YEARS AGO I was flown to upstate New York. The reason for this was that I got my dream job.  I used to be a Messianic Rabbi. I did this for 13 years.  I was not a good Rabbi.  I did learn a lot though. And all that time – those 13 years, plus another seven before that – I was obsessed with the Bible.  All my artwork stemmed from it. And I hoped and prayed and connived and manipulated and pleaded and worked harder than I should have to get any job illustrating the Bible, or at least, parts of it. All I wanted was to be able to meld together MY view of the Bible and MY art.

IT NEVER HAPPENED of course, because wanting something too much can be personally dangerous and damaging. In my case, I felt for decades like I was banging my head against the wall. I just couldn’t get anyone interested in my view of Scripture. But I continued to stubbornly work on it anyway

FAST FORWARD TO 2005, when we lost the congregation, all our friends, our community, my job, and any security that we had, and this with a wife, four children, a mortgage and two cars. That was a bad year. But we made it. I hustled like I never had before, and God took care of us. And then, I got my job teaching Middle School Art.

DURING THAT BAD year I received a call from Daniah Greenberg from Syracuse, New York. She yapped like Tigger, a happy, motivation machine. I was in a deep depression at the time, and I was cynical, angry, self-loathing and foul-mouthed. She said that she had seen my original print of The Word Became Flesh (which can only be found on this website in the Purple pages under “Notecards”). The prints of this piece sold out many years ago. She had seen it some 15 years previous, and since then her vision was to have a Bible illustrated in my style.

GOD IS STRANGE. I spent decades wanting to illustrate the Bible; Mrs. Greenberg spent decades dreaming of a Bible illustrated by me. It came while I was at my lowest: broke, tired, disappointed, disgruntled and I even spent a few days suicidal. The Dreamweaver wove together two disparate dreams.

AND SO THE CONTRACT was worked out, and I was hired to Illustrate the Bible. My family awaited the first check not knowing if it would actually pan out. I had doggedly continued drawing, working on my illustration eye.  But I had no feedback from illustrators, from professional artists; no critique from anyone who was better than myself so that I could improve my work.

MRS. GREENBERG NOT ONLY hired me to do the illustrations, but she worked it out so that I would be able to photograph dozens of people that I could use for the illustrations (with release forms included). And then, amazingly, she worked it out so that I was able to be tutored for one week by a painter and Professor of Fine Art in Syracuse University.  His name is Jerome Witkin. He used to be called, “America’s premier narrative figurative painter”, information that Mrs. Greenberg did not share with me.  So, I went on the internet to see if he was any good.  I was astounded at the complexity and emotional impact of his work, and how absolutely uncompromising he was in his vision.

I HAD BEGUN TWO or three illustrations before I arrived in New York. One of them was Daniel in the Lion’s den, and another was Moses, a sort of composite piece that was created in MY STYLE; that’s what they were after, right?

AND THEN, after all the oo’ing and ahh’ing from everyone involved in the project, and my feeling that the pieces were done, perfected and just what they should be, came my meeting with Jerome.  I awaited his feedback breathlessly. Even though everyone said they were amazing, I actually wanted him to tear my work apart.  I had heard ooing and ahhing for 20 years, but couldn’t get a job illustrating the Bible and Bible related projects, so I reasoned that I must be doing something wrong. But what it was I couldn’t tell.

BEFORE LOOKING AT my illustrations, Jerome looked at the drawings in my sketchbook.  He said that most of them were “blonde drawings”.  This was the very beginning of him opening my eyes to what was missing from my art, and the changing of my life and opening of my eyes. Blonde drawings lack a clear light source.  It was all about light.  The effects of light on the subjects, the way the light lays on the forms, the light that effects everything in the illustration in the same way,  from the same direction, with the same intensity. Jerome spent the entire day with me talking about light, checking out books from the Syracuse Library for me, making drawings of the basics of art and light and working from life and the artists of the past that worked these things out to perfection.  He wrote notes in my sketchbook about the Le Nain brothers and Georges De la Tour and the models he made to paint from, and how to create a panorama box to make models so that I wouldn’t have to guess about the effects of light on the subjects, and that very “figure ground” being the essential thing to work out in a piece, and the absolute necessity of drawing and painting from life. He even invited me to his own studio and taught me there as well.  In appreciation, I have painted this narrative called “Witkin’s Passion”, which draws together many of the lessons that he taught me.

I SET TO WORK. I worked hard. I gutted my illustrations, and reworked them completely.  I built a lighted model box for the Daniel in the Lion’s den piece and began building pictures from the internet that had the right light effects to use in illustrations.  I had always done this, but I had used books: an eye here, a hand there, a garment or a foot or a hat. But that was the problem: all of the photographs had a different light source. I worked all day long, and then, until about 2:00 in the morning for the rest of the week, drawing, researching through the mound of books Jerome got for me, making models and photographing, searching for photos, drawing, redrawing and then redrawing again. I do not have any photographic evidence of what the Daniel piece looked like before reworking it, but here is the redone piece; the first illustration (done at the age of 47) by what I think I can finally say is a professional illustrator.

I LOOK AT THIS piece now, three years later, and can remember that for some reason it was psychologically painful to stretch out the shadows of the figures at the cave’s mouth all the way to the cave floor. And, I would now also make changes from the effects of light and shadow.  But, comparing this piece to the Moses piece above is like night and day. In the Moses piece, the crowd at the top left has virtually no light source! The light coming from below that lights up Moses’ face in the bottom left is inconsistent, unfinished, and the anatomy and shadowplay is wrong. The figure in the bottom right likewise, has no visible light source: it is blonde, and the anatomy is stilted and powerless.

I HOPE I HAVE communicated these things clearly; they are illusive and ephemeral. But they are amazing changes that the amazing triad of God, Daniah Greenberg, and Jerome Witkin brought to my life and my art. It was all GRACE.  I did not deserve any of what was given; even though I worked and waited and tried and did what I believed to be the right thing for decades. It doesn’t matter. It was all GRACE (khen in Hebrew, meaning undeserved favor.)

THE MESSIANIC FAMILY BIBLE has wrapped up the New Testament. All the art has been finished, delivered, edited and printed, and the Bible can be seen at http://www.mjcbp.org/.

I RECEIVED MY FIRST good critique in more than twenty years from Jerome Witkin. He (nicely, patiently, cautiously) tore my work apart. He was afraid that I was going to be offended; lean on my talent and get defensive. I did the opposite. I cried with joy for finally getting for my work what I have been looking for for more than 2 long decades.  After our week of tutoring, Jerome said about me, “you’re the best Graduate student I’ve ever had.” I don’t know if it was just hyperbole on his part, but I sure loved having my hard work and teachable attitude appreciated.

GOD IS STRANGE. But Grace is strange. It throws a monkey-wrench into our work-reward system of thinking.  I have no doubt about this. My family, my self-esteem, my wife’s health, my business market and my Art itself all hung in the balance. It was all dropping away like a leper’s skin sloughing off right in front of my eyes.  And it was then – right then at my lowest – that (I believe) God caused Daniah Greenberg to call me. And it was then that (I believe) God brought my dream job right into my lap.  So, basically, this blog was written to thank God for His amazing, and strange ways, and to encourage you to thank God for His GRACE whether you believe it’s there or not. It is. And He deserves thanks for it.

A hopeful Megatrend

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I LIKE SOCIOLOGY. I certainly don’t like it as much as art or spiritual matters, but it’s a cool way to look at people groups and helps keep my feet on the ground and a measure of sanity in the way I view the world. A sociological survey of economic trends that would change the world was penned in the 80′s by John Naisbit. It was called “Megatrends”. He then updated it in “Megatrends 2000″. Naisbit was able to hit the pulse of world trends, and prophetically listed sociological trends that would shortly explode.

I AM FIFTY years old now and have been many places and talked to thousands of people. I hung around Messianic circles for many years; attended conferences, visited congregations, worshiped with them, taught and learned with them. For the last six years, however, I have been attending a Reform Temple. And I can tell you with authority: It’s a different world. It’s vastly different. It’s unsettlingly different. It’s marvelously different.

YOU SEE, I HAD no Christian background at all. I was raised as a Jew in America, whatever that means, usually it means very little. And it did in my case. My father was in the military and my Jewish heritage was minimal; but it was enough to create in me the same revulsion and negative responses to all things “Jesus” that is so pervasive in Jewish circles. For instance, I have never in my entire life called Yeshua, or Jesus: “Christ”. But, having said that, I somehow got past it. Somehow God reached me. Somehow I ended up very deeply interested in Jewish spirituality on an equal footing with spirituality based on Yeshua (Jesus). But all of this has come to me without any “Christian” background, upbringing or education. But come it has.

BUT IT WAS painful.  In this illustration I did of Joseph (a theme I have illustrated before) I related on a personal level the things that he went through. He was thrown into a pit by his brothers. He was imprisoned unjustly. He waited for years to be freed. Eventually, he reconciled with his brothers and ended up being the one whom God used to free them, feed them and bless them.

I DO NOT THINK of myself as Joseph, but I do know the feelings of being separated from my brothers. Those negative feelings that are so pervasive in Judaism against Yeshua and Messianic Jews — it seems to me — may be changing.  I believe that after 30 years of paying attention to such “religious” things, I see a certain amount of morphing on the part of many Jews toward Messianic things in general. In my view, it MUST change, because that set of attitudes is prejudice, pure and simple.  One might call it “causeless hatred”, that same sin that our fathers said brought the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

THE OTHER DAY I met a magnificent soul, a Jewish woman, an artist, a spiritual person, named Deborah Levi. We had one brief conversation at a Jewish Art Show, and it led to (among other things) the inspiration for this blog post. We engaged in a back and forth communication by e-mail. She felt at meeting me that she was to give me an absolutely beautiful painting that both Eileen and I saw at the show and were very taken with. She had to contact me to get me the piece and saw on this web-site that I am a Jewish believer in Yeshua. All of her reactions were both predictable and disappointing. But, to her credit, she stuck to her initial inspiration, and following what she believed to be a “spiritual” direction, actually gave me this gorgeous piece seen here.  She, a Jew, said she felt God was directing her to do this.  I felt a little uncomfortable because she expressed her discomfort at my deception….I hadn’t told her I believed in Yeshua.  It was little more than an excuse to put up a wall against Yeshua. Where does one shove that into a conversation? I was just being myself and enjoyed meeting her…….she enjoyed meeting me, and then Yeshua, as is always the case, got in the way.  But she honored God and gave me the piece, and we went back and forth by email with some pretty cool conversation.

HERE IS WHERE THE megatrend comes in. After believing in Yeshua for thirty years, I notice what appears to be a different trend taking place, and it seems to be growing rapidly. What I have observed is a Hopeful Megatrend.  I communicated this to Ms. Levi.

THE TRUTH IS that there are countless Jews in Temples, Synagogues, Havurot, Shuls and Jewish communities that believe Yeshua is the Messiah. You may be unaware of this. There are more all the time. They (we) are the silent minority, forced into silence in a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” world. It’s ridiculous, and it is very hurtful and abusive to people who simply believe something that doesn’t change a single thing about them being Jewish.  Jews believe all kinds of stuff, crazy stuff, unbelievable stuff, twisted and dangerous and selfish stuff. There are no thought police in Synagogues, or bylaws with embedded Statements of Faith. Jews can believe anything we want to……except Yeshua. This is wholly illogical, but it is actually quite understandable, considering the entwined history of Judaism and “Christianity”. But I believe it to be changing.

MY MEETING with Deborah Levi led to the inspiration for this blog, so I am providing an excerpt from one of the e-mails I sent her.

I thank God that we’ve been so clannish and cliquish and self-integrated and protected, because it has helped us to survive as a people with the gift of Judaism that (I believe) was hand-delivered by God to us – fairly intact. At the same time I hate it and it frustrates me and I’m thinking after talking with thousands of Jewish people all over the world, that it is time for a change. I think it’s time for Judaism to recognize what the ruach ha kodesh (Holy Spirit) of God is doing on earth with His people. And that seems to be including Yeshua into the mix more and more….So I think it behooves Jews all over the world to investigate the Tenach (Scriptures) and really try to figure out how the whole thing fits together, without prejudice, without looking at other people, and without “Christian” input.

THAT LITTLE PHRASE: “seems to be including Yeshua into the mix more and more…” quite simply sums up the hopeful Megatrend in question. I don’t believe this is pie in the sky “hope”.  I think I am just looking at what is happening in the world just as the author of Megatrends did. It has had a long incubation period, and it seems to make sense. Following is the url of a video on YouTube of Rabbi Kaduri who recently passed away at the age of 108. He left a message about Yeshua. I am not including this video to bolster my argument or try to twist you to “believe”. I stumbled across it and it seemed to me to be just another mystical connection in this amazing and very encouraging process of God restoring all things.

http://youtu.be/wTOr6ClCGmQ

I THINK THINGS are moving rapidly to a conclusion…….one way or the other. Jews are integrally linked to this movement of history. Time will tell if the trend will continue.