By Robert J. Avrech, Jewish Press
True genius is a rare commodity.
Five years ago, 26-year-old Moshe Hammer, z”l, a Lubavitch artist who frequently worked through the night, stepped outside for a walk in Los Angeles, to clear his head and recharge his creative batteries. As was his custom, Moshe rambled miles from his apartment in the Fairfax district.
Tragically, Moshe was struck by a truck and instantly killed.
For two days, Moshe’s parents, Joan “Pessie” and Yosef Hammer, did not hear from their son. They were frantic, searching the neighborhood, calling friends, trying to locate Moshe.
Two days after Moshe’s disappearance, July 15, 2004, there was a knock at the door; a local rabbi, rebbetzin and a police officer delivered the tragic news.
A few days later, Pessie Hammer went to clear out her son’s apartment. In the bottom drawer of his desk she discovered over three hundred black and white ink drawings.
Mrs. Hammer knew that her son was a talented artist. As a child, Moshe drew comic books with hard-charging superheroes and sold them to his classmates. But Pessie and Yosef, a postal worker, had no idea that their son’s body of work was so massive and of such quality.
Sorting through Moshe’s work, Pessie discovered that Moshe had illustrated a Passover Haggadah, a Book of Esther, The Song of Songs, as well as the entire siddur.
I met the Hammers when Pessie wrote to me after reading an article about our son Ariel Chaim, a”h, that I wrote for The Jewish Press. We lost Ariel a year earlier and understood exactly what the Hammer family was enduring.
Sitting in their comfortable Fairfax home, my wife Karen and I offered a measure of comfort to this fine family. The Hammers generously allowed us to examine Moshe’s drawings.
I sorted through the single sheets one at a time. Nothing prepared me for the stunning images that overflowed with intricate details. I was dumbfounded by the inner coherence of each work. It was as if I had discovered a geniza of Jewish art in, of all places, Hollywood.
“What do you think?” Yosef asked me.
“Your son was a genius,” I said with no hesitation whatsoever.
Moshe Hammer’s art can best be understood as a cross between medieval illuminated manuscripts and the modernity of a sophisticated comic book. Hebrew letters dance like Chassidic Jews. The calligraphy and drawings reveal Moshe’s intensive study of the traditional commentaries of the sacred texts.
Moshe Hammer’s art is also deeply cinematic. Each drawing is informed by a central narrative. Take a look at his touching Sh’ma. A mother and father watch over their sleeping children. But also present in the fairy tale bedroom are angels and Cherubim. A black spider (the Angel of Death?) dangles from a web, a sinister presence creating an excruciating tension. We want to know what happens next. How does the story unfold?
Sadly, we know that we can never completely protect our children.
The drawings are filled with mystical allusions, and the eye focuses on each beautifully resolved composition invariably discovering worlds within worlds. There are prophets on flying chariots, children in the care of baby-faced archangels and magical menageries. There are Seraphim, storm tossed ships, weeping Kiddush cups, and everywhere Moshe’s gentle humor.