By C. Brosh – Mishpacha Magazine
An array of images smile down from the walls in which subtle humorous curves interwoven innocently add a special charm to a Chassidic tale.
Yechiel Offner, a Kfar Chabad resident, suffices with a modest corner in his guest room, where he engages in his art work. His home, surrounded by cypress trees is a haven of Chasidic experience that serves as motivating force for the colors he sweeps vivaciously to and fro creating painting after painting, all of which give visitors an illusion of shifting back in history into a Jewish shtetl.
Not only Yechiel’s colorful experiences adorn the walls of the house. The Chassidic enthusiasm of his wife’s grandfather, Rabbi Nochum Gurelnik, had been absorbed by the very walls of the home (Rabbi Gurelnik was a student of the ‘Tomchei Temimim’ yeshiva of Lubavitch during the leadership of the Rebbe Rashab). In this very home, Yechiel had the merit to revive these Chassidic sparks from every nook and corner, while accumulating bits and pieces of Jewish history… by means of his paintbrush. If the grandfather had known that his lively Chassidic lifestyle would be perpetuated in his own home, this would have probably enhanced his Chassidic devotion.
“I was born in Bnei Brak in the year 5734 – 1974. As a member of a Chabad Chassidic family I studied in Chabad schools. I also had the merit of meeting the Rebbe in person during my ‘Kvutze’ year, 5754 – 1994, which was the last year of the Rebbe’s visible leadership. Currently I am married and have two children. For a living, I serve as a certified teacher and educator.”
My Artistic Style
Although I have not studied art professionally, I have attended several top quality art classes during the past few years. I have, however, learned a lot from friends and artists, and have gradually paved the way for my personal style.
I was substantially encouraged by the well known Chabad artist, Rabbi Zalman Kleinman, ob’m, whom I had often visited and who always greeted me with utmost friendliness. He would contemplate my drawings and paintings; he would show me his paintings and would guide me.
Also, when I was teaching Jewish subjects in Russia, I met with a Russian artist, an art teacher working at the same school, who graciously taught me many art principles and strategies in the course of the year.
I began drawing when I was 13, when I started out with pen and colored pencil drawings. To begin with, I drew pictures of old time Chassidim. Now I also produce Judaica items. I wrote and illustrated a ‘Megillas Esther’ as well. I edited and produced illustrated workbooks on Masechtas Brochos and Megilla. I produced the following comic books: ‘The Golem of Prague’, ‘Three Revenges’ and ‘Fear for a Moment’.
Pictures describing life in the Jewish shtetl are my favorites. I spend time drawing Chassidim, Chassidic ideas and Jews of the Diaspora. Currently I am focusing on the life cycle of Chabad Chassidim, Chassidic farbrengens, the Chassidic somersault (the ‘kule’ which serves as an illustration of defying external conventions), the Chassidic dance and prayer with Chassidic devotion.
One of my productions describes the holy brothers, Rabbi Zushe and Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, known to have journeyed together in order to help Jews and at one occasion, when they had succeeded in redeeming a Jew from the clutches of a cruel nobleman, they broke out in an enthusiastic dance.
I have plans to draw Jewish laborers such as shoemakers, tailors, water carriers etc. Many of my productions depict contemporary Chabad life. All of these favorite scenes are connected by onlookers fond of the Chabad lifestyle, to real life situations.
Another picture shows a Chassid hanging on a fence, while his colleagues look on and wish him Lechaim. This Chossid is Rabbi Shmuel Munkes, who, as the story is told, arrived at the courtyard of the Alter Rebbe and hung himself on the fence, explaining that just as a shoemaker hangs a shoe on his display window and a tailor hangs up some garments, so a Chassid ought to be on display at the entrance of the Chassidic center. This jolly Chassid was known to have successfully cheered up many a depressed soul.
Instances of kindness and mutual support that was typical of shtetl life are depicted in my paintings, which also illustrate lifestyles permeated with honesty and devotion. One of these is the painting of the Chassidic dairy farmer, Reb Zusik, leading a defiant cow to the barn to be fed. However at Mincha time, he leaves the cow and hurries off to the synagogue to pray. This painting, depicting a real life occurrence alluding to the instruction Reb Zusik had from the Rebbe – to remain a farmer, has become a hit in the exhibition and has elicited many questions by observers.
When Rabbi Kleinman studied my paintings he commented, “I drew old-time Chassidim, you ought to draw contemporary Chassidim…
I always had a liking for comical drawings. This aptitude emerged about 12 years ago when a particular artist of a Chabad magazine quit his position and I was asked to replace him. But although I had refused this offer, this marked the beginning of my caricature-drawing assignments for newspapers and magazines, which has become a branch of my regular occupation. I supply the local magazine, ‘Yedion Hakfar’, distributed among many Chabad communities in Israel, with a weekly comic – riddle.
I did not study the art of producing caricatures. However, I did have connections with well known caricaturists in Israel, who have reviewed my caricatures and have given me some tips. I produced my caricatures after studying about current events and expressing them via illustrations, in a way that depicted visual representations of every day matters.
Style and Performance
My pictures are unique. I feel confident and in control of the message expressed and in the atmosphere in which it appears in every production. I feel less secure about effects I am less acquainted with and the paintings in which they were implemented are of inferior quality compared to my better productions. Several artists have offered to teach me how to use various techniques. I am convinced that the higher the quality of these techniques – the more attractive the final product will be.
Prior to implementation, I plan what I intend to draw and paint. I am constantly in search of ideas and mark down anything I happen to think of. This list which I keep in my pocket grows longer from day to day. At home I pull out the list and select one of the ideas. My style is most definitely realistic, however I am not prudent about precision, but I do attempt to create an atmosphere that is appropriate to the story and message.
I was born and bred on stories of the shtetl, which I had heard from my grandmother, a native of Krakow, Poland. I draw and paint what my senses have absorbed or give a concrete expression to personal impressions of events that I had experienced. Every Chassidic spark I encounter gives rise to an idea. For example, when I watched Reb Mendel Futerfas dozing, while sitting on a bench with Chassidic boots on his feet after addressing a farbrengen with us during my Kvutze year, I wished to perpetuate this sight and I rushed to my room to bring a camera. But by the time I got back, Reb Mendel had gone out to walk back to his home trudging along in the deep winter snow. This latter sight impressed me to the extent that I relived it with my paintbrush.
My visits and encounters with Chassidim in Bnei Brak and with the Rebbe in New York were a source of inspiration for my works. It is highly impossible to forget the special influence of that particular Chassid with one foot and two crutches, whom I met in my early years in Bnei Brak. My continued education at Chabad yeshivas, the proximity to the Rebbe and to all of the elderly Chassidim during the holidays, the farbrengens and the Chassidic joy all left their marks on my soul and on my works.
I produced the painting, ‘Lechaim’ on Motzai Simchas Torah after my return from the synagogue where the Chassidim were raising Lechaims.
I also have immense obligations to my father for instilling in me Chassidic warmth and fire along with his stories. These have become a part of me, which I express in my productions. In addition – Is it possible to ignore the childhood of my father, who grew up in Kfar Chabad? (From the age of 9 he was a student there in Chabad schools) or – of his teacher who would remain with him over his studies to the light of an oil lamp? – of the ‘Ahavas Yisroel’ that he had experienced among Chassidim of those days? – of the joy and the sharing at Simchas where all neighbors took part in the preparations and lived in unity like a single family?
Out of the excitement I felt on the day I escorted my eldest son to the Cheder, I painted a picture of a father taking his son to Cheder for the first time. By looking at the painting you can contemplate the solemnity of the ceremony and you can notice the tiny feet of the child peeking out from under the tallis.
Finally, I receive a great deal of inspiration by studying famous paintings describing old time Chassidim. During prayer I would imagine those Chassidim engrossed in prayer, thus, intensifying the value of these sacred moments and their impact.
I consider art a Jewish mission by transmitting general Chassidic themes and in particular, as an important documentation for Chabad Chassidism.
Recently, I was asked by the director of the 770 of Kfar Chabad to have my pictures on display at this famed and widely visited building. The feedback I have been getting is of positive and enthusiastic responses of visitors. One of the elderly people visiting the building exclaimed, “In my youth I also looked like that!” Visitors to the exhibition are influenced by the messages conveyed by the paintings; they display interest and are aroused by the Chassidic atmosphere. When I used to apply to my work I had in mind that the final products would bring Jews closer to their Jewish roots. Now, as the paintings are exposed to the public, my sincere hopes and wishes are being realized. My hope is that if any of my paintings ignite a Jewish spark in any Jew, this is my goal and may this be my reward.
Just as when a child is born its mother finds it difficult to part with it, I am connected to my works and find them difficult to part with. It is impossible to pay the worth of a painting and even if the offered price is high, I am not willing to sell them. My paintings are all on loan and are being kept by friends all over the globe, perhaps, even for a lifetime, on condition that they are returned to me when and if necessary.
Recently an affluent individual from abroad on a visit to Israel was so impressed with the exhibition that he resolved to buy all of the paintings. Since I insisted on a particular price the deal did not materialize. This is because the work of a lifetime is not sold in a minute! Currently, I am conducting negotiations via an agent and I may have to renew all of my treasures in order to fill the vacuum.
My work has drawn a great deal of public interest: the Maariv newspaper referred to the exhibition as “The Jews of the Baal Shemtov”. Following this, directors of a radio program asked me to be interviewed on ‘Kol Yisroel’ about my paintings. Many other newspapers asked for my permission to use my works for their articles.
When Rabbi Kaduri of righteous memory saw his image that I painted, he blessed me with an abundance of material and spiritual goodness and with long life. Children who have read the comic books approach me with excitement when they learn that I wrote and produced them. One of them was so amazed that he stood so stunned as if I had created the ‘Golem of Prague’… I am told that children read my books before they go to bed. I have been getting many phone calls in regard to my regular drawn riddles. For example when people met me in the street they have asked me, “Where have you hidden the apple?”
The renowned artist, Yosel Bergner, was extremely impressed with the paintings and procured one for his collection. Art critics have commented that my specialty is that while I am a caricaturist, I also do oil paintings.
Professor Ephraim Katzir who saw my paintings pointed out the honesty and virtue emanating from the painted figures. Arik Sharon wrote a dedication and signed on his portrait and also Yitzchak Shamir enjoyed the reproduction I made of him. Many other prominent figures were delighted with my sketches and one of them even compared them to Chagall’s works, mentioning that they strongly reflected Judaism in every centimeter of paint adorning the final products with amazing shades.