After his grandfather’s passing, Moully’s parents were ready to move again, but the question was: where to? They dreamt of a place that would combine their love of nature and their new-found love of Judaism, and eventually decided on a religious kibbutz in Israel. Their flight from Australia was routed through Los Angeles and New York before arriving in Israel. They arrived in New York in Tishrei 1985/5746 and planned to stay for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. They stayed with total strangers in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. People they met encouraged them to write a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe to seek a blessing for their move. In his response, the Lubavitcher Rebbe said: stay in New York for the time being and through friends accomplish what you are here to accomplish. This reply changed the direction of his life and his parents lives forever.
I spoke with Moully to discuss his art and his incredible story.
Where would you be now without that reply from the Lubavitcher Rebbe?
I know myself and my lowest common denominator tendencies. I wouldn’t be married, have kids, or a job, it would just be me and the waves. Surfing is wonderful … but I felt then, and still feel, that the Rebbe saw potential in me.
I eventually became a shaliach. What more could I hope to achieve than to share my love of Judaism with others?
I discovered my art after serving as a youth rabbi. It was a long soul-searching journey, but I realized that what I was really here for was to share my art. As a shaliach I was really doing a mitzvah that someone could do on my behalf, but some things you can only do yourself, which for me is my art. Today I’m no longer a youth rabbi. My art is both my shlichus and my calling; it gives me a degree of clarity, and comfort, and resolve.
Tell me a bit about your parents.
My parents are hippies, which I say with a tremendous amount of pride. They aren’t artists per se, but they are incredibly creative; I definitely get that gene and energy from them. They became frum and I came along for the journey when I was young, so I think that really had a very big impact on my creativity.
How did your journey with art begin?
As a child, photography was my medium of choice…When I bumped into this thing called silkscreen I was 26, married with two kids, and serving as a youth rabbi in a Chabad center in New Jersey, and I was developing photography as passion and hobby. When I discovered silk screen—it blew my mind. It took me a year, through trial and error, to learn. I eventually found a silkscreen place, but it turned out they were really a commercial silk screen supply company and they had no time or patience for a wannabe artist who didn’t know what he was doing. Every time I went they would tell me to leave. Every few weeks, I would pick myself up and go back to the shop (which was very far away). Step by step I was slowly getting there. Eventually they told me they didn’t have the time or resources to help me. By then I had created my first piece [and] there was no looking back.
Do you have any formal training?
Once I had learnt a bit about the medium through trial and error, I did a one-week course at a place called the Lower East Side Printshop. It was amazing! I would be there at the door a half an hour before they opened, and they would have to kick me out at the end. I felt every moment was precious.
Your work has been compared to that of Andy Warhol. How does his art influence you?
I didn’t study art or art history, so my first awareness of silkscreen was through Pop Art …The simplicity, crispness, and bright colors of Warhol’s work really spoke to me …Warhol’s messages were all about tearing down the consumerism of American society, while my images of mitzvahs are about lifting up everyday life. With my ritual artist series I pair a kiddush cup with a martini glass, shabbos candles with a zippo lighter and a Chumash with an ipad. Technically, you can take a zippo lighter on a friday afternoon, make a brachah and light the zippo lighter. It’s counterintuitive to our sensibilities, and to our views on a davar mitzvah, but you can also connect to G-d when you learn with an ipad… Judaism is all about using the items of the world, the hardware, to create spirituality.
Is that the main message of your work?
I have 3 bodies of work: Pop Art, which is my first series, Post Pop, where I take the same silk screening images and approach them in a more painterly fashion, and the third set is fully abstract. With Post Pop, I have been trying to visualize the power of a mitzvah. That is where I’m going with all of my art and concepts. G-d exists in this world, yet we don’t see the power of a mitzvah. We don’t see the ripple effect. When you put a coin in a pushke or you light shabbos candles you are making a real affect on the world. We don’t realize that, and I am trying to visualize that reality.
I noticed on your website a piece based on your reaction to the Har Nof Massacre.
The massacre in Har Nof happened almost two years ago on a Tuesday, and I go to an art class on Tuesdays. Because of the time difference, when we woke up it was all over the news. I called a Rav after grabbing a tallis and I asked him if I can rip the tallis in order to convey what I was feeling. He said that as long as the strings are intact it’s okay, so I ripped the tallis and essentially recreated the scene. The piece is a commemoration of what happened that day in Har Nof; even as time moves on it is a visual reminder of the tragedy.
When I finished, I noticed that there was an extra piece of tallis that didn’t fit on the canvas. I wanted to take this extra piece and use it to create something positive and uplifting, because what happened in Har Nof is not the whole story. I kept talking about it, but I couldn’t come up with anything… Almost a year ago, Sarah Litman was getting ready to get married and her father and brother were murdered. At the shiva she said that the wedding would go on and that she wouldn’t let the monsters take away their joy. She invited all of Am Yisrael to her wedding, and thousands of people came from chutz l’aretz and Israel to be there I saw that, and I thought—that’s my piece! I used the extra portion of tallis from the Har Nof piece to create the chuppah. The second piece is called Am Israel Chai. The pieces fit together and they belong to each other. The idea is that we rise up from the ashes.
So powerful! Before we end, let me mention that I love the quote on your website: “Under the black hat there is a wealth of vibrant colorful energy waiting to be released”.
It is one of my favorite pieces, my self portrait that sums up all of my work: the Orange Socks. It’s a bunch of men all dancing to the beat of the same drum on the straight and narrow path, and one guy has orange socks. The idea is that we each must, I believe we must, personalize our Judaism. If all of our Judaisms are carbon copies then we are doing ourselves and our community a big disservice. Hashem created each Jew with an individual uniqueness and we need to celebrate that uniqueness. People look at a chassid and they see a person dressed in black and white, they all look the same — that’s the idea of under the black hat… It’s not only color, it’s also joy. Each Jew has so much to give. We aren’t just rigid and stoic carbon copies of each other.
You can find Yitzchok Moully’s work on his website: https://moullyart.com