From Trauma to Triumph

From Trauma to Triumph: Exploring the Lives and Legacies of Uncle Moshe and Ori Reisman

“I long to paint portraits in complete silence, without the necessity of a storm of emotions.” – Ori Reisman

“Someone I once loved gave me a box full of darkness.  It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” – Mary Oliver

My uncle Moshe Gal has an exclusive pedestal in the world of my fantastical family mythology. Imagine Uncle Moshe as a ten-year-old boy, escorted and delivered by his older sister to a remote Kibbutz on Israel’s northern border, to be raised alone among strangers. He, who by an extraordinary miracle survived the Holocaust, in big part due to his mothers’ savvy; he, who suffered sickness and hunger; he, already a survivor by this tender age, is left to carve his path in a boarding school at Kibbutz Kabri. That sister is my mother, and every time she told this story, I heard agony and shame for that act of abandonment; it also cemented her deep love for Moshe.

At the age of eighteen, Moshe was recruited to the newly created special commando unit of the Israeli Navy – Shayetet 13 (The equivalent of the US Navy Seals). Moshe never told me about the daring military operations he partook in, yet I know he participated in many. I admired my uncle. Moshe was a role model of resilience, bravery, and physical strength. I, too, wanted to join Shayetet 13. I tried and did not pass the rigorous physical and mental exams, so I joined a paratrooper brigade.

Moshe and I never talked about his early experiences in the Kibbutz; he is a man of few words. I always heard anger and pain from my mother’s recollections of her experiences surviving the war, arriving in Israel, and being absorbed into a boarding school at a different kibbutz. I gathered that the experiences were traumatic and left her with many wounds and scars. I heard many food-related stories about how she and other survivor kids stole and hoarded food – although it was plentiful in the Kibbutz, their minds were still inflicted with hunger, cold, and fear. 

At that time, Israeli society struggled to understand and hold the horrors of the concentration camps – how Jews could be led like sheep to the slaughter. It took many years and some sensational events, such as the Eichmann and Demjanjuk trials, to shift the attitude and empathy to occur in the Israeli psyche. I can only imagine what it felt like to be an outsider in the Kibbutz. If one experiences growing up being an outsider, it never entirely leaves; it stays within one’s existential condition.

Moshe had a full and rich life, including a few marriages and four children. He raised many horses, which he rode all over the northern mountains. In his late seventies, he still lives within walking distance from his oldest daughter at Kibbutz Kabri. His home is picturesque, situated on a hill facing the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by the Galilee mountains. He is not in the best health but still enjoys his dark, tasty home-brewed beer.

Then there is the case of Ori Reisman, a good friend of my uncle Moshe and another outsider at Kibbutz Kabri. Ori was a painter, an artist to the core, living in a collective commune that valued hard labor more than anything else, but Ori had a calling for the easel, the paint, and the creative process. Besides, Ori suffered from manic depression.

As a teenager, I often made hiking trips to the Galilee mountains and would visit my uncle Moshe, and he would send me to sit with Ori at his atelier, a small dilapidated one-room shack. Ori was a short, bespectacled man with a mustache, dressed like a kibbutznik, lacking any artistic charm, but the moment he started talking, the artist within erupted.

He spoke enthusiastically about things I understood very little: colors, the Israeli light, and his studies in Paris. Although I don’t remember the details of his musings, his excitable energy and intensity under the thick glasses remain inspiring and dear to this day.

Ori painted with a spatula, creating simplified, clean, unified plains of color and elemental forms, nothing but the essential. In an interview, he once said about his approach to portraiture: “I look at the man and ignore his hair, nose, eyes, I concentrate on his interior; only when I no longer see the details, I really see him. And then the painting is me; what I see and what I feel.”

I think that the same applies to his landscape paintings. Ori focused on the object to the point it became abstract, to the point when the object was completely swallowed and devoured within him until all that was left was the painting. And yet I sometimes wonder, aren’t the eyes a window to the soul? Why did Ori omit them in so many paintings?

During his lifetime Ori was never part of the elite and admired Israeli artists; his greatness and uniqueness were recognized only after he died in 1991. You could buy his paintings for a few shekels; now, they cover the walls of prestigious museums and many book jackets. Ori Reisman is a classic case of an artist like Vincent Van Gogh, who sold only one painting during his life, only to continue to live with us through his work probably, forever.

Reflecting on Moshe and Ori, I think about how people inflicted with trauma often choose to disown, minimize, and not talk about it. Yet, sometimes, the trauma unexpectedly shows its face in the way we react – unfortunately, more often than not, in less than a complimentary way.

I think about the idea that trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, and this burden is then passed down to subsequent generations. And I think about resilience; from time immemorial, people have known that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and that you get gifts from trauma.

One such gift, which I think is incredibly precious, is the understanding that life has a spiritual existence.

February 2020