It’s the Dream that Counts
By: Arie Dreyfus
He was as solitary in death as he had been in life. And yet most of his loved ones stood by his bed in his last moments. Each and everyone striving in his own peculiar way to lighten the dire burden. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that his relations with his close relatives had always been what they could or should have been. It was just the correct expected behavior of normal people composing with the imminent departure of the family prow figure. The moribund was the only one among them who had staunchly stuck to his chosen way for a life time. No new flame bearer was in sight in his special cultural niche. His final achievements may not really measure up to his starting ambitions, yet he had every right to expect to be remembered as one of the Jewish favorite sons. If in an ever faster changing world cultural heroes we still to be found, Isiu was it.
As countless other innocent Jewish children, Isiu had spent crucial years of his adolescence in detention. Luckier than most, he had survived. Although most of his jailers had been fellow Rumanians he bore them no ill will at liberation time.
‘War has changed the mentalities, it’s the beginning of a new world’ he confidently declared to his few remaining Jewish relations.
A few short years later, bruised in more ways than one, Isiu had to concede he had impulsively misconceived the new world order. Peace and prosperity indeed, but not for everyone. The rejected Jewish student embarked on an agonizing soul searching journey. He emerged a man, his mind set. He had a plan, his future was clearly delineated. He wouldn’t debase himself and flee away, nor would he try to forsake his origins. Isiu, however, wasn’t born a natural leader. Nature hadn’t endowed him with any notable asset. No imposing physical stature and no magnetic stare to electrify inimical audiences.
Furthermore, he had to contend with the damages years of detention had inflicted. A life-long uphill battle in such conditions was not a happy prospect. Isiu may not have been graced by the looks of a legendary hero, but he was fast turning into one. His mother had taught him modesty, his father the inherent value of skepticism. His character shaped by both parental education and harsh life – experiences made no allowances for self-delusions. He knew himself to be an interesting story teller and a quite gifted expressive painter. A far more mature man than his age would let, suppose he logically concluded that his only hope of attaining any kind of public influence was through creativity.
‘Unfortunately, I couldn’t even afford myself the luxury of knowing I would never achieve the reputation of Einstein, Chagall, or Modigliani to stand in my way. He admitted years later the Yiddish culture was agonizing; it needed an immediate revival campaign.
It was not a light decision. Most of the Shoah survivors instinctively spent their remaining years seeking material compensations. All the more so since Society at large in the after-war years had but one uniting goal, to enjoy the benefits of materialism. As a by-product, it was also cagily doing all it could to distance and absolve itself from its shady past.
Isiu belonged to that special very rare brand of human beings, the totally committed idealists. The ridiculed, despised, ostracized, ugly little Jew never looked back once his mind was made.
As an artist Isiu was undoubtedly among the chosen ones. He had the magic touch, a seemingly inexhaustible gift to make his inner world come alive. People the world over, Jews and gentiles alike could, more often than not, easily relate to his works. His ‘Golem’ for instance has always been firmly stuck in the wall above my bureau whether in ravaged Africa, opulent Europe or renascent Israel. So far it has left no onlooker indifferent. Art profanes like me think this picture is very near perfection. It’s the most eloquent description of both human’s folly and grandeur. The Golem belongs to nowhere and to no one; he is a kind of angelic dream that isn’t really expected to materialize. A typical Jewish approach to transcendental aspirations.
We were personally luckier than most. Over the years Isiu, never greedy, has let us acquire a few of his masterpieces for practically nothing. In many respects that have found their place as vital cherished loved members of our family. To mention that life hasn’t always been good to him would be an ironic understatement. And yet this proud extraordinary man always managed to find almost adequate solutions to his financial troubles. Rejected by the Europeans who did not really appreciate his tenacious reminder of what they were struggling to forget Isiu made Alya hoping to find here greener pastures. The Jewish troubadour who had stored whole chapters of Yiddish fantasy in his elephantine memory was not really welcomed here. He made no personal demands. The reconnaissance of the Jewish saga in Eastern Europe as an essential component of Israel’s struggle was all he was asking for.
The establishment showed no interest in yet another historical vindication of a past well on its way to oblivion. Isiu never achieved the public consecration he was due as a troubadour of the Jewish culture. Israel isn’t and has never been a dreamer’s haven. Critics simply taxed his ‘art’ as an irrelevant thing of the past. The new generations felt little if any bonds even with such figures as the beautiful ‘Margaritkelech’ imprisoned for life behind trees. Studious Jewish scholars, dreaming at night on their yeshiva stools held no more appeal. The marvelous scenes of the never ending diversity of the Yiddish tradition were as strange to them as life on another planet. In Israel, anywhere else, the struggle to conquer a dwindling audience proved itself to be harsher than expected.
‘But it’s the dream that counts and ours has had the upper hand’, he would smilingly retort.
Isiu was certainly not a model bread earner but his paintings, whether the pure product of his immigration or an accolade to a way of life long forgotten rank with the best, artistically wise. On the moral front however he has fared better. He has built himself an honorable if somewhat limited reputation as one of the last heralds of a waning past. His works have been on display in some of the principal cultural centers of the country. People came, took a look and came again. Pupils often got there, their first and only exposure of something of their grandparent’s world. Mush to their surprise they discovered the happiness, the human warmth, the humor and the all-encompassing love flowing from Isiu’s reminiscences.
The Nazis were adamant; they had undertaken to erase all traces of the Jewish soul and spirit in this world. But for a few heroic dedicated minds like Isiu’s their malignant scheme would have come true. Some sort of immanent poetic justice has made it possible to pay tribute to Isiu, the lonely tenacious dreamer. Once again the Jewish will of life, he so cherished, has prevailed. At a price, even a very heavy and thoroughly unjustified one for Isiu. His fixation on Yiddish motives has drastically undersized the scope of both his audience and his revenues. Israel should be taken to task. It should have done all in its power to make this vital voice of the past echo more widely.
Still thanks to Isiu, the dedicated narrator, some of our past culture has survived. It has played an inestimable role in helping us to come to terms with ourselves as a nation. That’s exactly what he had set his mind to achieve. He has left us, but his dream is alive, stronger than ever. That’s what really counts.