In our home, there are two canvas framed photographs on opposite sides of the rear dining room wall. The one on the left depicts the famous archway in Tsfas (where everyone takes pictures) near the Alshich shul. Woven through the picture by way of superimposition is the blue wall of Tsfas. The photograph on the right shows hagbah (the lifting of the torah) at Meiron. This picture also has the wall of Tsfas woven through by way of superimposition. Both pictures are the work of Yaacov Kaszemacher.
I first met Yaacov more than twenty years ago on my first trip to Israel. I wasn’t frum at the time and I was just a teenager but something about Yaacov stuck with me. Maybe it was his French accented English. Maybe it was his psychedelic, colorful artwork. More likely it was his brilliant, warm smile.
Yaacov was born and raised in what he calls a completely secular home in post-war France. He quickly fell in with the poets, artists and intellectuals in the Parisian neighborhood of St. Germain des Presand, frequented by such luminaries as Jean Paul Sartre. Yaacov, then Jacques, would likely have been considered part and parcel of the beat generation and then later perhaps a hippie flower child.
Yaacov is a self-taught artist whose first endeavors involved experimenting with different mediums and techniques that eventually produced his personal style: bold colored, hard-edged, constructionist works expressing mathematical and mystical themes. His works have been displayed in galleries and museums in the U.S., France, the United Kingdom, Morocco, Belgium, Canada and, of course, Israel. He became well known for his light shows which he had designed for Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix.
After becoming a Baal Teshuva, Yaacov emigrated to Israel in 1971. His work then took on a Jewish influence with his paintings incorporating mystical concepts and gematria and his photographs capturing emotive images of Israel, Jewish life and Hasidism. Reb Yaacov’s photography includes the undercurrent of his “teshuva connecting him to our glorious past”, he explains “I want to portray the eternal aspects of current religious Jewish life. My pictures exclude contemporary objects and leave the viewer with an uncertainty as to when the photograph was executed, now or in a bygone era before the war. Thus, we see the timelessness of the Torah life and the continuation of a living, vital and vibrant community.”
A year and a half ago, my wife, daughter and I were in Tsfas and we visited Reb Yaacov’s studio where we were greeted graciously. Reb Yaacov wished us a hearty mazel tov on my daughter becoming a Bas Mitzvah and chatted briefly with my wife in French. It was then that we purchased our first photograph from him. It is a pure joy just to listen to Reb Yaacov describe one of his works with an artist’s sentiment and almost boyish enthusiasm. In March of this past year, we returned to Tsfas with our second oldest daughter and, though we were dismayed to find that Reb Yaacov was traveling, we purchased the second photograph from his son who was running the studio in his father’s absence.
When the war broke out and we heard of the daily bombardment of Tsfas by Hezbullah, my thoughts turned to Reb Yaacov, a man who successfully channeled his G-d given talents through the prism of his new found observance thereby raising his art to a higher level. From hippie to Sanzer Chasid, from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” to my wall. I hope you are safe, Reb Yaacov.