A hesped (eulogy) for my mother: Torah and art a synthesis of worlds

August 11, 2011

Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

My mother (hk”m) died last week.  She was a well know artist, committed observant Jew, a deep thinker, and a humble supportive mother.  We are all dying, but to live a life that is dignified, creative, and that brings much insight and light to the world is the goal -and this my mother truly did.  I offer, a link to some of her more recent large Biblical and Midrashic oil paintings: www.janetshafner.com , and a link to her obituary: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/theday/obituary.aspx?n=janet-shafner&pid=152849006&fhid=4346 .  Below is the eulogy I gave for her, one among many that were given.

Eulogy for my mother

My mother made each of us feel and appreciate our uniqueness, our talents and strengths.  She helped us to understand that we had something to give to the world, that no one else did, something great.  This came through her unconditional love and lack of judgementalism, which enabled her to know each of our strengths and weaknesses, to appreciate and love us as the magnificent individuals even we ourselves did not always know we were.  And from her each of us learned to do this with others, to give without judgment, to help without expectation of return, as my father said, to be good people, which is what she wanted from us.

But more than that, she gave us the message that the world was important, deep, mysterious, and was ours for the taking because we were her children.  “The world is your oyster” she used to say.

She thought much about life and death, art and human expression, man and god, love and values, about the things that mattered.  Life was precious in her eyes, to be cherished.  When asked by her art students how she could raise four children, have a devoted marriage, find time to teach and paint, she said “you have to be a pig for life”.  What she taught, she taught to everyone who knew her, by being who she was and by imparting her unique vision that we must take life by the horns yet with the deepest humility, practicality and lack of self-importance.

“You have to be lucky” she often said.  And she was.  Lucky to have a relationship with her spouse, my father, that was the admiration of all who know them, that taught us by example.  Lucky to have talent and the modesty to make it real and genuine, not gimmicky or contrived.

She realized we have little control over life and death, prosperity and loss, but we are obligated, honored, to utilize and to appreciate all we are given.  When asked if she regretted not becoming a more famous artist, more people not knowing her work well, she said no.  I have had it all.  “And my children were my greatest creations”.

Mom was a so rare synergy of the sublime and the practical.  Like God, she created profound creations, taught wisdom, and shed light, but also fed us, clothed us, comforted us and loved us.  She taught us, by example to see the big picture, to comment on the world, and yet, though I never learned it, to balance a checkbook and to make a list.  She was the rare Renaissance woman who was not about herself but about using what God gave her to inspire the world and to love her family.

She would often quote Freud to me, “One has to have fulfilling work and a fulfilling love relationship.”  Together with my father she taught us to cherish that which is truly valuable and real not superficial or self-aggrandizing.  She told us recently that she had been going out with someone before my father who was a good dresser but kept looking at himself in the mirror, she said she knew my father was the right person because among other things he was himself, not really caring about his superficial look, but about deeper things.  My mother saw this because this was her mida, her characteristic also; to be oneself, to be real.

She schlepped us to school, to lessons, to camps.  She made us soggy tuna sandwiches, did our laundry almost before it was dirty, and cleaned up after us.  An inspired artist and yet a disciplined and devoted mother.  Cooking giant sedarim, yom tov meals, hosting guests she often did not know who were visiting the community, her chesed was expansive.  As my father said about her shiva, it’s the family gathering she would not have to cook for.  Her last list, which she made before entering the hospital, incredibly enough said: 1. make obituary, 2.go over will, 3. book hotel for September art show opening in New York.  She also made a list for our dear father.  It said among other things: check rust on the car.  From the sublime to the practical.  All in service of her God given talents, the deeper things in our world and her family.

She did not see conflict in the worlds that she had her feet in, though many would have.  Art, religion, family, ideas.  To her and my father, it was clear that the great thoughts and ideas, no matter their source, were of ultimate meaning and could contain holiness.  And indeed we live in a world badly in need of her teaching.

She was inspired by Torah when it was deep and relevant to the profundity of the human condition.  Torah for her could not be made less profound that it ought to be.  She opened up my religious mind in new ways.  For a while I took her biblical art work, her genre for the last 20 years generally for granted, which is easy when you grow up thinking that to be a mother means to be an artist of the highest order.  But one day I realized while looking at one of these paintings that it transformed and deepened my understanding of a midrash which I knew and in turn the biblical story that the painting drew on.

I began teaching torah through her art and those I taught realized this was a new and unique way to finding chidush, new insights in the ancient torah that were really there but as yet unrevealed.

When I would tell her how transformative a particular painting was, how powerful, she would shrug her shoulders.  She was humble and the consummate artist who left much of interpretation beyond the surface to the viewer and critic.  There were times in fact that I found midrashim expressed in her paintings that she did not know.  Or radical ideas and commentaries on our world, transformative statements, I would say to her, “this painting is such a strong social commentary, radical, edgy,” but she again would just shrug.

Like her life she communicated the sublime, the truly profound with almost self effacing humility at times and an eye to the grounded and the real and the things that truly matter in life.  And that approach is what made her deep messages so relevant.

She was for all of us her children, grand children and extended family, truly, “emi morati” our mother our teacher.  Great but there for us in the moment.  About everything, from the very very big to the everyday.

Today with her gone our universe is emptier, less vibrant, less deep, less integrated.  It is our job to take all she gave us and continue her work of widening and deepening, of provoking and inspiring, of questioning and illuminating, of challenging and supporting each other, of serving and loving.

Tiheh nishmata tirurah bitzrurat hachayim.  May her soul, the soul of our mother and teacher, Yihudit the daughter of Chayim Yisrael and Sochia be bound up in the bonds of eternal life and may her name, her work, her insight, her love and her instruction continue to be a blessing to us, to her people and to our world.  Amen.



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