Page 88 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 15

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Judging by this book, the Jews of Vitebsk seem to have been
rather simple, somewhat superstitious and generally good-natured
people. Religion played a paramount role in their lives. There
was the joyful Sabbath, ushered in by mother’s lighting the
candles, and ending when father snuffed out the lights. There
were the solemn holidays when the men prayed the whole day
long in their white fringed shawls, but there were also less dignified
festivals when all, including the children, sang and danced, and
father might even drink too much wine. There was the Purim
festival when mother distributed gifts among the family and
the employees, and merrymakers turned somersaults and per­
formed tricks. There was the feast of Passover when no crumb of
leavened bread was tolerated in the house, and a goblet of wine
was set aside for the Prophet Elijah. Finally, there was the
autumn festival of Succoth, when the family took their meals in
a leafy tabernacle.
Obviously, the Chagalls’ parents were not different in their
beliefs and habits from thousands of other Russian Jewish couples;
hence, in order to point out Chagall’s Jewish roots, there was
need for a book to be written by one equipped with the Eastern
European Jewish background. This task was performed by Isaac
Kloomak (Philosophical Library, New York, 1951). Curiously,
two Jewish converts to Christianity who assert that Catholicism
is the fulfilment of Judaism, had earlier attempted to do the
same with greater sophistication and aesthetic knowledge than
Kloomak could muster, but with insufficient familiarity with
Russian-Jewish lore. Rene Schwob published
Chagall et
(Chagall and the Jewish Soul) in 1930; Raissa Maritain
(wife of the philosopher) issued
Chagall on VOrage Enchante
(Chagall or the Magic Storm) in 1948.
Kloomak’s excursions into religious thought and folklore are
very interesting. In some instances he interprets Chagall can­
vasses as having been inspired by Yiddish proverbs unknown,
not only to Gentiles like Venturi and Sweeney, but also to a Jewish
Parisian like Schwob. Unfortunately, Kloomak’s book suffers
from one-sidedness. To make his hero appear purely Jewish, he
printed only those of Chagall’s utterances that prove his point.
Chagall did say: “Had I not been a Jew. . . I would never have
been a painter, or entirely a different one.” But Mr. Kloomak
was not familiar with Chagall’s answer to the writer, Samuel
Putnam, when the latter asked him about the Jewish sources of
his art: “I f a painter is Jewish and paints life, how can there help
being Jewish elements in his work! But if he is a good painter,