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Brushed into the Past   

How artist Boris Dubrov found his way back to the shtetl he'd never known 

Photos: Ariel Ochana

The water carrier, the wagon driver, the shoemaker, the melamed — characters of another world that have come to life by the strokes of a paintbrush. But this artist isn’t some chassid living in the alleyways of Tzfas: Boris Dubrov, who didn’t even know he was Jewish back in Leningrad, somehow found his way back to the shtetl

One Chanukah close to two decades ago, Boris Dubrov, a talented artist who’d recently immigrated with his parents from Russia to Israel, received an invitation from a fellow craftsman from Ashdod to join his chassidic family for Chanukah candlelighting. Boris, for his part, planned to take advantage of the visit for professional purposes: At the time, he had begun working on a series of Judaica paintings centered around the Jewish holidays, but the problem was, his Jewish background was practically nil.

What he didn’t expect was how those Chanukah lights would captivate him. “And it wasn’t only the candles,” he says today. “It was also the warmth of the home and the children playing together, the songs, and the atmosphere. Until then, I’d never seen Chanukah candles being lit. I had no idea what it was.”

That was the beginning of a journey that led him to Torah study, and a fascination with chassidic culture and the lost world of pre-war Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Eventually, Dubrov’s pull toward Kabbalah brought a new dimension to his work: a mix of mysticism and allegory, something he calls “Kabbalistic realism” (or “Kabrealism”) that has become somewhat of a trend in the line of modern art.

An Old Soul

A walk through Boris Dubrov’s new studio in Rishon L’Tzion (after being in Ashdod for years) is like a time machine, taking you back to the days of the shtetl of Poland or Ukraine. Hundreds of Judaica paintings look down on you, the figures taking on a personality of their own: the town water carrier, the wagon driver lugging barrels of wine, a father and son sitting and learning on a wooden bench in a shul — a pile of wood for the fireplace in the background. Every detail is authentic and precise, from the wooden toys to the tablecloth, to the small buttons on the shirt and the patch on the sleeve.

Yet given all this, Dubrov, 46, is a surprise. He’s not an old man painting his own memories. He’s the energetic father of two daughters, who says he must be an “old soul,” connecting to the past in such a profound way.

“I grew up in a place far, far away from Judaism,” Dubrov says. “Leningrad — St. Petersburg. I didn’t even know I was Jewish, although my early childhood memories are mostly of myself in my maternal grandfather’s house. My grandfather was a very unusual phenomenon in Russia of that time, because he had eight children and many grandchildren, which was almost unheard of. He had relationships with all his offspring, but we were the closest to him.

“I hardly saw my hard-working parents,” Dubrov adds. “But they took care of us from afar. My older brother wanted to be a scientist, and they invested in his studies so that he should get accepted to a prestigious university. My artistic talent became evident when I was just a child, and so my parents decided to send me to art school, which I attended from the age of eight.”

Dubrov found out he was Jewish when he was called that derogatorily by a schoolmate. “He probably wanted to offend me, but I wasn’t insulted because I didn’t even understand what it was. I asked my mother why the boy had called me that, and she told me to ask my grandfather. Well, he was thrilled with the question. He sat me down at the table and told me that we were Jews, adding that there is a Creator to the world Who chose us as His people and gave us mitzvos and that He chose us from all the other nations. I was really young, but, somehow, I connected to what he said. He even taught me a bit of Torah, but I can’t say that it had any practical effect on me, at least not in my younger years.”



Throughout his childhood, Dubrov continued studying art, and at age 16, he even held an exclusive exhibition in the prestigious school where he studied. His plans at the time were clear: He’d become a famous artist and sell his works for a small fortune to Russian oligarchs.

And then came the big surprise that upended his plans: It was 1996, the Iron Curtain had long come down, and his parents informed him that they were moving to Israel. “It was an utter shock,” he says, “because although at the time many people were making aliyah, I never thought we’d join that trend. People tend to look at Russian immigrants from the ’90s as either being unwanted in their home country or as opportunists looking for a better life in Israel, and it was true in some cases, but not in ours. In fact, just the opposite: There were a lot of people leaving, and I received lots of tempting offers for people who had left their businesses and offered me to continue them.

“In addition to that, young as I was, I was on the cusp of success with my art. My parents understood my dilemma and left the choice up to me, and somewhere deep inside I guess I knew that although it might have been good for me at that moment, there was no future in Russia. So I joined them and we all made aliyah, reuniting with my older brother who had made aliyah on his own five years before in order to avoid the Russian draft.”

The transition wasn’t simple. The family came to Israel with almost nothing — Boris’s parents didn’t have work and didn’t speak the language. “The Absorption Ministry recommended that we live in the Rova Yud quarter in Ashdod where there was a large immigrant population. My parents went to Ulpan and then got factory jobs, and I enlisted in the IDF.”



During his army time, Dubrov didn’t have much time to paint, but somehow his reputation preceded him and he received an invitation from a museum in Ashdod to show his paintings at a personal exhibition. “Of course, I accepted,” he says, “but honestly, I didn’t think anyone would come, and I certainly didn’t fathom that people would buy paintings. I was pretty indifferent when I moved a few of my paintings — some of them Judaica-themed — to the exhibition site.

“The exhibition opened, and, to my surprise, all the paintings sold. The Judaica paintings were the ones everyone wanted. A short time later, I was contacted by an agent from America who wanted to sell my paintings, and I also received an offer to do another exhibit in Tel Aviv — but specifically Judaica-themed.”

The Judaica paintings — scenes of the shetl, of fathers and sons learning, of Shabbos and Yom Tov — had until just a few years before been something totally out of his consciousness. Yet this drive to connect to those scenes all began around the time the family moved to Ashdod, when Dubrov met a Gerrer chassid named Yitzchak Chaskelson, a fellow artist and craftsman who asked the young immigrant to prepare sketches to be engraved onto silver.

“He wanted Jewish themes, like Jews praying, lighting the Shabbos candles, items symbolizing the Yamim Tovim and the like. I don’t think he understood what he was awakening inside me — it was as if I was being drawn back to my early childhood memories, to the years when we lived near my grandfather.

“I told Chaskelson that I’d be happy to draw for him, but I had one problem: In order to draw authentic-looking Judaica, I’d have to learn more.  You can’t draw tzitzis without knowing what the folds look like, or a Chanukah menorah if it’s not lit according to halachah. I told him I was pretty disconnected from all this, that I’d never even stepped into a mitzvah-observant home. But Chaskelson wasn’t cowed. Instead, he invited me to his home to see it all up close.”

Dubrov didn’t even understand at the time what kind of adventure he was getting into. “At first, I came to his home with a camera and lighting, and I photographed him and his children in a number of situations: learning, bentshing, playing, eating lunch, and even before they went to sleep. At one point, he introduced me to his neighbors, who also opened their homes, and there, too, I photographed the father with the children in a number of situations. All these scenes melted my heart. It was like taking a journey into another world, yet it connected me with the most sincere and deepest points of my life.”


Back to the Shtetl

But his introduction to the chareidi world and mitzvah observant families was only the first stage. Somehow, he found himself drawn not just to what mitzvah-observance looks like today, but to a yearning for the past.

“Actually, the scenes came pretty easily to me, because in the Russia of my childhood, the villages have basically remained unchanged: the one-story houses, the water wells, and the people who are still dressed like they were in the past. But I had another challenge, because although I was familiar with the scenery and the sights, I had no idea about how Jews looked then — how did the peyos look, what kind of hats did they wear?”

Dubrov threw himself into the work: He produced painting after painting, each taking an average of two months. There was the shoemaker sitting and fixing shoes, the tailor sewing patches onto clothes, the cracker seller standing on the side of the road, the water carrier with his heavy buckets on his shoulders, and many more scenes inside the house: a father sitting and learning with his son, a father fixing his young daughter’s rag doll, an elderly grandfather taking a candy out of a box and giving it to a grandchild, and many more.

Dubrov chose to present his first Judaica exhibition in St. Petersburg, the city where he was born, followed by another exhibition in the Jewish Museum in Moscow. “I feel a tremendous sense of mission to bring such scenes into Russia,” he says with satisfaction. “It’s a country that in the past suppressed anything that smacked of Judaism. A country where, due to the regime, I and countless other Jewish children grew up without a shred of information about our Judaism. Many of them to this day know nothing about their heritage and it is completely lost to them. For me, bringing Judaica there is a triumph.”

Boris admits that he might not exactly look like a traditional Jewish ambassador. “I know that externally, you don’t see it on me,” he says, “but all of us have the same DNA in our blood. You know, I do a lot of exhibitions in Ashdod and Tel Aviv, and most of my clients also look like they’re far from tradition. But then they leave the exhibition and they say to me, ‘We want to keep Shabbos, we want to eat kosher,’ because something awakens inside them. Not always do we see this on the outside, but as an artist, I can tell you that there are a lot of people whose hearts are very warm to tradition, to connection. Sometimes, they don’t even know how to express it themselves, but suddenly, it all erupts.”


Drawing the Heart

Dubrov found himself connecting to the hidden side of Torah as well. “A few years ago, I was introduced to a rav, a talmid chacham who learns in Ashdod, and for three years, I regularly attended his Torah shiurim on a range of subjects, including Kabbalah. It led me to another series of paintings that came from the depths of the heart, and from a great desire to become closer to the Creator. In contrast to the Judaica paintings, these are more abstract, painted in very strong, vibrant colors. You’ll have a hard time putting your finger on what exactly you see there, but it turns out that there are a lot of people who are interested in this genre. I also feel that I myself am making spiritual progress through these paintings.”

Dubrov leads me to one of the inner rooms of his studio, where there is a huge painting that takes up an entire wall, depicting masses of people emerging from Mitzrayim, passing through the sea, and then ultimately uniting.

“I worked on this painting over the past year, during a time that has not been easy for the Jewish people, when we’ve been so divided and riven, and it seemed that there was no chance for unity. This painting sort of painted itself, it came together on its own. Just as I finished working on it, the war broke out, and actually proved that in the end, we are all brothers, and our true strength comes from our unity, as you can see in the foreground of the painting. And by the way, it was sold as soon as it was put up for sale. This one is just a copy.”


Buyer’s Market

Dubrov’s customers are all types: art aficionados, perhaps those looking for a painting with a Jewish dimension for their home, not just a random piece of modern art.

What are people willing to pay for an original work?

Dubrov shifts uneasily. “I’m an artist, and as you know, artists don’t know how to fight for prices, so I mostly paint, and there are others who sell for me. Baruch Hashem, I have a good parnassah. There are less expensive works, and there are pieces that can go for tens of thousands of dollars, but those are generally sold to clients abroad.

“Still, there’s something special about those of more modest means who connect on a deeper level. You know, not long ago at one of my exhibits, a person came up to me, shook my hand, and told me: ‘My grandmother would buy your paintings through the Tel Aviv culture center, and she had a whole series of your Judaica works.’ It turns out that she was my very first client, when I was still in the army. It moved me a lot. I told him, ‘Everything you see here today is in her merit.’ She connected to something I didn’t really even know how to express at the time, but it propelled me forward.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 991)

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