N oam was a tough kid from Brooklyn who had seen some serious stuff in his life.

His father had bipolar disorder and had been pretty much out of the picture since the day he left his family and moved back to his native Eretz Yisrael. Noam’s Israeli-born mother hadn’t handled her marriage with much resilience and had turned to drinking. For as long as Noam could remember he’d been shuffled back and forth between relatives. He finally landed with his mother’s cousin goodhearted “Uncle Yoni ” who had taken complete responsibility for the broken child.

Uncle Yoni and Aunt Sylvie raised him well and did their best to serve as surrogate parents. They even maintained a connection between Noam and his mother when she was sober and able to be a part of his life. Noam was no easy child but Uncle Yoni was a big mensch and kept an optimistic smile on his face even when little Noam expressed his artistic genius by drawing on the walls.

Noam made it through cheder but started some bad habits midway through yeshivah ketanah. With a talent for creating graffiti murals that wasn’t exactly appreciated by his rebbi Noam was asked to transfer to a different yeshivah that handled “those types” of boys but that stay was even briefer after Noam spray-painted a wall with a picture of the mashgiach smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Soon Noam was on his way to getting kicked out of a wilderness rehabilitation program following his spray-painting of a few too many mountain trails with inappropriate graffiti art. With too much anger at the world to make it even in Wyoming Noam finally decided to “get straight” by serving in the Israeli Army after having run out of other viable options.

He seemed to be toeing the line as a combat soldier — until he broke his ankle in a training exercise. Recovery in the army hospital was a little too long and boring for Noam’s restless spirit… and then he found a can of spray paint.

I first met Noam after he was facing some tough military discipline for covering a wall outside of the hospital with an unflattering depiction of the defense minister. Uncle Yoni had called me in the hope that I could get him out of trouble on psychiatric grounds before his commander finished the disciplinary report.

“Maybe he’s crazy?” suggested Uncle Yoni almost hopefully.

It didn’t sound like it to me and after seeing the photos Uncle Yoni sent me I was actually impressed: Noam was clearly a talented artist. Having spent a few years in residency at hospitals located in tough neighborhoods I could tell the difference between some hoodlum writing swear words and a kid who had some real skill — and it seemed to me that Noam was more than skilled; he had a real gift.

And so I went to go meet with Noam to find out what to do about this talented but confused neshamah. It turns out that Noam’s commanding officer Shalom was my neighbor in civilian life and he arranged for a meeting between us. From our short conversation it was clear to me that Noam didn’t have a mental illness he was just bored hostile and restless and had yet to find his place in the world — not in yeshivah not in the woods not in the army and not in a military hospital.

“You know Noam ” I told him. “I’ve seen your stuff and you’re a pretty talented artist.”

“Pretty talented Dr. Freedman?” Noam smirked. “I’m probably the best in the country.”

He might have been arrogant but he might have also been right. “What if I could get you the recognition you deserved?” I asked him as a germ of an idea started percolating. “Do you mind if I speak with your commander on your behalf?”

Noam agreed. “I guess. I mean at this point what have I got to lose?”

“Good ” I told him. “Just make sure that you try your best to show everyone how good you can be if you get another chance.”

My plan was to contact Shalom and convince him that Noam was a good kid who needed an artistic venue to express his anger. Perhaps if we could create a situation where he’d be able to put his talents to use for something productive we’d see success. Shalom wasn’t too flexible though but I figured since I lived on his street I could push a little more.

“Shalom ” I told him “what do we get out of this kid being put in military prison? He didn’t do anything violent or dangerous. He’s not crazy or seditious. How about cutting him a break?”

“Are you vouching for him Yaakov?”

“As a psychiatrist and also as a human being. Shalom this kid has never been given a break — and he happens to be a really talented artist even though the content is usually over the edge.”

Shalom snickered. He told me he had actually enjoyed Noam’s work “but there’s a time and place for that kind of stuff. He can’t go around spray-painting the hospital.”

“So how about giving him a wall to decorate somewhere else on the base? The kid’s got talent. You’re a religious guy Shalom. Let’s build him up by giving him a project he can be proud of.”

Shalom thought for moment before nodding his head. “Fine Yaakov I’ll see what I can do. Maybe he can decorate the bomb shelters and we’ll call it community-service hours.”

“You’re the commander ” I told him as we parted. “Let’s both daven for this kid that he should be matzliach.”

Maybe Shalom would be able to find a way to get Noam another chance. But maybe he’d also decide the kid needed some tough love and would do better with a few months in military prison. And perhaps even if Shalom gave him a shot at teshuvah Noam might not be able to pull it together. His chutzpah was caustic and ingrained and could easily overpower the good old common sense to do anything to avoid facing court-martial.

I traveled the following week and by the time I returned I must admit that the case had found its way somewhere into the back of the freezer in my mind. And then one afternoon I saw Shalom driving down the street. He stopped his car and motioned for me come on over. Shalom pulled out his cell phone to show me some pictures he’d taken of a recently completed mural on the side of a bomb shelter at his base. Standing under the striking rendering of silhouetted soldiers wrapped in tallis and tefillin was Noam wielding the cans of spray-paint in his hands. I looked closely and was happy to see that a yarmulke was on his head for the first time in five years. And underneath his classic smirk there was something else too — it was the honest look of a young man who had done something he was proud of.

Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 690. Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in The Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com.