What kind of painting was that? And wasn’t it
It appeared on the wall at some point between 3 and 6 a.m. the night Levine’s son got married. An old picture of Kever Rochel had once occupied that spot on the rusty nail before the frame gave out, and it had been unceremoniously disposed of two Erev Pesachs ago.
No one lingered long enough on the ground floor to actually notice the new piece of art hanging on the old nail. People generally hurried in or out, especially in this blessedly wet winter weather. Also, both fluorescent light bulbs at the building entrance had burned out, and because Levine was in charge of the building’s maintenance, they weren’t replaced for the next ten days.
The first person to notice the painting was old Geveret Yankelevitch. She was fiercely independent and took great care to trek down the stairs daily with the garbage, although any of her numerous offspring would have deemed it a privilege to help out.
There was nothing wrong in stopping for a break, though, so she pushed her slipping bifocals firmly in place and painstakingly adjusted her knitted beret. Pulling her wool sweater tightly around her, she suddenly found herself staring at the medium-sized canvas with haphazard splashes of color under some disturbingly black scribbles. There was just no accounting for people’s tastes nowadays, she tut-tutted to herself. What happened to a nice painting of a vase of flowers? Abstract, shmabstract. With one last tut and a shake of her head, she braced herself for the upward climb.
Next to take a look at the painting was Chayuta Stern. Her cell phone rang just as she was tucking it under her chin so that she could tie a loose lace.
“Cha…ta, sorry! Down…five min…ing late…” was all she could hear from Shifra. Reception was horrible on the ground floor.
She was always the one waiting for Shifra to get her act together for their nightly power walk. Not that she was judging, chas v’shalom. With a lively brood of ten, not to mention Shifra’s Elky who needed all that extra help, there were bound to be last minute hiccups. Still, she sighed to herself, it would be nice if Shifra would call to say she was delayed before she left the house. With eight of her own, kein ayin hara, it wasn’t like she had time to waste. At least Levine had fixed the lights so that she didn’t have to — oh. What was that monstrosity?
Someone must have redecorated their apartment and wanted to get rid of it. Which reminded her to ask Miriam Levine about the paperwork for applying for a permit to build another room on their side of the building.
Next to stop at the entrance of the building was Miriam Levine, hurrying to the makolet. It was Thursday, and the young couple had just called to say that Brachi’s mother had the flu and could they maybe come for Shabbos? “Of course, of course,” she assured them, only she had no cake or dessert in the freezer or any side dishes besides potato kugel, which really wouldn’t do. So she was running to the makolet, and hopefully she’d whip up a few things tonight. But what was this painting, and really, who on earth put it up?
People should run these things by the neighbors, instead of treating the hallways as dumping grounds for what couldn’t even be called art. Ah, well… she wondered if Brachi would like deli roll as much as Moishe did.
Rabbanit Chukrun was tired after having delivered a long parenting seminar, and paused to take a deep breath before trudging up the stairs. She wondered when she would listen to her feet and wear more comfortable shoes instead of the stylish low heels she wore. Her intricate turban was heavy on her head, and her pearl choker… choked. But her appearance was part of her presentation, and she knew she wouldn’t give in to mere feelings of discomfort any time soon.
She just needed to reorient herself before opening the front door, so as not to bring her work home with her — something she was always careful to implement. And would you just look at that… that thing. A perfect example of what she had just been teaching young mothers about. Encouraging delusions of grandeur, that’s what it was. Parents spent a fortune sending their children to art lessons, and, even if the poor child was quite obviously not cut out for art, weren’t embarrassed to push him to create such an … (Rabbanit Chukrun shied away from using words such as ugly or embarrassing in conjunction with children) inelegant piece and then hang it up in public. Misguided, that’s what it was.
Feeling energized with the thought that she was helping the next generation of parents prevent this kind of mistake, she let herself in.
Simi Mendlowitz caught sight of the painting the next morning after taking Dovi to gan. She didn’t mind it much, but wondered why it was hanging upside down. She was sure there was some kind of form in those swirls of black and white paint, but it seemed to flow upward. Which didn’t make any sense. On the other hand, if she turned it the other way, the creator’s scrawling signature in the left corner would then be on the top right. Which would also be weird. Unless it was some sort of title?
She couldn’t be sure, but it did seem like there was a date. That 9 could be turned the other way to make a 6, but the 3… ? Anyway, it wasn’t her business, but it did kind of bug her because she was the kind of person who liked things to be orderly. Well, used to be that kind of person, before Dovi, bless him, had learned to crawl. Her thoughts moved to the mess waiting for her upstairs, and she glanced at her watch to see how many hours she had left to clean and cook for Shabbos before her rambunctious toddler came home.
The painting would have, should have, lapsed into obscurity, if not for Shifra Baumel’s Elky.
She stumbled rather clumsily off the last step and took a minute or two to adjust her coat and her bag and gloves and umbrella, while Shifra tapped her foot. Shifra was used to waiting for Elky. Her whole life seemed to be one big Wait For Elky. Wait for her to crawl, to walk, to talk… to reach all her developmental milestones far after her peers. Wait for her to get approved for this therapy and that treatment. Wait for results of testing. Wait for acceptance to an appropriate school. Everything was about the waiting.
But Elky always got there eventually, and really Shifra should be grateful that her daughter was just that tiny bit slow and nothing worse.
But sometimes a person could get sick of waiting and waiting and she was in a rush because Elky had missed her van and really — what was Elky doing now?
Elky was standing enthralled, mouth hanging open slightly wider than it usually did, and gazing adoringly at some sort of hodgepodge of splattered paint on a canvas.
“Elky! We’re late!”
“B-but M-mommy,” the stutter was slight, words less indistinct than a year ago. But still. Shifra stifled the urge to yank Elky’s arm and just go.
She looked. Yes, dribbles of paint. Beautiful.
“Yes, it’s a painting, Elky. Let’s go.”
“B-but. Who is that p-painting?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care. Elky, please. I’m late for work. You’re late for school. I’m not waiting anymore.”
And they stepped out into the rain, Elky pulling behind more than usual as if to spite her. Or maybe it was just the rain.
Elky’s older sister Rina had to leave her downstairs after taking her off the school van because she just wouldn’t budge from the painting. It took the promise of French fries for dinner to coax her upstairs.
Monday and Tuesday were no different. Elky had developed a strange fascination bordering on obsession with this canvas of paint drippings.
“I wannit, M-mommy. I wannit to show M-morah K-kohn.” Morah Kohn was Elky’s art teacher and director of all the extracurricular subjects in Elky’s special school. She seemed to understand Elky. And Elky adored her right back.
“We can’t take this picture off the wall to show Morah Kohn. It doesn’t belong to us. Please, Elky.”
But Shifra was fighting a losing battle. By Wednesday evening she didn’t have the energy to get into another dead-end argument with Elky.
“Go knock on Levine’s door and ask if you can borrow the painting,” she said, hating paintings in general and art teachers in particular. Then she watched, astonished, as Elky marched out without waiting for someone to accompany her.
Mrs. Levine said she had no idea who the painting belonged to, but Elky was welcome to ask the neighbors. Answering the door opposite, Chayuta said she was wondering about that painting too, and did Elky want to come in and visit for a while? (She should really offer to have Elky over more often.) But Elky shook her head and went down a flight to knock at the Chukruns.
The rabbanit herself answered. No, metukah, she thought that painting might belong to… no, she couldn’t say. A chocolate chip cookie, though? Elky wasn’t sure if Rabbanit Chukrun was considered a stranger, and she also didn’t know if homemade cookies needed a special hechsher, so she reluctantly declined.
The Mendlowitz mommy opened the door a crack.
“Hi, Elky!” she whispered with a finger to her lips. “My baby just went to sleep.” The Mendlowitz mommy talked a bit funny because she was from a place called America, but Elky liked her.
“D-did you see the p-picture on komat k-karka? Is it y-yours?”
“Oh, the new painting! Do you like it, Elky?”
Elky beamed and nodded.
“Me, too! You have good taste!”
Elky thought a painting would taste awful, and wondered with some astonishment if people in America walked around licking paint.
“I don’t know who put it there, Elky, I’m so sorry. Do you need anything else?” When Elky shook her head, she waved goodbye with a huge smile and quietly closed the door.
Geveret Yankelevitch sniffed and said she didn’t know from strange art and gave Elky a whole bag of taffies. Elky knew she was allowed to eat them, but also that they made holes in her teeth. Maybe she’d give them out in school.
Elky’s Abba asked the rav what the din of the painting was. The rav said it was in a hefker place and that she could take it to school if no one knew who it belonged to.
Morah Kohn loved it. She wanted to hang it on the classroom wall. No, actually, she was thinking they could all use it as a model for an art project to decorate the auditorium! Elky was in raptures when she got home, and wouldn’t stop talking about it. Shifra nearly bit her tongue off, but kept quiet because she hadn’t seen Elky so animated in… well, never.
For weeks, it was all Elky would talk about. By the time PTA night rolled around, Shifra had gone through cycles of anger at the person who had dumped that weird painting on the wall in her building, and hopelessness because no one could stop Elky from going on about this huge project that mommies of the whole school were coming to see. Today she’d finally settled on a ledge of mute acceptance.
It wouldn’t take much to shove her off that ledge though, she thought to herself, as Morah Kohn called the principal over and they both insisted on accompanying her to the auditorium so she could kvell in the school’s pride and joy — an art exhibit! And who had started the whole thing if not for her very own Elky!
Shifra was more confounded than impressed to see an entire wall dedicated to an array of paintings. All of them were copies, more or less, of the painting that had caused her so much angst.
Elky’s own masterpiece took the place of honor right next to what she thought was the original. And in Shifra’s private opinion, at least ten pieces had more color and style than the original. Which said a lot about surrealism or whatever it was called. It was giving her a surreal headache and she just wanted to go home. Instead, she had to smile delightedly at the teachers and therapists and whoever else felt the need to compliment her on the exhibit.
First Yokda, the O.T., cornered her.
“Ah, Geveret Baumel, so nice to see you! I’m delighted at the change I’ve seen in Elky these few weeks! She’s just blooming! Who would have thought she’d willingly pick up a paintbrush?!” Shifra imagined exclamation marks and bold lines under every second word. She tried to mirror the enthusiasm.
“Yes, Yokda, it’s wonderful! Elky really is a different child….”
Casting around for more to say, Shifra was almost glad when Morah Blau, Elky’s reading teacher, swooped in. It wasn’t exactly a save, though.
“Geveret Baumel, I’m so happy I found you! What a big day for Elky. She’s been counting down the days! If you have the time, I’d love for you to come to my room and see the calendar we drew up together. Elky wrote all the captions herself!”
“Oh, I’d love to do that! Maybe we can talk about Elky’s reading now, and hopefully I’ll have time later to come up before I need to leave — I’ve got a house full of children waiting for me and I’m sure none of them are in bed yet.” She gave a nervous cough. “You know how it is….”
Then Ida the speech therapist had a few nice words to say about Elky’s improved mood, and the nameless “music lady” who Elky sometimes mentioned came to say hello, and mentioned what an artist Elky was. And Dina, Elky’s teacher from last year, stopped her.
“Elky’s Ima! You have no idea how many wonderful reports I’m hearing about Elky! The whole school has been talking about this project. You know, I like to keep up with all my students and I’m absolutely amazed at how happy Elky is when I pop in to her class. She should go michayil el chayil!”
Dina had been an excellent teacher, and Shifra felt she owed her a few minutes of attention before escaping, jaws aching and a fervent prayer in her heart that that was the end of that.
Only it wasn’t, because two days later she got a phone call.
“Geveret Baumel? This is Ruti Assaf. How are you?” It was Elky’s principal. Shifra’s stomach always dropped when someone called from Elky’s school.
“I’m fine, thank you. Is Elky okay?”
“Yes, yes, Elky is absolutely the star of our school at the moment! Well, all our students are stars, but sometimes it takes time until we find the best way to make them shine!” Mrs. Assaf gave a little laugh.
“I won’t keep you for long, but I wanted to share this exciting news with you personally. The mayor himself would like to visit our school with some potential donors, and the head of a special education network in the north. We’ve chosen Elky to give a guided tour, as it were, of the exhibit.”
Make Elky herself into an exhibit, was what Shifra wanted to say, but she forced herself to be polite.
“That’s so nice.”
“We’d love for you to be there as well, if possible. Is there any chance you’ll be available next Tuesday morning?”
Shifra tried to sound regretful.
“I’m sorry, but there’s no way my boss will let me miss work. Even for such an important event like this. It’s a really busy season at the office now….”
“I understand. We’ll be sure to send you pictures!”
Shifra sighed and hoped the principal didn’t think she was a terrible mother.
On Tuesday, Elky led the small procession through the auditorium.
Orna Vaknin, director of social services, thought the school had done a wonderful job; see what standards this chareidi school had! Worth all the money she directed toward the extracurricular activities. The mayor seemed to be in his element as he waved at the tastefully displayed exhibit, waxing eloquent about fulfilling every child’s needs. The sweet girl who had showed them around was standing right there, eyes sparkling. Orna made a note to compliment the teacher on this beautiful idea.
There was something niggling in her brain every time she looked at those paintings, though. They gave her an unsettling sense of déjà vu. As if she had just been standing here a week ago, looking at swirls of paint over dabs of color tastefully displayed on a large wall. Orna shook the thought off and hurried to catch up with the mayor and his entourage who were just disappearing into one of the classrooms.
There was even a write-up in the local paper, Shifra noticed dismally. She was never going to get away from all of this. Elky was basking in her near-celebrity status, but didn’t realize that all this attention was just money-driven politics. Hopefully everyone would find a new chesed project very soon.
And then they did. Life continued without mention of exhibits and art… but Elky withdrew into herself completely. No more endless chatter about paints and canvas and brushes. She rarely mentioned Morah Kohn anymore, Shifra suddenly realized. Which should be the relief she had been hoping for, really, but to see Elky so miserable made her wish she’d been careful of what she wished for.
What to do now about Elky? It took Shifra a week to get up the courage, but after Elky didn’t want to go to school one day, she bit her lip and the bullet and called up the esteemed Morah Kohn.
She had to admit that the woman knew what she was talking about.
The next day, Elky skipped off to school. Well, the Elky equivalent of skipping.
And she came home proudly bearing The Painting. Only this was Elky’s painting. Not that anyone could tell the difference. The whole family stood on ceremony as Abba Baumel carefully hung the painting on that steadfast rusty nail on the wall on the ground floor.
This time, all the neighbors were careful to show due respect to the piece of art hanging in their building. Mrs. Levine made sure to tell Elky that she was so happy that the Baumels lived in her building so that such a special painting by such a special girl could hang there. Rabbanit Chukrun was effusive with her compliments, and took note of the fact that in certain circumstances, encouraging nonexistent talent had its place.
“Elky Baumel!! I can’t believe what a stunning painting that is!” Elky was a bit taken aback that her mommy’s friend Chayuta had knocked at their door especially for her.
“Look what I’ve got for you!” She was holding a tiny package wrapped in shiny green paper.
“You can open it now if you want, Elky. I really hope you like it!”
It was the cutest key ring in the shape of a palette with her name on it. It would be just right for her pencil case.
“Thank y-you!!” Elky felt a bit shy. “I’m going to t-take it to school every d-day!”
Geveret Yankelevitch gave Elky two bags of taffies and resigned herself to seeing The Painting daily. Simi Mendlowitz made sure to tell Elky every time she saw her that she could tell the difference and that she liked Elky’s painting much better than the other one. (This one didn’t look like it was upside down.)
And Shifra got used to adding five minutes onto her “getting-Elky-ready for-school” routine. She waited patiently as Elky paid homage to her painting every morning, and assured her that yes — she really was an artist now! Amazing how some paint dribbles could change someone’s life like that. Elky now had a whole set of art paraphernalia that she kept busy with every evening. Morah Kohn was definitely a national treasure.
At some point between 3 and 6 a.m. on the night Rina Baumel got engaged, Elky’s painting disappeared.
Yuri had spent the last few months laying low and planning the perfect exit strategy from Israel to Ukraine and eventually to Sweden or Italy. Having managed to embarrass the Israelis and confound the international security and art community with his flawless heist, now was the time for the next step toward his multimillion-dollar reward.
He allowed himself a minute to admire one of the finest works of abstract art in the world. It had been dark here last time; he’d had nary a second to spare. The hallway seemed even brighter than he remembered, the painting patiently hanging all this time on the same rusty nail where he had hastily placed it.
He gently lifted the painting off the wall and slipped it into the protective packaging he had prepared, congratulating himself on pulling off the greatest hiding-in-plain-sight trick of all time.
After all, no one around here could possibly recognize or appreciate a Jackson Pollock masterpiece.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 737)
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