(Photos: Jeff Zorabedian)
Bound By Canvas
The Yiddish name “Hendel Futerfas” evokes the image of an old shtetl chassid, perhaps wearing a kapote and battered hat, nourished on black bread and herring. But the Hendel Futerfas who greets me at the door of his Crown Heights apartment is very 21st century, funky even, in a navy button-down shirt, gray cap, and baby-blue shoes with orange laces. Even his apartment, a minimalist space with fresh paint and spare modern d?cor, stands in contrast to the building itself, an old pre-war edifice with sloping marble stairs and heavy doors plastered with multiple coats of paint.
The original Hendel Futerfas, the great-great-uncle of the current one, wasn’t a typical chassid, either. Also known as Hendel or Henoch Lieberman, the first Hendel Futerfas (1900–1976) painted propaganda posters for Russian dictator Joseph Stalin. After World War II, he became close to Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch (the Rayatz), and moved to Crown Heights in 1951 — the year after the Rayatz’s passing and the induction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. There he began painting dreamy shtetl scenes populated by elongated Jewish figures who look ready to drift heavenward, Chagall-style.
His 21st-century namesake, a 29-year-old artist and Lubavitcher chassid, also brings together many worlds. Possessed of a thoughtful yet cosmopolitan manner, he could intermingle as easily at a farbrengen as at a Park Slope soiree, and speaks the languages both of the Rebbe’s sichos and the contemporary art world.
This Hendel’s art has a more modern bend than his ancestor, comprising abstract painting and sculptures, portraits, and scenes of Jewish life. Fellow Chabad artist Michoel Muchnik, known for his fanciful illustrative art, says Hendel’s vision “blends Jewish traditional lifestyle and modern taste without being pretentious, with a masterful use of color and composition.”
As a professionally trained artist, Hendel now exhibits in shows from Atlanta to the Hamptons. He didn’t originally expect to make art his life’s work, but it was in his name and in his blood. Eventually, he gave into the pull.
Hendel grew up among tales of his illustrious namesake. As a great-grandson of Rabbi Mendel Futerfas on his father’s side and a grandson of Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the Rebbe’s personal secretary, on his mother’s, he was deeply embedded in the inner circles of Chabad as a child. Yet the stories of his great-uncle’s detours into secular art always fascinated him. “It was exciting to me,” he says. “I knew I was named for someone who wasn’t typical, who’d led a life that was out of the box.”
By the time he was 11 or 12, Hendel was starting to draw, often copying his great-uncle’s work. Hendel recalls that his first painting depicted a man standing at sunrise near a fence he’d built, sledgehammer in hand, with dew from leaves above dripping onto his head. “I was envisioning a feeling of satisfaction, completed by a drop of G-dliness,” he says. “But at 14 or 15, I still couldn’t draw all that well.”
The Chabad world kept him so busy that he didn’t have much time for his art. As a 13-year-old, he was sent to Chabad summer camp in Tzfas, then stayed on for yeshivah. He returned to the US to attend mesivta under Rabbi Mottel Friedman in Minneapolis and then did stints in Chicago and Los Angeles before spending time in Rostov in Russia. As they say, “Join Lubavitch, see the world.”
(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 731)