You likely wouldn’t look twice at 39-year-old Avraham Loewenthal if you passed him on the narrow cobblestone streets of Tzfat (also spelled Safed, Safad and Zefat), the ancient city in northern Israel that was the birthplace of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism.
Avraham’s head is covered by a large knit yarmulke, his face masked by a thick beard so long it hides his neck, and behind each ear hangs the curled tendril of hair that is custom of Haredi men.
In other words, Avraham fits right in.
But if you were to follow Avraham into his studio in Ma’ayan Haradum Square, the Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art, and ask about one of the scores of contemporary paintings strewn about the small space, you might stand in shock as he speaks passionately about his works’ representation of basic principles of Kabbalah.
What he’s saying is interesting, but just as interesting is how he is saying it. This man who looks like any other Tzfat resident sounds American-Midwestern, in fact. That’s because before he was Avraham from Tzfat, he was Robert from Detroit.
I was so intrigued by a visit in March to Avraham’s Tzfat studio that I reconnected with him to discuss his thoughts on place, Kabbalah and art.
BNT: Tell me, first of all, a little about your life in America and how you ended up in Tzfat.
AL: I grew up in Southfield, Michigan in a Modern Orthodox Jewish family. I went to University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, taking different undergraduate classes with a psychology major. Then I studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
During college I found myself interested in meditation. I started looking into Eastern meditation and then someone told me about the book Jewish Meditation by Aryeh Kaplan.
I was surprised to see that there is a very deep tradition of meditation within Judaism.
Over the next few years I read three more of his books, and collectively they changed my life. In simple and clear words he explains the deepest and most meaningful ideas I had ever encountered, and I wanted to learn more.
While I was in art school, I came to Jerusalem to study for a month in a yeshiva. It wasn’t a Kabbalistic yeshiva, but it was still the next step in my spiritual journey.
After art school I wanted to learn more about the Kabbalah, so I came to Israel for six months as part of an artist-in-residence program in Arad, a city in the Negev Desert.
While I was there I visited Tzfat, and I knew immediately that this was what I had come to Israel for. Tzfat is one of the holiest cities in the world and the world center of Kabbalah. I found teachers here and a most beautiful community of spiritual people.
I came to Tzfat to learn Kabbalah, but there also happens to be an artist colony here. This allowed me to open up a gallery and combine my Kabbalah learning with my painting.
I have been living here now for about 13 years, studying Kabbalah and painting pictures based on ideas I am learning in the Kabbalah.
BNT: As someone who has called two very different places home, how much or little do you think where we live affects who we are?
AL: It says in the Kabbalah that a person’s environment influences him or her so much.
What people around us give importance to, think about and desire start to become the things that we talk about, give importance to and desire-so much so that even though we always have free will, on some level we only make one major decision in our lives… where we live and who we spend our time with.
The books we read are also considered people we are spending time with, as we are connecting to the consciousness of the author.
This is one of the reasons that Tzfat is such a spiritually powerful place. Since so many people here are giving great importance to their spirituality, these are the conversations going on.
BNT: Even though Tzfat felt comfortable to you from the beginning, was there anything difficult about adjusting from your American life to your Israeli one?
When I first realized that I wanted to live in Israel, I thought I would need to give up a lot of material comforts. But I haven’t. I have found only blessings living here.
I do miss some of my old friends from where I grew up, but I married a woman, Rebecca, from Baltimore, who I met about six years ago at Shabbat dinner hosted by some friends down the block.
We have been blessed with two children, Ashira Rachel who is now three years old and Hillel Netzach who is nine months old.
One thing that did take some getting used to was my name. I was given the Hebrew name Avraham when I was born, but I was also given the English name Robert. I went most of my life using my English name.
One day before I was thinking about it, and I had a realization that my deepest name is Avraham.
I like the name Robert, but I realized that the name Avraham was given to me after my great-grandfather, who was named after his ancestor, who was named after his ancestor, and so on for 4,000 years.
When I game to Israel for the artist-in-residence program, I started to have people call me Avraham instead of Robert, and at first that was strange for me. Someone would call my name and I wouldn’t even know they were talking to me. But I soon got used to it, and it was a very big transformation.
It actually says in the Kabbalah that a person’s soul has a deep connection to their name, and one piece of advice given for someone (in certain circumstances) wanting to make a big life change is to change their name.
BNT: How interesting that you married a woman from Baltimore. Does Tzfat have a large American expatriate population, and if so, what about Tzfat do you think appeals to Americans?
AL: There are many former Americans here of all ages. Whether they come for a few hours, a day or two, weeks, months, years or forever, they become part of a community that is like a big family.
There is a distinct English-speaking community and a distinct Hebrew-speaking community, but these communities overlap and intertwine. Most everyone is here for the vibrant spiritual environment.
BNT: Tell me more about how your express your spirituality through your artwork. Can you explain how the principles of Kabbalah are represented in one particular piece?
AL: The main theme of the Kabbalah expressed in most of my artwork is the idea that at the root of all of our spiritual work in this world is coming to truly care for one another as we care for ourselves.
The picture here is a quote from the Torah. It can be translated as, “There is nothing but G-d.” There is a great deal of discussion in the Kabbalah about the meaning of this verse, but one of the ideas is that nothing in our life is a coincidence.
Even the most difficult and painful situations are actually on the deepest level hidden blessings because they help our souls come to a place that will be ready to finally experience infinite goodness.
BNT: I have to ask, what do you think about celebrities like Madonna taking up Kabbalah?
AL: Many people are critical of celebrities studying Kabbalah and also of it coming out in the world in different “pop” levels of learning. I don’t agree with this criticism. We have no idea what anyone else’s spiritual work is, so we cannot judge their path. We can only look inside ourselves.
Ancient prophecies say that the revelation of the inner teachings of the Kabbalah to everyone will be part of the spiritual transformation in the world, when six billion people finally come to truly care for one another.
I think that the Kabbalah coming out in the world today in a very big way, even if a lot of it is on a very “pop” level, is the beginning of the fulfillment of these ancient prophesies.
BNT: I’m curious how Avraham from Tzfat, formerly Robert from Detroit, defines himself these days: as an American expatriate, a Tzfat resident, a Jew, an artist? None of the above?
AL: At this moment I would define myself as an eternal soul trying to realize my spiritual essence and connect to the unconditional love that is the divine source of our every moment.
To see more of Avraham Loewenthal’s art, visit The Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art.