by Loren Kantor (Los Angeles, CA)
I was born in a San Fernando Valley suburb nicknamed “Hebrew Heights.” My paternal grandfather was an Orthodox Jew who scribed torahs for a living. My maternal grandfather was a secular Jew who loved pork spare ribs. Like all my Jewish friends, I went to Hebrew School two days a week. I got in trouble at a synagogue-sponsored Summer Camp for claiming Sammy Davis Jr. as my favorite Jewish cultural figure. The only time my father ever yelled at me was after I drew a mustache on a Sandy Koufax baseball card. “Hank Aaron and Willie Mays are fine,” my dad screamed, “but you don’t mess with Sandy Koufax.”
During my bar mitzvah, my friend Robert Levine knocked the torah out of my hand as I carried it around the synagogue. The entire congregation gasped. After the torah was finally returned to the ark, I quietly asked the rabbi if God was going to punish me. “He may send you to Hell for a few weeks, but I think you’ll be okay.” He smiled as he said this. I never knew if he was serious or joking.
As I reached my teen years, I developed a complex attitude toward my own Jewishness. I was always confused by the Chosen People ethos. It seemed to bypass the merit system I held dear. Shouldn’t we have to earn the right to be chosen by God, I wondered. Is a Jewish thief more entitled to God’s blessing than a non-Jewish saint? I stopped going to temple and became indifferent about my Jewish heritage. At the same time, I retained a strong cultural Jewish identity. I boasted about my “Jew-Dar,” my ability to spot a fellow Jew from across the room. As I read about successful Jewish figures in the world, I felt a deep pride in my heart, even as I eschewed Jewish teachings in my own life.
As an adult, I sought deeper understanding about my Jewishness. I sought out my old bar mitzvah rabbi who was retired in Palm Springs. Over bagels and coffee, Rabbi Zeldin explained to me that being chosen didn’t mean you were better than others. It meant God expected more from you. This change in perspective did wonders for me. Being Jewish was not about entitlement. It was about about holding yourself to a higher standard. Rabbi Zeldin further explained that Jews have always been outsiders. We’ve had to fight for survival and been viewed as “different” by the rest of the world.
I too have always felt different from the rest of the world. Even as a young child the “outsider” motif was emblazoned in my heart. The irony is I felt different from my fellow Jews as well.
I first became exposed to woodcut prints in the 1980’s when I attended a German Expressionist art show at LA County Museum. The exhibit featured the work of Kathe Kollwitz, George Grosz and others. I was impressed by the stark and simple lines and the boldness of the prints. The images were haunting and vivid and I couldn’t get them out of my head. Several of the artists were Jewish and it didn’t surprise me that the Nazis had classified the work as “degenerate art.”
I was writing screenplays in those days. I never considered carving woodcuts for myself. But whenever a woodcut exhibition came around, I made sure to attend.
In 2009, my wife gave me a woodcutting set for my birthday. I watched a few online tutorial videos and I dove in not having a clue what I was doing. I cut myself often at first and the initial prints were ragtag and primitive. But after awhile, I started to get the hang of things.
We needed art for our walls at home so I decided to carve woodcuts of classic movie personalities. Whether by accident or unconsciously, a large number of my subjects were Jewish. They included Billy Wilder, Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre and Lauren Bacall. (Bacall is first cousin to former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.) I found their faces compelling and their stories inspiring. I learned that these Jewish personalities considered themselves “outsiders” as well. It’s as if we were all part of a family. There was an energetic kinship, a tribal recognition of “fellow travelers.”
As I continued woodcutting, I had memories of my grandfather scribing torahs. He used to say it took him a full year to complete a Torah. One mistake and he had to start over. Woodcuts are similar. Once you carve into the block, there’s no turning back. Small mistakes you learn to live with. If you make a large mistake, you have to start over.
Woodcutting is an ancient art, an analog process in a quickly evolving digital world. When carving, it’s integral that I relax and focus on each individual gouge. The process is meditative and calming. In these hectic times, it’s nice to have an activity that forces me to slow down and breathe. In many way, it’s as if woodcutting is my personal form of prayer.
Loren Kantor is a Los Angeles-based Woodcut Artist and writer. He worked in the film industry for 20 years as a screenwriter and assistant director. He’s been carving woodcut images for the past five years. To view samples of his work in woodcutting, visit his website: http://woodcuttingfool.blogspot.com