Artist-Rabbi Makes Jewish History with a Pen

Like any observant Jewish man, Simeon Ben-Yochai keeps his head covered – but instead of the traditional kippah, he wears an artist’s beret.

Simeon Ben-YochaiBen-Yochai sells his pen-and-ink drawings from the same spot every night on Ben-Yehuda Street, where he is an unchanging island amongst a sea of tourists, teenagers and troubadours.

“I make history of the Jewish people with paints,” he said in imperfect English as he swept his hand towards the drawings of wizened rabbis and yeshiva boys lined up against the stone wall beside him.

Ben-Yochai never studied art. When he moved to Jerusalem in 1987 after leaving the army at age 32, he began painting at the Western Wall every day.

He shows off a picture of himself as a young, rotund artist with a dark beard and pensive gaze. Now 58, the curling grey beard spills over his chest, and the same dark beret has become his signature head covering.

Ben-Yochai, named after an ancient rabbinic sage, has seen so much of Israel’s history, he could almost be one himself.

Ben-Yochai’s parents immigrated from Morocco in 1946 when he, one of 10 siblings, was just a baby. They arrived as poor Mizrahi immigrants to a nation on the cusp of independence. It took awhile for the family to be resettled in an actual home – one of his brothers was born in a tent.

“There was nothing in Israel at this time,” he said. “I remember I am young, I ask my mother for food, but we don’t have any food.”

After spending his early childhood in poverty, Ben-Yochai grew up on a moshav, a Zionist agricultural community, outside of Jerusalem.

When the 1967 Six-Day War broke out, Ben-Yochai fought as an Air Force special commander in the Suez Canal.

“Of course I remember the war, but it’s not so easy to talk about,” he said. “Many of my friends, like brothers, died.” With eyes rolled upwards and a hand pressed to his forehead, he talked about the extreme shock, the overflowing hospitals, and the losses on both sides of the battle.

Memories of war aren’t easily forgotten: Ben-Yochai said he still thinks and dreams about the things he saw.

Ben-Yochai stayed in the army until 1987, when he moved to Jerusalem. In the past 26 years, he’s seen the country’s capital evolve into the modern center it is today.

“Now Israel, she is changed,” he said. Ben-Yochai praises Israel’s current prosperity but claims to shirk materialism.

“I’m a simple guy. I am spiritual. I pray every day, do kosher, Shabbat, study and teach Torah,” he says. His simplicity and spiritualism don’t keep him from being a shrewd businessman, though – or boasting about his success.

“I make lots of money,” he says. “People love my work. I’m happy with my life. I’m happy with what I do,” he said. Although his artistic themes are purely religious – portraits of rabbis, scenes of the temple in ancient Jerusalem, a likeness of Rachel from the Jewish scriptures – Ben-Yochai says his work is for everyone, whether Jewish or not.

This view of universal equality pervades his personal beliefs. Unmarried and living alone, Ben-Yochai strongly values his own independence and the religious freedom of others. He shares his tolerant attitudes with forceful conviction.

“If you believe something, why push it? It’s a big mistake for many nations,” he says. “You must know what you have between you and God.”

Ben-Yochai, artist-rabbi, maker and keeper of Jewish history in art, is a devotee to a communal tradition but a defender of his own individualism.

“Nobody is my boss,” he said, taking a drag on his cigarette, a hint of a smile on his lips. “It’s God, me and the people.”

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