Seeing, Painting, and Understanding: A Tribute to Ruth Light Braun
Our world is a broken place.
It’s important to acknowledge this, to be aware of what is going on around us, because only then can we begin to pick up the pieces and try to make repairs. One of the points of brokenness in the world right now is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an ongoing struggle between two groups of people fighting over the same land.
I’m Jewish. I have generations of family living in Israel, a land in which they can love, explore, and grow. Two of my first cousins born in Florida made aliyah, moving to Israel and serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. My mom lived there for a year as a student, and took my family back a couple of years ago to get our first taste of this holy place. This trip was amazing, filled with family and friends showing us what they love about their Israel. I can’t wait to go back someday and explore it on my own, as my Israel. Israel is very dear to me, as both a place and an idea, and because of that, the conflict breaks my heart. It’s hard to put into words, so I prefer not to. Instead, I like to use art as a way to explore how I feel about this complex issue. When my family and I traveled to Israel in 2010, we attended a rally for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas militants in 2006 and held captive for over five years, until his release in 2011. Not knowing how to react to this heartbreaking situation, I turned to painting to deal with my feelings of confusion, anger, and utter sadness. I filled sketchbooks with pictures of the land of Israel. The pictures were important for me, not as an accurate representation of the sights, but as an expression of the emotions that I felt.
I have recently come across the work of the late Ruth Light Braun, an extraordinary Jewish artist whose striking portraits of men and woman came into focus against the backdrop of early 1930s Palestine. While that backdrop has surely changed, the feelings communicated through the eyes of the people she portrayed are the same. Braun traveled throughout the country artistically capturing people as she found them, such as at a subway stop or shtetl, a small Jewish town, and drew her subjects as they were. Braun’s way of seeing others through her easel became a deeply personal way for her to make sense of ordinary people’s lives and choices, and resulted in touching, intimate portraits.
If Ruth Light Braun were alive today, she would be very invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She would look past the propaganda and the screaming headlines and create images of truth: intimate portraits of women, men and children caught in the midst of a war. She would have set up her easel, taken a breath, and seen her subjects through the eyes of both an artist and a human. She would look deeply at and listen closely to both Israelis and Palestinians, because after all, that is what an artist does best: examine a piece of work—a piece of life—from multiple perspectives. Sketching and drawing, looking and painting, seeing and understanding, she would have seen the similarities between cultures rather than the differences so often emphasized by the media. Braun would have fought to show Palestinians and Israelis as beautiful and complex human beings rather than stereotypes.
The Israeli-Palestine conflict is depicted by too many people choosing to not look closely at those with different viewpoints, at those they simply dismiss as “other.” As a result, the world has chosen to not look closely or listen as well. Ruth Braun was a woman who knew the importance of a portrait, and not just the finished product. Braun was skilled at the art of really looking at the people she painted. She made the choice to live a life filled with moments of seeing, believing, and capturing, and would have done exactly that today. This choice is one that inspires me to look to see, understand, and then paint.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Kahn, Ellie. "Seeing, Painting, and Understanding: A Tribute to Ruth Light Braun." 18 November 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 3, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/seeing-painting-and-understanding-tribute-to-ruth-light-braun>.
Ellie, this is wonderful! That is always something that strikes me about conflicts; this one in particular, the Israelis and the Palestinians are all just people with thoughts and emotions. It definitely makes me see the conflict in a new light when I think about it from that perspective.