When Life Imitates (Old Rabbi) Art

Bear with me–this blog post might be a little hard to follow. It exists simultaneously in a couple of different time periods. I began with the intention of making an amusing observation and ended up on an entirely different path.

I’ll try to explain as I go along.

This first portion was written about 10 days ago:

Anyone who has worked in a synagogue long enough has experienced it. It can happen anytime throughout the year, but most frequently around now, when people are more apt to be doing a spring cleaning and looking ahead to Passover. Most often it takes place when one needs to clean out the family home their parents have inhabited for decades, either because of an impending move or more likely in the event of a parent’s death. Whatever the reason, they need to start packing and sorting.

I’m talking about the phenomenon of Old Rabbi Art.

People come to the temple with old pictures or paintings that have long been hanging on their parents’ wall or more likely gathering dust in the attic and ask if we’d like to take them. Here are some ideas of the kind of pictures that we are offered:

The concept is simple. Adult children come across paintings or prints like these and will do anything to avoid discarding them. They really don’t have any use for them–certainly nothing they want to hang in their own homes–but they can’t quite get themselves to throw them out. So where do you go with piles of paintings of old bearded rabbis? To the synagogue of course. Presumably we have some secret room–like a basement-in-the-Vatican kind of thing–where we store all of these treasures.

OK, now stop for a moment. This is where this first part of this blog post concludes. It was–ironically, inconceivably–at this precise moment when I was typing that I first received word that my father was ill, which led to his passing a mere 4 days later at the age of 91. This, in turn, resulted in my eventually having to enter his newly vacant apartment and begin thinking about how to save, distribute, or discard his possessions.

And so I now continue my interrupted and incomplete post with a profoundly changed perspective. Whereas I had intended to write from my unique position as congregational clergy, my words mixed with equal parts snark and irony, I now find myself writing as a “regular” person–one who now sees it from the other side, sharing that inevitable and familiar experience of countless others: sitting shiva for a parent.

I was always vaguely perplexed why people bringing in their Old Rabbi Art would be mystified why we couldn’t or wouldn’t take it off their hands. “Isn’t there anyone who would want this?” they would ask. My response, gently worded, would be something like, “Why are you so surprised? Even you don’t want it.”

Yes, of course now I get it. It’s not the actual picture of some old rabbi that they are really talking about. It’s the context. It’s remembering what it looked like on the wall–surrounded by 1970s decor and all. Trying to get us to take, save, or find a home for these pictures is really about holding fast to something that they ultimately must let go. Just as we must finally clean out our childhood homes, bag up clothing that will never be worn again, donate or discard used furniture, and yes, remove Old Rabbi Art from the walls, we have to say goodbye to what’s familiar and embedded in our long term memory. It hurts at the funeral, it hurts at the graveside, and then finally when disposing of items that simply have no place to exist anymore.

The true gift is remembering that we never truly discard Old Rabbi Art. It lives forever in our memories and old photos. We just have to make room on our walls for new images.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

1 comment on “When Life Imitates (Old Rabbi) Art

  1. Ted Neary



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