Black Is a Color

Black Is a Color

Each of Stan Lebovic’s works is assembled with great care and precision. Nothing in any of these photographs is without meaning. Courtesy Stan Lebovic

In an odd and disquieting sort of way, the Shoah liberated the artist inside the son of one of its survivors.

Until he began his work on “Black Is a Color,” Stanley Aaron Lebovic had been a technical illustrator, working on the boundary where art meets science – and most of the time science wins. His father’s experience permitted him (or perhaps it is more fair to say compelled him) to overthrow the conventions and retain the precision of his profession – to develop striking new techniques that allow him to look at the Holocaust from new angles.

It is emotionally complicated to find any spark of good in overwhelming evil. Lebovic does not try to avoid that complication. In fact, his book, composed of his art and explanatory essays, is made of emotional complications and hard truths.

“I was really trying to use whatever I had at my disposal to deal with issues that are very important to me,” Lebovic said. “What I could use, I threw at it. I divorced myself from everything else I was working on; I sold my company – basically gave it away – to devote myself to this. I took what little talent I had, I put it all together, I threw it all at this, and anything that stuck I went with. I didn’t know where it was going until I was done.

“Photography, Photoshopping, history, philosophy, Jewish, non-Jewish – whatever worked.”

“Black Is a Color” is made up of 20 discrete pieces, tied together by an introduction and conclusion. It is the fruit of Lebovic’s attempt to make some sense for himself of the world he inherited. It is the result of his background – “My father was the kind of survivor who would talk about what he went through; a lot of survivors don’t,” his son said. “My father was very nonchalant when he talked about it – non-emotional – so it started to affect me more deeply as I got older,” when the impossible horror his father’s stories had skated around sank in.

“My father” – Alex Lebovic – “would tell me about concentration camps and the Holocaust, and at the same time he’d tell me that there was a good God who ruled the world. Those two things were difficult to comprehend.”

And then when Stan Lebovic, who had been brought up “not religious, just to believe in God,” was a teenager, he became more observant.

Lebovic, 49, now lives in Baltimore with his wife and the youngest of his four children, but he grew up in Los Angeles.

“The public school that I was supposed to go to wasn’t so good, so my parents sent me to day school, and then I went to a yeshivah in Israel, and that was that.”

The more observant he became, though, the harder it became for him to reconcile history and faith, the truth of the Shoah and a belief in a good and loving God. “At some point, about six years ago, in my mid-40s, I decided that I really couldn’t deal with the stress anymore,” he said. “I had to work it out.

“My main objective was to give religion a chance to prove itself. If I wasn’t hearing what I wanted to hear, was it because the Holocaust was too much for Judaism, or was it something that I was missing?

“So when I tried to explore the issues that bothered me, I looked into the Torah to see how it could encompass such a thing. If we believe that the Torah was written before the world began, as a blueprint, then something that shows up in creation has got to be somewhere in that blueprint.

“I wanted to look at the Bible, at the stories my father told me, and to see if there was a message that I could hold onto, that said that Judaism gets it, understands the struggle of life, is not just the opium of the masses.

“Black Is a Color” is divided into three parts. The first part is about “defining the Holocaust,” Lebovic said, and that demanded looking at the Shoah clearly. There is a lot of talk about the miracles through which individual people were saved – “I understand why people gravitate to that,” he said – but that could not be enough. “The blackness was the wholesale slaughter of town after town,” he said. Any discussion, much less any conclusion that he could reach, “had to come from looking at it honestly, not watering it down.

“I can’t do justice to the horror,” he continued. “But I had to constantly keep pushing to be as realistic as I possibly could.”

A series of three photographs illustrates that theme. The pictures show a red-haired boy with a pinwheel. In the middle photo, which originally was to have stood alone, a pinwheel, motionless, leaves a subtle but unmistakable shadow on the boy’s face. It is the shadow of a swastika.

“At first, I wanted to give quick answers,” Lebovic said. “I wanted to show that perhaps looking at the Holocaust is not a fair way of looking at humanity, so in that picture, when the pinwheel stops spinning, you have the nasty swastika shadow that but exists only in that moment. If you stopped it at any other time, you wouldn’t see it.

“So I might have been saying that the Holocaust is just a sliver of time in the perspective of the history of the world since creation. That’s fair, but it didn’t do anything for me. I couldn’t think that 10,000 years of good times could wipe out the Holocaust. This quick way of trying to put the Holocaust into perspective wasn’t for me. So I did the other two” – the top image shows the pinwheel in motion, not yet casting a shadow, and the last one has the pinwheel again moving and the shadow still visible. “Time picks up again, but the swastika shadow is still on the boy’s face,” Lebovic said.

“I’m not going for easy answers, even if a rabbi gives them to me.”

The second theme is “the idea of religion being able to deal” with the Holocaust, Lebovic said. “It’s taking things from the Bible and asking if it makes sense to us.”

Although he feared that he might not be happy with the results of his search, “I found, to my relief, that Judaism really does seem to be a very reality-based religion, without the idea that everything will work out.

“It was refreshing. It was what I needed to see. The Torah has the ability to be viewed in a number of different ways, but once I put that lens on the stories I saw that many were telling the story of the Holocaust – that reality is very difficult, and Judaism understands the human condition.”

He uses the story of the goats on Yom Kippur. There are two identical goats; one is chosen by lot for slaughter, and the other, laden with the community’s sins, is sent off to the wilderness, to Azazel. Which choice is better? “The one chosen for God will be lucky enough to have its throat slit. The other goat, the unlucky one, will live,” Lebovic said, and it all is done in public, on the holiest day of the year.

“It is so arbitrary, so unjust, that you would think the rabbis would come in and explain, but they don’t,” Lebovic said. “It is an enigma. On this holy day, you see Judaism accept such an injustice. Life is unjust. You must accept it, because life is random and unfair – but you must accept it because you have faith.

“When I look at the goat that goes to Azazel, that gives me the right to say that it’s okay that I don’t get it. I thought I was missing something, but the goat for Azazel shows me that even at the Temple, even with everybody watching, nobody gets it. That’s reality. Judaism says that yes, this is life, and faith is beyond.

“I don’t have to have answers. It’s not about the answers. It’s about asking questions.”

The third section of Lebovic’s book is about how Jews dealt with the Holocaust. “I compare it to coming out of Egypt,” he said. “It’s that important. The Holocaust is a new marker the Jewish people can use in the way we shape how we look at God and each other.”

To his surprise, Lebovic found that he ended his project with more hope than he had thought possible when he began. “Just as Egypt is about how God is good, the Holocaust is about how good the Jewish people are. It was a tremendously uplifting feeling.

“We have a relationship with God. It doesn’t diminish God to say that the Jewish people now are on a higher level in our relationship with God. That is what we have to focus on.”

Lebovic is not planning on returning to his career as a technical illustrator. Instead, he is touring with “Black Is a Color,” speaking at synagogues, schools, and universities. He will be speaking at Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck on February 9. (He has many local connections; three of his four children live in Teaneck.) He also has begun to write a Haggadah.

“I came to this because I had issues of faith,” he said. “A lot of people are turned off to Judaism because of evil in the world, and now I’m able to bring it into a context where people can talk about it. It’s not taboo. There might not be answers, but we can talk about it.”

Who: Stan Lebovic

What: Talking about his book, “Black Is a Color”

When: Saturday, February 9, at 8:15 p.m.

Where: Congregation Beth Aaron, 950 Queen Anne Road, Teaneck

Why: To look at questions about the Holocaust, faith, and God, through the lens of art

For whom: The evening is free and open to the entire community

read more: