From law to art to Israel
Art before, during, and we hope after covid

From law to art to Israel

Barbara Israel Bortniker links disparate ways of looking at the world — and celebrating the Zionist dream —on canvas

“Dishes and Domes” by Barbara Israel; inset, “November: The More Things Change” by Lisa Suss
“Dishes and Domes” by Barbara Israel; inset, “November: The More Things Change” by Lisa Suss
Barbara Israel Bortniker

Some professions seem to fit together naturally, if not intuitively, to those of us without the talent or interest for either of them.

It might not make sense that mathematicians are drawn to music, but many of them are gifted musicians. It probably seems more obvious that actors not only have to work as waiters, but can do it well.

Visual artists being lawyers, though? That one isn’t quite so usual.

Barbara Israel Bortniker of West Orange is an attorney and a painter; she loves both disparate parts of her life, and brings them together as often as she can.

She also loves Israel, and paints it often.

She’ll talk about Israel, representing the Jewish National Fund — another of her passions — for Raritan Valley Hadassah on Sunday. (See box.)

“I always loved art,” she said. “I have been drawing as long as I can remember.”

Ms. Bortniker — who uses the name Bortniker socially but paints as Barbara Israel — grew up in New Milford; she went to the town high school, and then to “Rutgers College, back when there still was Rutgers College,” she said. She majored in history, with an unofficial minor in art; art beckoned her even back then, but “I have always been a very good student, and I didn’t feel like being a starving artist,” she said. “So I went to Columbia law school.”

That wasn’t a stretch for her. “I loved words, loved writing, loved thinking.” She became a business lawyer, which made sense for her, because “I like making things happen. I like making dreams happen. I love working collaboratively with other people to reach a goal.” Business law allows for that, she said; it’s less about aggression, as she practiced it, than about cooperation.

Weekend Respite

But “all the time I practiced law, I always was painting,” she said. She had worked at some major law firms, and “I still practice part time, but about 20 years ago I decided to put more of an emphasis on developing my art.” So she went to art school — first duCret School of the Arts in Plainfield, and then “I put together a portfolio, applied, and got into the New York Academy of Art in Manhattan,” where she earned an MFA. “I did all this in my spare time,” she said; she is also married — her husband, Dr. David Bortniker, is an ENT specialist with a practice in Somerville — and the mother of four children, who still lived at home then. (They’re all grown now, and the Bortnikers have five grandchildren.)

She’s a figurative painter, Ms. Bortniker said; “I basically am a traditional painter.” The courses she took were traditional. “I wanted to strengthen my craft and learn from the best — and I did,” she added.

The MFA program normally takes two years but she took an extra year, and “I also taught a class in legal and business issues for artists,” she said. “I created the course, and I also gave lectures on those topics in many places, including the New York Foundation for the Arts, Parsons School of Design, FIT, and various other programs.

“It was a great way to meld all my interests together.”

Once she graduated, Ms. Bortniker started to travel, “to see the major museums of the world.” She also started to go to Israel frequently.

Kotel — Bibles and Berets.

“I have always loved Israel,” she said. “I’ve always been a Zionist. And I began to realize that people should be painting in Israel.

“Everyone always carries on about the light in France and Italy. I’m Jewish. I have a connection to Israel.” And Israel, on the Mediterranean, part desert, part hill country, has extraordinary light. “So why not look at it as an artist’s destination? So I began taking my painting supplies with me to Israel.

“You see tons of advertising for trips to paint in France or Italy or Scotland or Ireland. Scotland and Ireland are not necessarily the best places to paint, although they have their appeal. But Israel! With its fabulous Mediterranean light and such a variety of topography and flora and fauna and ancient rocks and Roman ruins and Crusader ruins and the history and the spirituality and then the modern cities and the deserts — it is just an amazing array of landscapes.”

And there are the people; although she is mainly a landscape painter, Ms. Bortniker paints figures as well.

“If they haven’t been to Israel, people have no concept of what a diverse population there is,” she said. “The secular and the religious, and different kinds of religious, and each group dresses differently. And there is an amazing variety of people, from Ethiopian Jews to Jews from Arab countries. And there are the non-Jews — the traditional Arabs and the Greek Orthodox, in their long black robes and their interesting headwear.

Dishes and Domes

“If you haven’t seen it, you really just have no idea.”

She’s a plein air painter, open to the experiences and emotions that she sees and feels as she moves about in the world. “You try to get an initial emotional response from the viewer,” she said. “My goal is to get the response ‘Wow!’ or ‘I have been there’ or ‘I want to go there.’”

Ms. Bortniker became active in the JNF after the Carmel fire in 2010, “where hundreds of thousands of acres of precious woodlands burned,” she said. “Those woodlands had been so prized, the little Switzerland of Israel. There had been so much greenery. So many trees. And 44 people were killed in that fire.”

Before the fire, Israel had deployed its emergency response resources to terror attacks, Ms. Bortniker said. It made sense, but underserved areas in the country’s periphery, which tend to be poorer than the more populated central regions, of the firefighting equipment so desperately needed. That led her and her husband to donate two firetrucks to the JNF, and to continue to give both funds and effort to the organization.

Until covid struck, “at least once a year I would go to Israel with a JNF mission, and I’d bring my painting supplies,” Ms. Bortniker said. “And then I’d stay an extra week or two, and that is how I have accumulated a body of work about all these places I have traveled to.

Hurva on Purim

“That’s why I decided to put together a virtual art tour of Israel.”

Ms. Bortniker will talk about the water shortage the world soon will face because she has learned, through the author and activist Seth Siegel and his book “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World” — and more recently his 2019 work, “Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What We Drink” — that “a tremendous concern of Israel’s leaders, even before the founding of the country, was how can you have a modern country, how can you grow that country, when you are taking in refugees from the four corners of the earth, but you have no water?

“In recent years, because necessity is the mother of invention, they have come up with solutions that not only made Israel virtually self-sufficient in water, but even lets them export water to the P.A. and Jordan.

“The real message of water is its potential to cure the world’s worst problems. More children die because of unclean, unsafe water around the world than of any other disease. Israel has figured out a way to produce water from desalinization, and even virtually out of thin air.”

That passion seems far from painting, but it’s grown directly out of it, Ms. Bortniker said.

“One of the things that I think about when I am painting, or looking for landscapes to paint — what impresses me, what fills me with wonder, with gratitude toward the Creator, with a capital C — is the blessing, the beautiful wonder of the days when the sky is so blue that you can’t describe it. When you have a tender new plant. When you look at an olive tree, with the most beautiful, delicate color of grayish silvery blue against the sun-drenched Jerusalem stone.

“What a beautiful color combination that is. An artist couldn’t come up with it. I have a sense of wonder and appreciation and spirituality and closeness to God when I am experiencing the natural wonder of the landscape.

“I try my best to convey that tone in two dimensions. It is a poor substitute for God’s creation, but it is my way to appreciate the world and express my spirituality.”

Who: Barbara Israel Bortniker

What: Will represent the Jewish National Fund as she talks about “Water Solutions for a Thirsty World”

When: On Sunday, January 24, at 11 a.m.

Where: On Zoom, for a program for Raritan Valley Hadassah

How to get the link: Email

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