Whether your summer days are lazy, hazy, or even crazy, that’s up to you. But now, it’s goodbye to a really tough and challenging year. We’re looking ahead to a brand-new year with the High Holy Days beginning in early September, right around the corner.
In the meantime, it’s time to lose remnants of those doldrums, and find paths to self-comfort.
Self-comfort means different things to every one of us. One size never fits all of us. It’s based on our personalities, histories, and proclivities.
Beauty is an antidote and a healing balm for much that ails us, and it is subjective for everyone. It is truly in the eye of the beholder.
From time immemorial, art has been a way of transporting and lifting us up and out of ourselves. Whether we’re viewing an intriguing and beautiful piece of art, or actively engaging in a form of it, art connects us to another source outside of the four corners of our minds and hearts. Being involved in art can even ease isolation and significantly raise our mood and affect.
Pamela Simchi of Fair Lawn has been connected to art since she was a young girl. Early in her life she was primarily self-taught. She recalls always observing and examining nature around her, and then drawing what she saw. “When I was very young, we lived in the small rural town of Millis, Massachusetts, near the Charles River,” she said. “There was an apple orchard at the end of our street. I can remember walking with my mother through the orchard, pulling down an apple blossom, and studying it. And I thought that the apple blossom was perfect even with its imperfections.
“Whatever I saw and loved in nature, I drew after examining it.”
Ms. Simchi also developed a deep love of Judaism. She credits her parents for her early connection with Judaism and Israel. The family moved over the state line to Dewitt, N.Y., a suburb of Syracuse. They became very involved with Temple Beth El in Syracuse; her parents had tremendous respect for its rabbi, Jacob Epstein, z”l.
“Then, when I was about 12 years old, my mother returned to her career as a nurse, and she felt it would be a good idea for my siblings and me to go to a sleepaway camp for the summer,” Ms. Simchi said.
But it couldn’t be just any kind of camp. It was important to her mother that Pamela and her siblings go to a camp with strong Jewish values. So she turned to Rabbi Epstein, and asked him where he sent his own children. The answer was Bnei Akiva’s Camp Moshava in Ennismore, Ontario. There, the camp’s mission statement — Torah Va’Avodah — that’s Torah and service — and religious Zionism — surrounded her. Camp Moshava is a religious Zionist camp, and it aims to educate its camping community to make aliyah – to move to Israel. The camp and its philosophy greatly influenced her, and she made many friends there as well.
In the beautiful Canadian countryside, Pamela began making drawings with Jewish themes, and she also developed a deeper tie to Israel.
All during her elementary and high school years Ms. Simchi took art classes in the local schools she attended. Her more formal art education began at the School of Visual Arts, a multidisciplinary college of art and design, in Manhattan. There, she connected with teachers who became mentors. “The teacher who influenced me the most at SVA was Jack Potter,” she said. “He was a well-known master illustrator and educator, and his classes had a major impact on my technique. He taught me how to improve my quality of line. I learned the importance of capturing the likeness with beautifully drawn lines and finding the best light and shadow for the subject.”
After she graduated from SVA she worked as a corporate art director, but her heart always was in fine art.
Ms. Simchi developed a reputation in her community back at home in Fair Lawn as an artist, and in 2007 she embarked upon her professional fine art career.
Ms. Simchi’s art is all about what she enjoys. She loves Judaism, so she focuses primarily on Jewish themes, using biblical symbols. She expresses her love for nature by drawing and painting landscapes, flowers, birds and especially rabbits.
Honey Cheifetz, a close friend and neighbor, commissioned Ms. Simchi to paint original pieces depicting the Shalosh Regalim, the three major Jewish festivals. Rising to the wonderful opportunity, Ms. Simchi poured herself into the creation of the paintings. Along the way, she also developed her home-based studio, Pamela Simchi Fine Arts.
Ms. Simchi explained the project. Ms. Cheifetz “requested separate and unique pictures of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot,” she said. “For each, I painted detailed Judaic themes using watercolor.” Ms. Cheifetz was so pleased with the artwork that she commissioned two more, about Chanukah and Purim.
The three paintings of the Shalosh Regalim were done in watercolors. The two about Chanukah and Purim were works of calligraphy, with quotes pertaining to those holidays, and Ms. Simchi illustrated them with professional-grade colored pencils and watercolor.
“For the Passover piece, my goal was to create the sense of our personal connection to the seder; as is written in the Haggadah, ‘In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as having been liberated from slavery in Egypt,’” Ms. Simchi said. “In the picture, the Jewish people are marching through the Red Sea, and the water is standing on each side. The picture then leads right into the present, as the sea water spills onto the seder table.”
The painting for Shavuot shows the Jewish people l standing around Mount Sinai ready to receive the Torah. The Ten Commandments are depicted as being superimposed in the sky.
“For my painting of Sukkot, the sukkah is illuminated from within, with an empty chair saved for mashiach, the Jewish messiah. The structure of this sukkah is reminiscent of the Beit Hamikdash, the holy temple, and in the background are the Judean Hills of Israel. A closer look reveals that the vegetation in the picture is composed of the four species found in the lulav and etrog, with which we bless on Sukkot.”
Those original paintings now hang on the walls of Mrs. Cheifitz’s home in Florida. Since she made them, Ms. Simchi has continued to work on commissioned pieces, and she has honed her reputation as a versatile artist. People typically hear of her through word of mouth, Facebook, and Instagram. She uses social media to sell high-quality printer reproductions of her work, made through a process called giclee.
Ms. Simchi also is an educator — she is an associate teacher at Yavneh Academy in Paramus and teaches Hebrew language and Judaic studies at the Hebrew school of Congregation Bnai Israel in Emerson. She uses her strengths as an artist to reach her students by illustrating her lessons. “The kids really connect to the lessons through all the illustrations,” she said.
“I love to paint animals and scenes of nature,” she continued. Enter the aforementioned rabbit. During the covid months, when the Simchis were home all the time, a stray bunny became a regular presence in their family backyard. “He would sit between me and my daughter, and it was so endearing,” Ms. Simchi said. “Of course, I wanted to paint him, but as we all know, bunnies don’t stay still. So I took photos of him and then painted the portraits.”
The land of Israel is a strong theme in the Simchi family. Pamela met her husband, Yisrael, when she was a student in the one-year program at Hebrew University in the seventies. All four of their children are bilingual, fluent in English and Hebrew, and three of them live in Israel. Ms. Simchi gave a painting of the Kotel she made to Netiv Aryeh, her sons’ yeshiva in Jerusalem. Her daughter studied in a women’s seminary, Michlelet Mevaseret of Yerushalayim; another of Ms. Simchi’s watercolors hang in that Jerusalem school.
When reflecting about her life as an artist, Ms. Simchi talked about how art helped her through some challenging times. “Some of my best pictures were done during difficult times,” she said. “I always put music on when I draw; then the art lifts me into another zone, and I’m completely absorbed.”
And you don’t have to be a professional artist of the caliber of Pamela Simchi to find making art to be therapeutic. Anyone who is interested in dabbling in any form of art, even painting or coloring by numbers, can find that it is both beneficial and pleasurable. “Someone who was close to me was very ill, and when she began to paint, it was extremely therapeutic, and helped her mentally,” Ms. Simchi said.
We all know that having a positive outlook and a strong mental cushion helps with many illnesses and hurdles in life. Art is beauty, it’s uplifting, and we can all benefit from more of that.
Esther Kook of Teaneck is a learning specialist and a writer.