No. 69 David Bekker
David Bekker believes in the integrity of a Jewish art. In his native Russia, in Palestine, in various capitals of Europe, and in the United States from the Atlantic seaboard to the Rocky Mountains, he has painted and etched his people, finding without any overlay strenuous seeking a unity of spirit that the Jews themselves are apt to deny. This spirit he has caught and fixed emotionally in his pictures, in whatever locale he has been working. His Hebrew frankness is matched almost solely by Chagall, among Europe’s contemporary geniuses. Picasso of Jewish blood is a Spaniard; Matisse is French, as was Pizzarro; Israels was Dutch.
It should be said of those masters, however, lest they be misunderstood, that they have been frankly careless of their blood, taking a more lively interest in the manifestations in the peoples around them, whereas Bekker is the Jew by impulse and avid investigation. If he were not an artist, he would be a rabbi. He was educated for the dignity, and qualified. Indeed, he served for a time, by special commission, a congregation in Wyoming shortly after he came to the United States ten years ago.
However, he is no rabbi for a “career.” Neither is a brother, living in Palestine, who preferred to be a farmer after years of theological study. Bekker is the “wise man,” the “learned doctor,” the profound student, the investigator, the searcher out of learned things for learning’s sake, and his form of expression if the picture instead of oratory.
Bekker, since boyhood, has roamed the ghettos the world over, observing his people, listening to their conversation, studying their minds and their faces, grasping them as personages and as types.
He can tell you firsthand of the abject poverty and little tragedies of the London ghetto that Zangwill dramatized, contrasting it with the emptiness of the Paris ghetto — no ghetto at all, he says, the Jews eagerly infiltrating among the French and becoming French themselves.
He can give you some startling insight into the conditions in Palestine, where the old Jews — ancient families, long established — are less impressed by the Zionist invasion than Jews in Europe’s and America’s Gentile capitals. The new “foreign” Jews are strangers to them, and they resent their strange ways — their disregard for the Sabbath; their carelessness about things kosher; the habit of their girls going about with their faces brazenly exposed; the “wisecracks” the hear about the “wailing walls;” and their little written letters to Jehovah in lieu of uttered prayers. Why, the Arabs are better!
Bekker can tell you then that Chicago has a few Jews, despite “progress,” who would be at home in the ghettos of London or his native Vilna (once in Russia, now Lithuanian). He finds them not in the synagogues of Chicago’s rich, but little neighborhood synagogues, particularly in the vicinity of 14th Street and St. Louise Avenue — neighborhood where you will still find old men grinding horseradish as it should be ground for the Sabbath.
Bekker was born May 1, 1807, at Vilna, birthplace also of Soutine. So Jewish was Vilna in those days before the war that it was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Nor has it lost its racial standing since being taken out of the hands of the Russians. There has been established there since the war a scientific institute for the study of the Jews and their lore — anthropology, their art, their literature, their contributions to science and the theater, and all their other activities. The institute publishes books and hold exhibitions. Not long ago, they gave Chagall a one-man show. Some of Bekker’s prints are owned there.
Bekker’s parents were pious and orthodox. His father was an artist and decorator, working in mystical subjects, and an older sister of his, living in Palestine, is likewise an artist.
At 11, Bekker entered the night classes of the art school in Vilna of the sculptor Antokolski, a Jew who became a celebrity at the court of the czars and, says Bekker, forsook his Jewish ways. However, he carved a statue of Spinoza that is famous, and that Bekker regards as a profoundly psychological work of art, bringing out with extraordinary sensitiveness the subtle Jewish strain in Spinoza. It was in this school that Bekker learned the fundamentals of his art, though there was nothing Hebraic in the instruction.
It was not until the family went to Palestine that Bekker became conscious of the “Jewish strain” in art. The migration occurred in 1911 when David was 14. Boris Schatz, a Vilna sculptor, was already in the Holy Land, teaching in the Bezalel school, and Bekker entered his class and the class of Abel Pann, painter. He started his career by taking a first prize in competition; other prizes followed.
Pann, a couple of years later, left the Bezalel school and Bekker, feeling a void, set out for Paris to continue his studies. Progress was slow, the boy making his way the best he could through Turkey and the Baltic states. The war overtook him stranded in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. He did some carvings in wood and metal, an art he had learned in Palestine, and offered them for sale. They happened to fall under the eye of the official engraver for the court of Rumania, who offered him a job in Bucharest. The artisans he had been employing were Germans who had been called home to enlist in the Kaiser’s armies.
Bekker stayed in Bucharest throughout the war, designing coins and medals and engraving plates for all sorts of official papers. He indulged his tastes for “higher art” by caring portraits in ivory. Among these, commissioned by the government, was one of Queen Marie and another of Prince Bogdan. He also did, on royal command, two plaques for the tomb of the deceased king.
At the finish of the war, Bekker returned to Palestine to visit his family, and then set out a second time for Paris, again visiting the various ghettos en route. He stayed in Paris only a short time, his money being nil. Within an hour or so after he reached Paris, he was in the Louvre, much to the amusement of some “advanced” artists he afterward met, who told him they had been in Paris four or five years and had yet to visit that mausoleum of art.
Bekker managed to get to London and then sailed for America, landing at Boston. He found some carving to do for a living, and later he did some portraits, including a wooden image of Gov. Cox, which is now in the permanent collection of the Massachusetts state capitol.
After a while, desiring to see America, he wandered west, ultimately reaching Denver. Here, he settled down for a time and married, and it was from Denver he was sent as temporary rabbi to a congregation at Casper, Wyo. Bekker tells with a laugh how disappointed were some of the faithful because he had no beard, but a round boyish face. However, being eloquent, even in conversation when his emotions are stirred, Bekker, in this first address, delivered in Hebrew, tamed with his oratory, the most belligerent of his critics, bringing tears to the man’s eyes.
In Denver, too, he won a prize for a carving in an art show at the Colorado State Fair at Pueblo.
But while the west liked his work well enough to keep him and his family, now increased by a son and a daughter, in food and clothing, Bekker missed his Jewish “types” who supplied him with inspiration for the work nearest his heart. So he came to Chicago, and he has been here ever since, carving, painting, making linoleum cuts, and etching.
Two portfolios, one of linocuts and the other of dry points, both dealing intimately with the Jews he knows and loves so well, have been published since he came to Chicago.