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    What do I look like?

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report on 19 October 2020.

    Zoom shows me what I look like.

    In the past I hardly ever used a mirror, but I sometimes dipped into our family photo albums – an old people’s habit.

    I don’t take selfies, though my children and grandchildren take photos on their phones.

    It dates me to be analysed by my great-grandchildren, who can’t quite work out where I fit into the family.

    There was a stage in my aging when I had my portrait painted to mark my 30th anniversary at the Great Synagogue, Sydney. At that stage, the Australian artist Robert Hannaford painted an impressive portrait of me in white High Holy Day robes. We had a series of sittings at the Sydney Hilton Hotel.

    He was offered the option of painting me wearing black rabbinical robes, but said it would make me look like a magpie, so he chose white robes and tallit, skillfully introducing a suggestion of color here and there.

    The portrait is now at the Great Synagogue, with a copy in our Jerusalem home. The original was entered for the Archibald Prize, but it didn’t win – though it deserved to. It traveled around Australia; in Sydney my wife and I mingled with the people who were walking through the State Art Gallery looking at the prize entries and we eavesdropped on to the comments on my portrait (and on me).

    Years earlier, Walter Pidgeon’s portrait of my predecessor Rabbi Israel Porush (in black robes!) was also entered for the Archibald Prize – and it did win. The Porush portrait is also at the Great Synagogue.

    All these works raise the fascinating question of the Jewish attitude to portrait painting.

    The Decalogue appears to prohibit artistic images, though Maimonides limited the ban to sculpture and Rabbi Me’ir of Rothenberg allowed “portraits done in paint which have no solid substance (and cannot be considered idols or icons).” Sculpture was tolerated in some eras, enabling Prague to have a statue of Rabbi Yehudah Leib ben Betzalel, who is associated with the story of the Golem.

    Attitudes to portrait painting oscillated. Rabbi Ya’akov Emden reported that his father, Chacham Zvi Ashkenazi, refused to let his portrait be painted, though Emden himself stated that “there is no fear of prohibition” and the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London has portraits of Chacham David Nieto and other Chachamim.

    Jews’ College, the London rabbinic seminary, had portraits of former chief rabbis. Bayswater Synagogue lost an array of portraits to Nazi bombing though many works of Jewish art were stolen, despoiled or destroyed in the Holocaust.

    These days, both Israel and the Diaspora have portraits on display or in storage, including rabbinic gedolim. Cards of rabbis are collected by school children. Chabad homes accord pride of place to photos of the Rebbe. Sholem Aleichem said that an attractive face is worth half a dowry.

    Despite Hannaford, I can’t claim to have a particularly handsome face but, thank God, my mind still works. I don’t know much about dowries, but I can still manage to pay for my Rav Kav (the card used by Israelis to pay for rides on buses and trains).

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