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Yonnah Ben Levy and Chaim Bezalel

“If I had one life to live, I would spend it with you”

by Lisa Presman for the English Speakers of Ashkelon and Kehillat Netzach Israel

As Chaim Bezalel’s song title above implies, this is a love story between two unique and fascinating people. There is great power in words and especially in the name that we make for ourselves. Jennifer Jean Ballard grew up on Mercer Island, Washington. Today we call her Yonnah Bezalel Ben Levy. Yonnah’s Jewish journey included a search for her Jewish family roots and a love of Jewish ideas and the Bible that has profoundly influenced her life and her art. She discovered that her grandparents had been members of Temple DeHersh in Seattle. Chaim Bezalel, Nee Spilke, is from the Bronx, New York but grew up along the beautiful Hudson River in Dobbs Ferry, New York, a city that played an important role in the Revolutionary War. “My family were founding members of Greenburgh Hebrew Center in Dobbs Ferry, a Conservative congregation where I attended Hebrew school and was Bar Mitzvah.” Changing his name in Israel to Bezalel, an old family name, “changed my destiny,” he says. Both Yonnah and Chaim have found love and the fulfilment of their multi-faceted artistic endeavors, in Israel, over the past 30 years.

Chaim’s first life began as a financier but his love of the arts changed his life. He had humble artistic beginnings in Israel. He loved photography, and living in Israel provided him with a wealth of beauty to explore through the camera’s lens. He began by creating posters which he sold to tourists in Jerusalem. He loved art from an early age but did not pursue it until college. He learned that artists must possess an ability to observe the world; for being an artist requires one to be a keen observer of life, and that he is. Chaim pursued film in college and became interested in photography as an element of mixed media. “Art has its own language, its own syntax and its own context, and I wanted to create my own personal syntax and context in a body of work.”

His photography enabled him to meet his “soul mate,” Yonnah. As the photographer at her ill-fated wedding in Jerusalem in the 1980’s, they learned that they both shared a love of the arts. It was a ‘beshert’ moment that set-in motion the life that they would eventually share together, years later.

Yonnah loved art from a young age but had also considered biology as a college major. Her scientific perspective and “soul” for art combine today in her works. As a ceramicist she is a knowledgeable chemist and as a photographer and landscape painter she is fascinated by form, function, and the variety of species in the world around her. She has a wonderful eye and captures the beauty of nature in her photography, but she does not stop there. Her photographs become the canvas on which she imposes her own sense of color into the world creating unique brilliant flowers, trees and landscapes in her paintings.

Yonnah refers to herself growing up as the “…typical passionate artist. There was no stopping me working with my hands.” Yonnah works in many mediums including ceramics, painting, and sculpture. Her first love was to be a professional artist, but she found that teaching art was equally challenging and engaging. She was hired as an art teacher out of college and later received her Masters of Art for Teachers nestled between the birth of her second and third child.

Yonnah and Chaim agree that “It’s wonderful to be multi-media artists. We encourage others to do different media. These activities enrich and fulfil your life. Everybody can do some form of art and that’s a good thing because art teaches you how to think creatively.”

There is a danger when an artist marries another artist, relates Chaim. The danger is competition and jealously if one is more successful than the other. But Yonnah was very intuitive. “Yonnah suggested that we collaborate and set aside our own individual works entirely until the collaboration was birthed.”

They have continued collaborating over the years but have also been able to resume their individual artistic expressions as their collaborative works have blossomed. Chaim and Yonnah see their ‘art’ as limitless. They are constantly expanding their horizons into new forms and media. Chaim has expanded into painting and ceramics and Yonnah continues to expand her repertoire. In the past year, during Covid, she has enriched her studies of indigenous flowers and the art of the mandala, an ancient spiritual art form of geometric configurations. Her mandala paintings include intricate border work around a central floral motif. These artist endeavors have not hindered mutual collaborations which have continued to mature over the years. They are very proud that their art now hangs in hospitals, court houses, in an American Embassy, and in museums.

For Chaim, art is not like working in a factory day-in, day-out. The muse is a lady and you must act appropriately with her. She will come to you when you least expect it. “You wait for the muse; you don’t tackle the muse.” He is also very cerebral about his work seeking to understand how it will fit into an overall concept he is working with. Chaim describes himself as an artist with a social science perspective. His art speaks to his interests: history, politics, sociology, and economics. Archeology is a favorite topic as is the Bible. He is also interested in combining different mediums to create his art. He will combine sand with clay for interesting textures or integrating three-dimensional sculptures into two dimensional paintings on handmade paper. Nothing is beyond the realm of possibility. The muse comes to him in fantastic, ingenious ways.

So how has Covid affected their art? Yonnah better understands what inspires her due to being ‘locked up’ during Covid. Simply put, “You go outside and see what your eyes see. The physicality of being inspired is what I am actually looking at. It is the physical interaction of where I am living, who I am with, and what I then perceive.” Visually interpreting her life in terms of her art is second nature to Yonnah. She loves to take walks in nature capturing the scene in her camera. But that is only the scant beginning. The photograph helps her delve more deeply into the subject she has captured, enabling her to see so much more as her artistic concepts evolve into the final painting. “Photography is only the raw material,” says Chaim, “it is not the product.” Chaim similarly views the pandemic. “This is the most productive year that I have had, locked in my studio.” It has afforded them the opportunity to concentrate on their art both individually and collaboratively.

Chaim and Yonnah spend their time taking long walks in the morning and evening, and enjoying each other’s company, and the expanse of nature along the seashore in Ashkelon. Their works reflect their daily encounters with the natural world and the culture of our beautiful city. “I feel like we have been put on a potter’s wheel and are being fashioned for some kind of purpose and we are not to argue with that potter in the sky. We are being fashioned into what we are supposed to be,” says Yonnah. “We are three artists” says Chaim, “Yonnah, me and us.”