By Rhona Lewis
The hallway leading to Jacqui Taub’s apartment in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, is wallpapered with whirls of deep purple and cream. The walls of her apartment are covered with her paintings: a sea ebbs in hues of purple, mauve and lilac; a young girl meanders through a garden of pastel flowers; two men and a little boy lean against the Western Wall. The oil paintings are a blend of gentle, consistent forward motion.
As Jacqui puts aside her walking stick and eases herself into her chair, I witness the physical pain that she has to contend with from multiple hip replacements and spinal surgery. Yet her vivacious eyes twinkle with an energy that belies her sixty-five years. Her rich Australian accent fills the room as she takes me back to her childhood in Sydney, through her marriage and subsequent divorce, her discovery of her talent for poetry, art, and ceramics, and finally on to her remarriage and life today. As reflected in her paintings, her journey has been one of consistent onward motion.
As reflected in her paintings, her journey has been one of consistent onward motionJacqui’s parents divorced when she was only three years old. “One of my most powerful memories is a nightmare that recurred for years: I’d always see my mother in a red dress, walking down the staircase of our boarding school. I was at the other end, waiting for her. But before she reached the end, she just disappeared, and I would wake up terrified.”
While her parents initially maintained cordial relations, their friendship came to a halt when her father remarried eight years later. “My stepmother was wonderful, but I still longed for my biological mother,” Jacqui says, recalling this tumultuous period. When she was sixteen, she left school to attend secretarial college.
Partly as a result of her traumatic childhood, she married her childhood best friend at the young age of eighteen. “We were good people who had no idea how to make a marriage work. Young and without any counseling, we were never able to just sit down and discuss issues,” Jacqui says. For the next twenty years she pushed through her marriage, working as a legal secretary and raising her four children with the security that she had lacked as a child. Then the inevitable happened, and the couple divorced. “But my ex-husband and I still worked as a team to raise the children,” says Jacqui. “We’d have regular meetings in his offices to discuss their progress. I think that we succeeded because we both took responsibility for the breakup of our marriage.”
Eventually, after two of Jacqui’s children moved to Israel, she too immigrated, and soon found herself in an absorption center in Raanana in central Israel, attempting to adapt to a new country and a new language. To add to the unbelievable stress, existential questions also began to bother her: “I was fifty-four years old, with absolutely no idea what my life’s purpose was about,” she says. “I wondered if we were here just to live and then die, and this led to my questioning the existence of G‑d.” What kept her going at this terrible low?
A Life of Art
“Quite simply, I had to earn a living,” Jacqui says. “Even though I knew my father would always be there for me, and I wouldn’t starve, I just wasn’t prepared to give up.” With these words she reveals her true mettle: the ability to forge forward against the odds. This strong belief in herself as an artist pushed her forward to market herself in a foreign environment.
Jacqui had first ventured into the field of art through writing. In her thirties, she had published a few children’s books of what she calls “nonsense poetry,” and a series of children’s books that were published and distributed nationally in Australia; a London publisher included some of the poems in an anthology. She also wrote and illustrated Judaica nonsense poems for children, which are waiting to be published. One delightful poem describes a little boy watching a pair of his tzitzit fly up and away, only to land on the shoulders of another little boy who isn’t wearing tzitzit.
Jacqui had first ventured into the field of art through writingBut she discovered her real calling in art just before she came to Israel: the world of ceramics. Apparently out of nowhere, she had a vision of a ceramic figurine of a man wearing a tallit and a kippah. “I had no idea why or where the idea came from, but I knew I wanted to make it,” she says. “I bought some clay and tools, and even though I didn’t know how to work the clay, I kept on experimenting. Sometimes the pieces would fall off, and sometimes the figurine would explode in the kiln. Finally, after three months of hard work, I managed to make the little man I had dreamt about. He had no ears, because I didn’t know how to make them!”
Jacqui’s perseverance paid off, and so began the G’sundheit Collectables. G’sundheit means “good health” in Yiddish, and is used to wish the blessing of good health upon someone. While Jacqui didn’t realize it at the time, she was in fact in desperate need of a blessing for good health—both of her hips and her spine were deteriorating.
At the absorption center in Ranana, in an attempt to support herself, Jacqui began once again to work on her G’sundheit Collectables. She spent the mornings working on her clay figurines, and the afternoons in Tel Aviv working as a secretary. She had to start from scratch, because every single one of the figurines that she had so carefully packed in cushions and pillows before leaving Sydney had arrived shattered. Luckily, she could fall back on her indomitable spirit! To fire the figurines, she had to drag them in plastic drawers across a field to her friend Marianne Davidow’s kiln. “About six weeks after I arrived in Israel, I set off for Jerusalem with my G’sundheit Collectables loaded in my old overnight bag on wheels. I dragged myself up Ben Yehuda Street and down to the Cardo in the Old City, my bag bouncing merrily along the cobblestones and my back aching horribly.” Although she didn’t know it at the time, the pain in her back was an ominous signal that surgery was imminent. “I sold everything,” says Jacqui, smiling, as she relives the pleasure of her first sales.
Even though Jacqui was managing to earn a living, she was still desperately searching for life’s purpose" Jacqui’s G’sundheit Collectables ceramic figurines display all the spiritual yearnings and humor of their creator. Whether it’s the grandmother holding freshly baked challot, the cantor with his prayer shawl or the tennis player with his shtreimel, every unique miniature will make you smile as you notice the details she captures. Jacqui quips, “I’d have an all-out battle in my studio if I sent them out not properly ‘dressed’!”
A Life of Spirit
Even though Jacqui was managing to earn a living, she was still desperately searching for life’s purpose. As a child, she had always been aware that G‑d was around, but she had never felt that He was intimately involved in her life. This changed during these difficult months. “During this time, I used to say little prayers like ‘G‑d, you know I don’t even know where You are. But please hang in there with me, because You know I want to find You.’ I wanted G‑d to be included in my day-to-day activities, but I had no idea how to do this.”
The answer came in the guise of a shiny green book. “One day I went into a Jewish bookstore. I was looking for something, anything, to help me get past this confused state. I put my hand on a shiny green book all about prayer. This book was to change my life and my way of thinking. It was all about the amidah, a prayer of nineteen blessings that we recite silently. There was an introduction that explained the way we should approach prayer, and a translation of the Hebrew words into English. Suddenly the amidah was no longer ‘that prayer during which you didn’t talk.’ Here was a chance to talk to G‑d.” As Jacqui learnt about the power of prayer, she was able to include G‑d in her day-to-day life.
Fusing Art and Spirit
Perhaps one of Jacqui’s biggest challenges was waking up to the fact that her artistic talents are gifts from G‑d and not a direct result of her own singlehanded endeavors. “I finally understood to whom I owe gratitude,” Jacqui says. “By seeing my talents as a gift, I was able to take my ego out of other parts of my life too, and I changed.
“As I changed, my relationship with my children improved, and I became more involved in their lives. I also married a wonderful man, who has become the mainstay in my life.” From her studio in her apartment overlooking the hills of Israel, she now always remembers to ask for her Creator’s help before and during her work on a G’sundheit. “Finally, I’m at a point where I feel that G‑d is involved in my day-to-day life. I even talk to Him when I need to find a spot to park the car. I just say, ‘G‑d, You know I can’t walk far. Please, could You find me a spot?”
“I get up each day with a real and valid purpose” Jacqui may have learnt only recently to fuse art and spirit, but she sees now how G‑d laid the groundwork as far back as her first miniature—the little man with a tallit and kippah, but no ears. Torah law instructs us to avoid making a full “graven image” of a person, but since all of Jacqui’s miniatures lack ears, there is an opinion that she never actually made the type of image that is forbidden. [Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 141:7, as understood by Chochmat Adam 85:4]
Jacqui’s desire to develop the spirit and humor that encompass Judaism inspired her to develop new ideas—the Hareidim G’sundheits. So if you see a miniature of a rabbi in a shtreimel, with a long black coat and his tzitzit hanging out, playing golf, tennis or cycling, you can be sure that you’re looking at one of Jacqui’s creations.
Living Beyond the Pain
When the back pain that Jacqui had first noticed as she dragged her bag of G’sundheits through Jerusalem worsened, she went to the doctor and was diagnosed with avascular necrosis (AVN) in her right hip. Since the bone tissue wasn’t receiving blood, the tissue was dying and the bone was collapsing. In 2001, Jacqui underwent her first total hip replacement. However, the procedure wasn’t entirely successful: her hip actually dislocated four times. Each dislocation meant undergoing full anesthesia to relocate the hip. Eventually, the hip was revised in England.
Nine years later, Jacqui underwent hip replacement surgery a second time: this time, her left side was operated on. As if that wasn’t enough, a year later, due to very severe spinal stenosis, Jacqui’s spine collapsed and she had to undergo spinal fusion. Prior to the surgery—although she had to spend three weeks in bed—as one would expect of her, Jacqui pushed onwards, and actually did manage to attend one meal at her grandson’s bar mitzvah. Today, Jacqui lives with pain, and she has elevated cobalt levels from the metal-on-metal prosthesis of her Birmingham hip, which will need constant monitoring.
Jacqui can no longer walk around selling her ceramics and oil paintings, because she is mostly housebound. As she is unwilling to give up on her creativity, she has she has found a way to keep working without actually running a business, which she no longer has the energy or financial means to do. A significant portion of the income from her ceramics is donated to charity. In addition, she has begun to make ceramic jewelry and teach clay modeling to children. “G‑d gave me a gift, and I don’t want it to go only towards my own happiness and self-fulfillment. Now I feel as though I am giving back something. Best of all, I get up each day with a real and valid purpose, and I’m so busy that I have no time to think of the pain.”
But Jacqui is the first to admit that it isn’t always easy. “There are times when I burst into tears because of the pain that stops me from creating anything worthwhile,” she admits. “Then I try to thank G‑d for my blessings, in particular for my husband, who encourages me endlessly by constantly reminding me that G‑d doesn’t give us what we cannot cope with, and pray for the strength to continue with my creative work.”
Coming full circle, Jacqui combines a life of art with a life of spirit, and of course she finds the impetus to surge forward.