a strange graffiti

We take culture pretty much for granted. It has been with us for a long time. Ever since man turned from gathering wild fruit and roots, and hunting wild animals, and started growing his own food. The word culture is similar to cultivation, as in agriculture. It was only a few hundred years ago, in the 18th century, that it began to be used as a description of human social behavior. For as we progressed in the establishment of society, we have adopted a series of disciplines regarding human behavior that resembles in many ways our method of raising food. If once we were satisfied with a vegetable patch in the back yard, or a farm that a family, together, could operate, we now have huge farms operated by large companies using heavy technology. And parallel to that, our young move from one class to another absorbing education for 12 years, and then are expected to continue to higher education for a few more years in order to merit some worthwhile employment.

a field of cultured sunflowers

But at the same time, there are other forms of culture growing around us, and influencing our consciousness. If Vincent van Gogh revolutionized the expectations of the art world, I believe that today, graffiti is doing the same thing. And it is no surprise that so many people reject it and are disgusted with the way it has insulted our vision of civic order. I was reminded of this when walking through an old neighborhood in Jerusalem. The neighborhood of Mamila had deteriorated to the point where many of the houses were abandoned, and no one wanted to live there anymore. At that stage, the city decided on a gentrification process which turned the ruins into an attractive hub of activity. I have some interesting photos of the old neighborhood, and might post them separately one of these days. The place is completely different today. And all the graffiti is long gone.

Mamila nowadays

In some ways, the graffiti found in our city has an international flavor. You can see the sort of artwork, and lettering that you might see in other major cities of the world. Some are satisfied just to leave their name or initials. Others paint rather intricate and artistic murals, and it is not rare to find English words and lettering. But you can also find messages unique to our language and culture. I like the human touch. It reminds me in a way, of wild animals who urinate where they’ve been to leave their mark. But it can be more than that. Sometimes it’s a comment on what’s happening in this world. It can be a political statement. And some folks actually try to amuse us. But at it’s best, it’s art.


The most common graffiti found in Israel, is a written line in memory of a much loved Chassidic rabbi, Rabbi Nachman. He died in 1810, but he is remembered very fondly by a lot of people to this day. The line is a series of combinations of the letters of his name. Some believe there is mystical importance to these variations.

the famous line written on a deserted building

He was a charismatic rabbi, with a following and students too. He told stories that were parables about the human condition, and preached happiness as the path to serving God. He was the great grandson of the founder of Hassidism, and believed that one should converse with the creator as you would with a close friend. He visited the holy land for a couple of years but lived most of his life in Russia and the Ukraine. Many books have been written explaining his famous stories, and studying the depths of his philosophy. His followers are recognizable in our country by their very large white skullcaps, and their long earlocks.

another version of the famous line

When he heard of the terrible pogrom in the city of Uman, his heart filled with grief. When I die, he said to his friends, I want to be buried with the Jews of Uman who were slaughtered for no reason by bloodthirsty bullies. Some people still go to visit his grave… especially on the Jewish New Year, and on the day of Atonement. But many more people celebrate his philosophy, and remind themselves and the people around them that the way to God is happiness. I remember once, during the entifada, when we were suffering a lot of terrorist attacks here in Jerusalem, and many had witnessed body parts and blood splashed across the streets of our beloved city… A lot of people were walking around depressed. Tourists had stopped coming to visit our town. And then, one day, I saw this van pull up to a major intersection, the Zion square, and a number of young men got out with musical instruments in their hands. A few of them set up in the middle of the square and started playing this happy music, and a couple of guys got on the top of the van and started dancing and singing. People just happening by, like myself, drew near to observe the spectacle.

it is an important ‘good deed’ to be happy always

I was reminded of them again when visiting Eish Kodesh, that beautiful little village where I went for Passover. Because on the refrigerator of the apartment where I was staying, was a post card that had been handed out in honor of some wedding… of people I don’t know. The message on the card says: It is an important ‘good deed’ to be happy always. And underneath, it tells us that this is a souvenir from the wedding of Tamar and Nachshon Shacham.


50 responses to “a strange graffiti

  1. A very interesting post as always Shimon. Thinking about being happy as a ‘good deed’ is new to me but makes so much sense. I suppose if one is miserable, your mood is infectious and can bring others down. Much better to strive to be happy and pass that on instead.

    • Yes, exactly… through we don’t even have to go to the extreme of being miserable. Even if you’re doing well and taking care of business, you might not be trying to be happy. These people think that one has an obligation to try, and in this way to uplift the spirits of others around you. Thanks, Chillbrook.

  2. Thank you for this post dear Shimon, I enjoy always to be here and to take a travel through your words and pictures… Have a nice weekend, love, nia

    • Thank you very much, Nia. It’s a pleasure for me too. Both to enjoy your company here, and to see your beautiful photos. Thanks so much for your good wishes.

  3. Another most interesting reflection on the nature of art, culture, graffiti and the importance of being happy. I’m not sure what I think about that, although everyone wants to be happy and those who are, bless those around them. I especially enjoy the sunflower and cow photos!

    • Well, I can tell you Gillyk, that though I concur with these Chassidim completely, I’m not the sort that walks around with a smile on his face all the time. But in principle, I think they’re right. That’s why I keep my eyes on sunflowers and cows. They make me happy. Wishing you much happiness too.

  4. That’s an interesting parallel between spray-can tagging and scent marking. And your photo of the sunflowers is wonderful, by the way.

    • Since you are a fine photographer yourself, Graham, I have to confess that the photograph of the sunflowers is not quite wonderful, even if the sunflowers themselves are wonderful. It was late in the day, and the contrast was so striking that the sky disappeared. Had I shot with a tripod, I could have caught a bit of sky, or I could have implanted some sky from another shot… but I don’t care to do the latter. Thanks anyway.

  5. The concept of happiness being a “good deed” something we should include in our lives, rather than the Western thought of it being something we long for that is almost unattainable, is so much closer to my own beliefs, it is refreshing. I believe that we create our own happiness in our lives, in great part by our attitude and of course our choices, It also makes me smile that you find some value in graffiti, at least for the personal expression that it is!

    • I agree with you, that it isn’t… or shouldn’t be something we long for in the abstract. As difficult as it may sound at first, we can actually direct our emotions. And yes, as you say, Josie, we can create our own happiness. Very glad your smiling now.

  6. Once again I find such a strong parallel between some aspect of Judaism and Buddhism/Hinduism, Rabbi Nachman’s belief that one can communicate with God as one would with a close friend is the core of mysticism … and the greatest joy of my life. I talk every evening on my late night stroll and feel the guidance so strongly that sometimes I bump into things and have to be careful of traffic.

    And his exhortation to be happy … echoes the words of the Dalai Lama who has written. ,,, “The purpose of life is to be happy …”

    The sheer joy of Rabbi Nachman’s words make me want to go out and write his name somewhere on a wall or building in Honolulu … and perhaps scribe an ॐ ( Om) next to it.

    A beautiful post, Shimon …. You have brightened my day.

    • Ah yes. When I was a young man, I studied a bit of Zen, and found certain things that were very close to Chassidism. It is a great joy to understand. And moreover, Nikki, I think he would have enjoyed hearing a good Om. According to one story, he once said amen after hearing someone whistle. It would be very interesting if you wrote his name in the local script… I wonder if anyone would recognize it. I have brightened your day, and now you have brightened mine… you see, it works.

  7. Happiness…I love passing happiness to others…it’s a very good thing. God is my Father, I am his child…just one of many! God gives me every reason to be happy…He loves me!

    • How sweet you are, Vasca. I haven’t reached that level yet, but I am still trying… Thank you so much for your beautiful comment.

  8. I love the graffiti! Thank you, Shimon. This post reminds of the Leon Bloy quote I have on my wall: Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” I think the wise ones of all faiths have reached this conclusion. 🙂

    Great happiness in your insights and encounters, Shimon!

    • I’ve heard of Leon Bloy, but never read him. All the same, I love his quote. I’m not sure that people of all faiths would agree with such a conclusion. In fact, I’ve met some who disagree. But that might be one of the reasons we have so many different faiths… so we can choose what fits our souls… as we do in dress. Thank you for your good wishes, Catherine, and I send mine to you. Glad you liked the graffiti.

  9. “…If Vincent van Gogh revolutionized the expectations of the art world,
    I believe that today, graffiti is doing the same thing…”
    maybe, Shimon; an interesting topic, for sure!
    graffiti in my hometown Wuppertal:
    the Mona Lisa of Wuppertal

    • Always good to see little glimpses of your home town, Dietmar… and I particularly liked the picture you’ve linked to here. Thank you so much for your comment.

  10. I love the idea of graffiti written in honor of a wise man who promoted happiness! Thank you for this beautiful post, Shimon.

  11. My words are quite tired this afternoon, and don’t wish to come alive, but I wanted to take a moment to tell you that this post really spoke to me … both in relation to how we view graffiti, and in the concept of it being an important “good deed” to be happy always. I am certain I will return to this post again later, because there is something here, in your words, that I very much needed to hear today. Thank you for sharing your words, and sharing the photos. Much appreciated.

    • I always appreciate your straight forward comments, N; regardless of what sort of mood you’re in. Though I have great sympathy with the Chassidim, I myself like to go with my mood, and not force things. And I’m very glad you found something of value in the post. My very best to you.

  12. Had me looking up words once again Shimon. Of note is Philadelphia…it was having so many problems with graffiti that they got in touch with many of the “artists” (and yes, I do believe some are really incredible artists), and the city gave each one or maybe a group, a wall or the side of a building for them to do their work. I’m told one can now buy a book with the murals in it. I’ve seen some on the internet and they’re quite impressive. Sounds like a much better way to “control” graffiti.
    As always, I enjoyed your post.

    • Sounds very interesting, this method in Philadelphia, Bob. Here in Jerusalem, they did something quite similar. They actually paid artists to ‘beautify the city’, giving them specific walls and objects to decorate… but we also have some rogue artists who insist on doing it free lance. All in all, I’m not convinced that it has to be controlled. My view is that it’s best not to control people too much, and not art either… but there are many ways of looking at this.

  13. Striving for happiness in the world in which we live would be a fantastic goal. My goal is to spread a little happiness wherever I happen to go.

    • Oh, that sounds like such a beautiful goal, Gypsy Bev. And I wish you the greatest success. Thank you so much for your encouraging comment.

  14. I love the Hebrew writing with the funny face.And the cartoon.I even have read many years ago some writing of Rabbi Nachman.I can see humour and joy are typical of Jewish cultural life..
    joy and woe are woven fine,
    a clothing for the soul divine,
    Happiness must include both it seems

    • I’m so glad that you enjoy the Hebrew, Kathryn. I am bound to my language in my soul. And the funny face reflects the great rabbi’s philosophy, of course. I agree that happiness must include both joy and woe… thanks for your comment.

  15. Graffiti in this country hasn’t evolved from the distant past nearly as much but is more of the here and now variety……still an art form even though in some inappropriate places.

    • It could be, that living in a rural environment, you don’t see the real art treasures. I think it’s really developed in the cities of most countries today. There are some blogs, and articles on the subject. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about it to give you a link, but I think you could find it on the internet. Thanks for your comment, Linda.

  16. What a beautiful post Shimon. I was really caught up with the idea that to be happy is a good deed…..I really strive to be happy, but sometimes it isn’t easy. This post has reminded me to try harder, for happiness is indeed contagious.

    I love the graffiti on the old deserted house and the cow brought a smile to my face.
    “It reminds me in a way, of wild animals who urinate where they’ve been to leave their mark” This is SO true, and I’ve never thought about it like that before.

    I loved learning about Rabbi Nachman and the famous line that is wriiten, what does the line say? or is it the Rabbi’s name.

    That pic of the sunflowers is beautiful.xxxx

    • So glad you enjoyed the post, Dina. Personally, I do believe that we should live out all of our emotions, including the unhappy ones. So I wouldn’t encourage you just to be happy. But sometimes we do get stuck in one place emotionally, and then it’s a good idea to shake it loose. About the line that is written, the letters of his name can also form the words please, easy, and consolation (like the name of my cat), and so it’s sort of a play on words in Hebrew. Thank you very much for your comment. You see, it’s quite easy, actually, to make one another happy.

  17. An excellent post and fantastic pictures.

  18. I love this post. It’s great that not only is graffiti talked about here, but I can learn more about a culture as well 🙂 The thing I like about artful graffiti is that it shows people that we can be more than we think we can, in a way. The vast majority of graffiti that I come across is just random tags for gangs, or various derogatory messages, but sometimes somebody just creates a real gem that sometimes just says that you don’t have to be a big somebody to do something good. Just be you.
    Or am I thinking too much? Hahaha

    • Hi there, SighYuki. It is a shame that we do come across a derogatory message sometimes on a wall or in a public space. But I suppose it’s to be expected when we think of all the different people living together in a city. When I walk through a field, I don’t concentrate on every leaf of grass, or every rock. My eyes, quite naturally, find the exceptions… and the most beautiful. And that’s what happens when I look around me on the streets of my city. Of course, there are advertisements too… and a whole lot of things that I could do without. But when I fins a flower or a picture that appeals to my heart, that is what I remember. Thank you very much for your comment.

  19. Music – the food of life: a very interesting post, enjoyed reading it.


  20. Joy as a vocation? Yes, indeed–I think it makes more sense than most!

  21. I’ve often thought of graffiti tagging as the equivalent of animal’s marking their territories. Some, though, shows real creativity or wit.

    Now that spring has arrived, I feel more inclined to practice the good deed of being happy. 🙂

  22. ..quanta passione!

    • Thank you very much, semprevento. Yes, I am a man who appreciates passion. I only wish I could understand your blog a bit better. And I am happy at your visits.

      • Thank you,
        is also difficult for me to understand every word.
        Using the translator, you can not always see the point.
        Through photography the other hand we can also understand the personality of who is behind the camera.
        You are a very sweet person.


  23. Lovely post as always, Shimon. I love that thought that the way to God is through happiness. So true because being happy is a choice that we make each day. When we wake up each morning, we make the choice to be happy by being grateful for another day in this earth, for the blessing of family, our friends, the roof over our heads, our jobs, etc. Or we choose to be miserable and unhappy by feeling like we are wanting from many things.

    When we choose to be happy and appreciative of everything each day, we honor God because we only have good thoughts and prayers in our hearts. 😉

    • What you say is true, Malou. Of course, there are many ways to god. For me, the most beautiful way is love. And all the things that move us, whether they be well raised and cultured trees and flowers, or wild flowers (that are my favorite), they can remind us of the wonders all around us. I know from your splendid photography that you are attracted by beauty, and enjoy the wonders all around us. For me, your posts are uplifting.

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