I live in a world in which images are viewed with suspicion, if not fear. Born and raised in a tight-knit Hassidic community in Brooklyn, New York, I had virtually no exposure to the figurative arts as a child. Paintings and especially sculptures, I learned early in life, could lead to idolatry. Creativity was better expressed through music and dance. Rare, therefore, was the occasion – especially in the case of men – to make anything by hand. The one exception was the Jewish feast day of Sukkot, when we traditionally decorate the special sheds we build for this holiday with stars – fantastic stars crafted out of many layers of folded paper.

An older cousin of mine, however, began doing something special on this holiday: building miniature dioramas of the so-called “seven exalted guests” (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, David) out of toy-train figures. Eight or nine years old at the time, I was absolutely mesmerized by these tiny stage sets, which my cousin placed behind a window through which we could peek. Scared to approach him myself, I begged his little brother to ask him whether he would be willing to teach me how to make these magical scenes. My cousin happily agreed, and took me under his wing. My first attempt was a disaster, however; I smashed it and started all over again. Soon it became an obsession. Each year I made new panoramas, working on them for months on end. This went on until my eighteenth birthday, the age at which members of our community start preparing for marriage and raising a family. I did so as well, but also something slightly unconventional: I went to college.

It is unusual for Hassidim to attend secular schools outside their communities. I did so at the recommendation of a physician at a day treatment program for psychiatric adults, where my wife was employed. Sensing my keen interest in people and human character, he suggested I study psychology. I enrolled at Touro College. The shift from studying the Scriptures in Hebrew to academic texts in English was not easy, but I managed. After earning my BA, I moved on to real estate development and became a responsible provider for my wife and five children.

As time passed, however, I felt more and more of an urge to go back for a masters in psychology, so that I could serve my community. Although I sought and received my Rabbi’s blessing to do so, it was the wrong time of year to enroll. Wishing to make the most of my time, I thought about learning how to sculpt. Once again I asked my Rabbi; he said it was fine as long as I left some part of each work unfinished.

I began studying with artists Jonathan Shahn, Gary Sussman, Oscar Garcia, Stephen Mader, Arslan, and Elizabeth Allison. Reabsorbed in my childhood passion, I forgot about graduate school and began studying sculpture full time. I haven’t stopped since. Encouraged by the special mention earned by one of my bronze pieces at an exhibition at the Phillips Herrmann Mason Gallery, I look forward to exhibiting my work more broadly in the near future.

Despite their reservations about the figurative arts, my friends within the community who know of my career transition have been supportive, as has my wife, who has put up with it with remarkable patience and grace. So far, I have led no one to idolatry. On the contrary, I hope that my sculptures—mostly of biblical or Judaic subjects—will open the eyes of those within the community to the beauty of art and, at the same time, offer those beyond it, a visual link to their heritage.