The Rab­bi and the Painter

Shoshona Weiss, Jen­nifer Kirkham (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – January 10, 2022

This unusu­al and appeal­ing sto­ry imag­ines a meet­ing between two well-known his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, Rab­bi Judah Aryeh, also known as Rab­bi Leon of Mod­e­na, and the famous painter Jacopo Robustin, more often referred to as Tin­toret­to. Both lived in Venice dur­ing the late 1500s. Chris­tians and Jews rarely social­ized in Renais­sance Italy, and Jews faced severe dis­crim­i­na­tion, hav­ing lim­it­ed pro­fes­sion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties. They were forced to iden­ti­fy pub­licly as Jews by wear­ing yel­low cir­cles on their cloth­ing in public.

Accord­ing to the His­tor­i­cal Notes” sec­tion append­ed to the sto­ry, Rab­bi Judah Aryeh was some­thing of an excep­tion to the norm. He wrote books explain­ing some facets of Judaism for non-Jew­ish read­ers and was the chief Hebrew trans­la­tor for the Venet­ian gov­ern­ment. Tin­toret­to was also uncon­ven­tion­al in per­son­al­i­ty and in his approach to life, and his artis­tic style was unusu­al for its time. Leg­end tells us that the two became friends and that Rab­bi Judah Aryeh assist­ed Tin­toret­to by teach­ing him bib­li­cal details that the artist used to make his paint­ings — includ­ing his famous paint­ing, The Last Sup­per—more authen­tic.

This charm­ing pic­ture book adapts and expands upon this leg­end, illus­trat­ed in soft, pleas­ing earth tones. The char­ac­ters are whim­si­cal­ly por­trayed, their faces are expres­sive, and the illus­tra­tor gives us an evoca­tive pic­ture of six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Venice that is also sug­ges­tive of the Venice of today.

Young read­ers will learn about one of the orig­i­nal ghet­tos in which the Jews were forced to reside, about artis­tic per­spec­tive and tech­niques, and, most notably, that pro­duc­tive coop­er­a­tion between Jews and non-Jews has been pos­si­ble through­out his­to­ry, even when such coop­er­a­tion did not gen­er­al­ly match the tenor of the times.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions