HAT color is death and mourning? Should
it be earthy or pastel, strong or subtle? Is it abstract or realist?
For the last 10 months, Max Miller has been working out his grief
over the death of his father, Murray, by saying Kaddish, the ancient
Jewish prayer to console those in mourning. But being an artist who
lives in a loft in TriBeCa, Mr. Miller has been observing the ritual
He has been traveling from synagogue to synagogue throughout New
York and beyond, reciting the daily prayer and then painting a
watercolor study of the synagogue in which he has recited it. You
might say that Mr. Miller, a slight, dark-eyed man of 48 who favors
a porkpie hat, has found the point where art and religion meet to
Painting synagogues as a symbol of grief is a departure from his
usual focus on the living, his portraits of children, cats and dogs.
His portraits are realistic, often with busy, kaleidoscopic
backgrounds. Mourning, it turns out, is lush and impressionistic, at
least for Mr. Miller.
To represent the Wall Street Synagogue he has painted a
stained-glass window in brilliant reds and blues that make it look
as if a firecracker is exploding. The First Romanian-American
Synagogue, in the old Jewish Lower East Side, is drenched in Old
World shades of brown and gold. •
Maybe it's the enforced reflection, but something about the
ritual and obligation of saying Kaddish, Mr. Miller says, inspires
creativity. Look at Allen Ginsberg, who wrote one of his most
celebrated poems, "Kaddish," as a lament for his psychotic
At first, Mr. Miller found, saying Kaddish was not easy. He had
forgotten how to read the Hebrew letters. He was not a synagogue
regular and felt bashful about being there. "And then in the art
world," he added, "religion is really sort of an uncool thing." But
he felt a duty to his father, an architect, who was raised an
Orthodox Jew in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and whose first language was
It turned out to be easier than he expected. When a newcomer
walks into the early morning service, where Kaddish is recited, Mr.
Miller says, "Everyone knows why you're there," and tries to be
helpful. He has been offered food and shelter. In Middlebury, Vt.,
where he taught art for a while, the congregation held only a
Sabbath service, but the rabbi sent e-mail messages to everyone he
knew and organized daily minyans - quorums of 10 people
(traditionally men, but this was an egalitarian congregation) - so
Mr. Miller could say Kaddish every day.
To his surprise, Mr. Miller has found that he feels most
comfortable in Orthodox congregations, like the Bialystoker
Synagogue on the Lower East Side. And in some places, he has felt
distinctly unwelcome. An Orthodox rabbi in a Midtown synagogue was
afraid that Mr. Miller was a terrorist, and angrily demanded that he
erase the digital photographs he had taken as studies for a
painting. The rabbi later apologized, but Mr. Miller was too stung
to paint that shul. •
Mr. Miller estimates that he has visited 50 synagogues, not only
in New York but wherever he has traveled. When he can't drag himself
out of bed before 7 a.m., he goes to the Synagogue for the Arts, on
White Street, around the corner from his loft. There a regular named
Morrie, an assistant district attorney, showed him how to bind his
tefillin, leather boxes containing patches of the Bible. The rabbi,
Jonathan Glass, tutored him in Hebrew. In exchange, Mr. Miller is
painting a portrait of the rabbi's daughter's cat.
Often during his visits, Mr. Miller has found himself in the
middle of small psychodramas. Most of the people who attend the
morning services, he discovered, are much more conservative than he
is. He has learned to avoid talking politics.
On a recent morning at the Synagogue for the Arts, the sole woman
at the morning service brought a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red so she
could mark the anniversary of her mother's death by drinking a
toast. Ten people sat down to a breakfast of cucumbers, tomatoes,
bagels and cream cheese, then downed plastic cups of whiskey. There
was some grumbling when the woman picked up her half-empty bottle
and took it home instead of donating it to the shul.
Mr. Miller expects that his synagogue paintings, which can be
seen on his Web site, maxmillerstudio.com/mourner/index.cfm, will not be as
commercial as his dog portraits, which landed him a spread in the
May issue of New York Dog magazine, alongside an exclusive about
Hilary Duff and her five dogs. But when the 11 months of ritual
mourning are over in May, the watercolors will remain, a chronicle
of his grief.