A Jewish Gallery Event Helped me Mourn my Boyfriend

By: Rina Shamilov  |  November 1, 2022

By Rina Shamilov, Arts and Culture Editor

When I heard that one of my close friends was getting engaged, I sobbed for an hour. It was late summer, just a few months after my boyfriend of 11 months died suddenly. YU has an unflinchingly pervasive marriage culture which hits me like a slap in the face. Coping with his death makes me feel like an outsider in my college community. It also makes me remember all that I’ve ever had and lost. 

Everyone around me constantly buzzes with engagement and marriage announcements while I sit silently on the sidelines. Aside from grieving, I am learning to deal with the isolation that grief imposes on me while searching for silence from all of the outside noise. 

Art has been immeasurably helpful in the grieving process. Art is what one makes of it and it doesn’t require language to be understood. My grief made me feel misunderstood, but being able to express a heavy emotion without having to talk about it has been incredibly refreshing. 

On October 13, right at the peak of Chol Hamoed, I attended an art gallery in Brooklyn organized by an organization called Havurah, which provides a space for Jewish artists. The gallery was beautifully decorated and illuminated, and the night’s theme centered around understanding Jewish life through the lens of photography.

Many artists featured at the gallery had unique pop-up displays that illuminated the lives of all kinds of Jews, focusing the lens on often ignored and marginalized Jewish communities. One artist, Emily Chaya Weinstein, showcased the Jewish community in Uganda, while another photographer captured the everyday lives of the Satmar Hasidim. However, it was the art of David Gutenmacher, an NYC-based photographer and organizer of the event, that really stood out to me.

He expressed his Jewish identity through the evolution of life in the face of death. Most of his pictures were personal and heartwarming, though two of my favorite photographs were of his grandfather’s burial site in Israel. Asher, my boyfriend, is laid to rest in Israel, and I immediately felt a spark of connection that left me both trembling and awe-struck. 

In one of his photographs, Guttmacher captured rows of Israeli graves surrounding a single empty burial plot. I stood there, unmoving, for several minutes. I instantly thought of Asher and our separation from each other. His parents hope to unveil his grave in January and knowing that he’s buried in a place that resembles the cemetery in the photograph made my pain much more poignant. This is probably what his forever looks like, I thought to myself. But I was supposed to be his forever.

I felt that the single empty plot was taunting me, almost saying, you must witness death everywhere while you alone are impervious to it. The photo illuminated that I am not as alone in my grief as I had initially thought. As much as it pains me to say this, it soothes me when others share my experience because it makes me less of an anomaly. 

Later that night when I spoke to David Gutenmacher, I told him about my loss and how his photograph validated my pain. He didn’t say anything — he didn’t have to. He just looked at me, and I knew that he understood. This was the silence I craved all along: the silence of understanding and acknowledgment. 

Death is everywhere, and that terrifies me. This photo helped me understand that death doesn’t have to be an isolating experience– it can be a point of connection. 

Art is universal because it is laced with a meaning that is universally sought out. I know that pain is universal too. While not all people experience the same kind of pain, it is felt by everyone and when expressed through art it can be understood according to the particularities of each individual.

In the months following Asher’s death, I began painting because it allowed me to connect to Asher even in his death. The separation between us blurs, and it is a way I can preserve his presence in my life. Sometimes I paint the two of us together, growing into the ground to symbolize our togetherness. 

I’ve always felt that emotions are more powerfully expressed through painting because art does not require language to be understood. But that one night at the gallery gave me an equally meaningful opportunity. It showed me that I was not alone in my mourning process.