It’s not often you come across genius.
Four years ago, 26 year-old Moshe Hammer, Z’L a Lubavitch Chasid and an intensely private artist, took a break from work on his drawings, and stepped outside for a long walk in Los Angeles—to clear his head. Moshe rambled miles from his apartment in the Fairfax district and at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Ave., Moshe was struck by a truck and instantly killed.
Moshe’s parents, Joan “Pessie” and Yosef Hammer, had not heard from their son for two days in the summer of 2004, and became frantic, searching the neighborhood, calling friends, trying to locate Moshe.
On July 15, there was a knock at the door, and a local rabbi, rebbetzin and police officer delivered the tragic news.
A few days later, Pessie Hammer went to clear out her son’s apartment. In the bottom drawer of his desk she discovered over 300 black and white ink drawings.
She knew that her son was a talented artist. As a child, Moshe drew comic books with superheroes and sold them to his classmates. But Pessie and Yosef had no idea that their son’s body of work was so massive and of such quality.
Sorting through Moshe’s work, Pessie discovered that Moshe had illustrated a Passover Hagadah, a Book of Esther, The Song of Songs, as well as the entire siddur.
Karen and I met the Hammer’s when Pessie wrote me an e-mail after reading an article about Ariel that I wrote for The Jewish Press. We lost Ariel Z’L a year earlier and of course, we understood exactly what the Hammer family was enduring.
Sitting in their comfortable Fairfax home Karen and I offered a measure of comfort to this fine family. The Hammer’s generously allowed us to examine Moshe’s drawings.
“What do you think?” Yosef asked me.
“Your son was a genius,” I said with no hesitation whatsoever.
Moshe Hammer’s art can best be understood as a modern version of medieval illuminated manuscripts crossed with an extremely sophisticated comic book sensibility. Hebrew letters dance like Chasidic Jews, the calligraphy and drawings reveal Moshe’s intensive study of the traditional commentaries of the holy texts.
The drawings are filled with mystical allusions, and the eye dwells on each beautifully resolved composition invariably discovering worlds within worlds. There are prophets on flying chariots, sleeping children being guarded by baby-faced archangels, there are Seraphim, and storm tossed ships, weeping Kiddish cups, and everywhere Moshe’s gentle humor.
Last night, on Moshe’s fourth Yahrtzeit, Karen and I were honored with an invitation to a memorial at the Hammer home. Several Rabbi’s delivered lovely and appropriate Divrei Torah.
Moshe Hammer’s art, lovingly framed, covered an entire wall.
The work just takes my breath away.
Staring at the work I could only imagine what the young and brilliant Moshe Hammer would have produced had he lived.
As I was lost in my reverie, one of the guests spontaneously started singing a Chasidic niggun of “Ani Ma’amin,” “I Believe… in the Coming of Moshiach.” His powerful voice soared, and soon all the guests joined in.
In an instant, I realized that though Moshe Hammer was taken away from this world his art would live forever and serve as a testament to a life interrupted—but an art of Jewish devotion that will live forever.
Smiling through my tears, I chatted with Pessie Hammer for a few minutes, pulled out my wallet, and displayed Moshe’s Wayfarer’s Prayer that Pessie reduced and laminated as a gift for me.
“I carry it everywhere,” I said.
Pessie smiled and told me how glad that made her.
Herewith, a few samples of Moshe Hammer’s art:
The Sh’ma, Hear O’ Israel, The Lord our G-d, The Lord is One
Hodu La’Shem, from Mincha L’erev Shabbat, Afternoon Prayer for Shabbat
Borchu, from Ma’ariv L’Shabbat, Evening Prayer for Shabbat
L’chu N’raninah, Welcoming the Sabbath
Havdalah, the prayer that ends the Sabbath and ushers in the new week
T’filat Ha’derech, the Jewish Wayfarer’s prayer, recited at the start of a voyage
May Moshe Yaakov ben Yosef’s neshama have an aliyah.