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Israeli soldiers entering what may be a booby-trapped house. Sketch by IDF reservist Sam Griffin.
Israeli soldiers entering what may be a booby-trapped house. Sketch by IDF reservist Sam Griffin.
featureIsrael at War

The art of war: The Sam Griffin story

“Maybe my work shows the war in a more personal way and it will bring all of us some healing.”

When we see them lined up in their olive-green uniforms, they look so much alike that it’s easy to forget the very different lives Israel Defense Forces reservists live back home.

Because, unlike in many other countries’ militaries, when Israel is at war, a large proportion of military-age men, regardless of profession and tax bracket, gets called up to report for duty.

Well into their 30s, most finished their full-time service years ago and have built lives in cities and villages where they’ve amassed careers, spouses, children and mortgages.

Visit one unit on the Gaza border and you’ll meet an electrical engineer from Ashkelon, a physics professor from Jerusalem, a construction worker from the Sharon Plain and a musician from Manipur, India.

If you happened to peek into the sketchbook of one of these reservist soldiers, you would be able to experience this war through his eyes. Back home, Sam Griffin happens to be a professional artist.

Griffin’s art studio in Karkur, located between Netanya and Haifa, is a multi-faceted mirror of the man himself expressed mostly in soul portraits, with the occasional landscape and dreamscape.

That is when he’s not feeding, bathing and reading bedtime stories to his three sons while Rachel, his obstetrician wife, works an overnight shift delivering babies.

But these days his studio and his family are a world away and where there were once holy rabbis emerging from his paintbrush, during his overnight shift on guard duty, there’s a new cast of characters—soldiers, captives, kibbutz survivors—being born in his sketchbook.

An IDF captain wipes away tears when confronted with pictures of captured children. Sketch by Sam Griffin.

His journey

Griffin, whose voice reveals the London of his youth, has traveled a remarkable 33-year journey to the guard post of this base.

His family wasn’t particularly religious, he’ll tell you, and besides his brothers, he was the only Jewish kid in his school. However, his parents managed to transmit strong loyalty to the Jewish state. And Griffin’s first trip at 16 sealed the deal. “I realized then that I felt more connected to Judaism and Israel than I ever did to the U.K.,” he says.

So much so that he began wearing a kippah to his high school—a move that got him his fair share of teasing.

Upon graduation, he signed on for a half-year at a kibbutz where he could learn Hebrew between duties in the cotton fields. Then he was off to the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem (that’s when he met Rachel, a seminary student with an eye to medical school). And by 20, he’d made aliyah and joined the IDF as a lone soldier (one with no close family in Israel who can help him), spending two years in the Givati Infantry Brigade.

But throughout his love affair with Israel and Jewish learning, another longtime passion kept calling him—his art.

This brought Griffin to spend the next four years at Israel’s top art college, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, where, working towards his BFA, he “managed to stay religious in the secular art school environment. It was very, very different from yeshivah,” he says.

Indeed, even in that art-soaked milieu, his paintings, mostly oils and watercolors, “reflected what was happening on my spiritual journey; that’s always informed what I paint.”

But since Oct. 8, when he turned in his paint-spattered jeans for IDF fatigues, what informs his art is a very different matter.

The people now coming to life inside Griffin’s sketch pad are soldiers entering what may be a booby-trapped house; a woman in uniform wiping away tears when confronted with pictures of captured children; a 20-year-old killed in an ambush in the early days of the war; a father, who survived a kibbutz massacre, gazing at his young son with equal parts of love and concern.

“At first I didn’t have the energy to draw; I felt too numb,” Griffin says. “But one day on guard duty someone just came to me … , and now they’re coming fast and furious. Our soldiers who’ve been killed, our people who’ve been captured, they’re pretty much all I can think about now.”

Accustomed to painting alone in his studio, he says working on his art in public “makes me feel a bit self-conscious, but I’m pushing through it—people are curious and I’m getting good feedback from friends on base and also on social media.”

And, yes, Griffin concedes, “making art keeps me from obsessively scrolling the news, from falling into despair and feeling how far from home I really am.”

It’s also a way to pay homage to his people “in their suffering and their courage,” he adds. “As a father and as a Jew, the children in the tunnels are my children; the soldiers killed are my little brothers; the beautiful homes in the kibbutzim that are now black holes, they’re my home too. It’s all very personal and this is the only way I know how to honor them.”

Meanwhile, back in Karkur, the boys are getting used to seeing their usually hands-on dad only every few weeks. “When I’m home I just want to snuggle and play with them. That my family is safe and happy has never felt like such a blessing,” he says. “And, even though I don’t really rest when I’m home, it still fills me with new energy to bring back to base.”

When he is home on leave and he ventures into his studio to prepare for an upcoming exhibit, beginning Dec. 26 at the Beit Mazia Theater in Jerusalem, what does his new work say to him? “Now I’m seeing Jewish history, Jewish suffering, courage and resilience in real-time.

“I know it helps me cope and because social media can be so sensationalist and nasty, maybe when someone comes across my work it will show them the war in a more personal way and bring all of us some healing.”

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