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31 May 2020

In Profile: Harry Lieberman

Harry Lieberman was born in the small Polish shtetl, or Jewish village, of Gniewoszów, in the area of Eastern Europe known as the Pale of Settlement. He was raised according to the tenets of Hasidism, a populist-based, ecstatic practice of Judaism founded in the eighteenth century by the religious leader known as the Baal Shem Tov. In 1906 Lieberman immigrated to the United States, one of the many thousands of Jews fleeing the hardships and violence of Jewish life in Russian Poland. 

In New York City he adopted a largely secular lifestyle, working first in the textile trades and then operating a candy store on the Lower East Side with his wife, Sophie, until they retired in 1950. In 1956, Harry Lieberman traveled to Israel for the first time. Early one morning, he went to King David’s tomb, where he opened the Book of Psalms at random, landing at Psalm 130: “From the depths I called you Oh Lord.” Lieberman found the words revelatory, and he was inspired to return to the Orthodox life he had shed soon after his arrival in America. 

That same year, at the age of 76, Lieberman began to paint, encouraged by a worker at the Golden Age Club of the Senior Citizen Center in Great Neck, New York. Lieberman started to paint vivid and dynamic narratives drawn primarily from Jewish history, religion, lore, and literature, although some works express his views on contemporary issues. The artist wrote texts in Yiddish and attached them to the backs of his paintings and today they provide insights into Lieberman’s personal history and also into the shtetl life that was destroyed during World War II.

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image: Two Dreamers, Harry Lieberman, Great Neck, New York, United States, c. 1966, Oil on canvas, Gift of David L. Davies, 2008.4.15, Photo Credit: Gavin Ashworth.