Raphael Bouganim, Moroccan (1939 - )

Raphael Bouganim

Raphael Bouganim was born March 15, 1939, in Mogador (now Essaouira), French Morocco, an Atlantic seacoast town known for its picturesque walled fort. Three cultures, Moroccan Muslim, Jewish, and French colonial, coexisted there, interacted, yet remained distinct. Each had its easily identifiable members, territory, language, customs and expectations. Rafi was the sixth child of Rabbi Yamin Bouganim, a highly respected tea importer, rabbi and Bet Din judge, and Sol Amar Bouganim. He joined a family where Sephardic Judaism permeated every aspect of life. Weekly rhythms culminated in the Sabbath; holidays punctuated the year; myths were real. For Rafi, a shabbat nap, made obligatory after eating "dafina," meant dreams.

"When / dreamt of flying spirits during these naps, they were always good spirits that came in a group, led by one whose size covered most of the sky. They were all benign humans with white hair and beards, multi-winged, white and puffy, with white walking canes in their hands. In a frozen position, they flew above Essaouira with wing strokes, moving from right to left, always in the portion of the sky over the sports club in Bab Elassor. Unlike the predatory spirits that hovered in circles over the town during the weekdays, these were gentle and friendly spirits who, just before I would awaken, took on women's voices that seemed to have come from the little hallway at the entrance of the house, voices that chatted and laughed and eventually brought my nap to an end with a knock on the door".

School, whether French or Hebrew, was a boring intrusion, to be eluded wherever possible by daydreaming, diversions, or outright escape to the town or seashore. To this perceptive, observant boy, the world around him was full of wonder, fear and unanswered questions. He absorbed all indelibly from the contrasts between Arab, French, and Jewish customs, to the music and philosophical discussions of his father and friends on Shabbat, to the details of buildings and interplay of light.

"(On Friday morning, one of the) things that attracted my attention while waiting for my turn to order the sfenz was the effects of the sun at that early hour. It was reaching the topmost parts of the low white stuccoed buildings. Unlike the effects it had in the afternoon when it created gray shadows on the white buildings, the 'orangy' morning sun made the street look pink. (Bored in school,) I would take an extended and well focused look at the colorful and symmetrical wall or floor mosaic, long enough to almost lose consciousness . . . During this trance, I used to see an extensive assortment of changing designs, colorful shapes and patterns, all a variation of the original mosaic, the way a kaleidoscope projects patterns, except that they were asymmetrical and in constant motion".

Nothing to follow would seem as real or meaningful. He was never to feel at home anywhere else.

Rafi's childhood was thrown into chaos at age seven, when his father died unexpectedly. Minus the protection afforded him as Rabbi Bouganim's son, a sadistic "cheder" teacher punished him severely. His mother, powerless to intervene, suffered. The situation was intolerable and he found himself living in Casablanca with his older sisters.

Soon after, as part of the settlement of the new state of Israel, officials from Youth Aliyah chose him, among other promising Moroccan children, to be "saved" by "aliyah" to Israel. After a period of orientation in France and Norway, he was settled in 1 950 on Kibbutz Afikim. There, he was assigned kibbutz "parents," Zuzi and Liova Ravitz, who welcomed him as their own. From Zuzi he learned of western art, from Liova, a conductor and engineer, of western classical music. Rafi resisted kibbutz routines, but his artistic talents were obvious, so the kibbutz "apprenticed" him to Leo Roth, their member artist. In a next step, the kibbutz sent Rafi to Jerusalem to study at Betzelel, Israel's premier art school. At sixteen, he was its youngest student.

Meanwhile, his mother, now living with the rest of her children in Casablanca, had become gravely ill. Her wish, to see Rafi before she died, was realized, but at a price. He had to renounce his Israeli citizenship to reenter Morocco. He found it a changed place. Growing nationalism following the French pullout had resulted in severe restrictions on and harassment of Jewish citizens. By 1 956, the pressure to leave was irresistible. Jews fled to Israel, France, Canada and the United States.

Rafi's older brother David had become a U.S. citizen, so he sponsored Rafi and his brother Marc. They settled in New York City, where Rafi attended the Art Students' League and worked in animation advertising. Their next move was to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. There, Rafi completed his high school education and met his future wife, Hara Ann Lowenthal.

Following her in the fall of 1959 to Philadelphia, he attended Grate College and Temple University and eked out a living as a Hebrew school teacher, supplemented by a few commissions. He and Hara were married late in 1961; their son Daniel was born in the fall of 1963. By this time, he had a small studio in their apartment and held a full-time position at Beth Sholom Congregation as artist-in-residence and teacher. He was later to design two sets of stained glass windows for their education building adjoining the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed synagogue.

In the sixties, the family moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he taught Hebrew and was enrolled full-time at the University of Scranton. He illustrated their award-winning student publication and continued to paint.

In the summer of 1 968, they moved to Massachusetts in order to enroll their son in the just-established Sudbury Valley School. They settled into a small gray cape in Marlboro, surrounded by birches, pines and oaks, where he had a studio, taught, and soon began painting full-time. He also illustrated numerous textbooks and articles, including dozens of issues of Psychiatric Opinion magazine. He wrote and illustrated stories for children.

Between 1969 and 1986, Raphael Bouganim held eleven one-man shows. These included two at Grate College, Philadelphia, two at Beth Sholom Congregation, Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, Spertus College of Judaica, Chicago, and Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, and shows at Jewish community centers or synagogues in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Framingham and Worcester, Massachusetts, and the last in Baltimore, Maryland. His works hang in Spertus College, Beth Sholom Congregation, and Gratz College, as well as in numerous private collections in the United States and Israel. After a long illness, he died in Marlboro, Massachusetts on February 4, 1994.

His subject matter varied from often-painted Biblical and Talmudic themes, to memories of Israel, Chassidic life, a few portraits, and scenes in America. His most riveting work depicts his childhood in Mogador. Memories stored up before the age of eight tumble onto the canvas with the skill of a master, but the naivete of a boy. He recreates his memory of Jonah as a "big fish," of God the Frenchman staying the hand of the angel of death in "Had Gadya," of Arabs menacing his "Home," of the "Fantasia" contrasting with the drab Jewish routine. His mother and sisters surround him in "The Tease." Triumphantly, he leaves the synagogue on his father's shoulders in "After the Neilah." The theme of his last exhibition and much of his subsequent work was truly "childhood and other images." The brilliant colors, the details of this lost time, lost culture dance before us. Floating dream-like images swirl into life. He has been called, "the Moroccan Chagall."

Raphael Bouganim ended the catalogue of his last exhibition with the handwritten phrase,

"All this happened some forty years ago before the town
became what it is today, a town without a Jewish soul".

In a way, he may have been wrong. Perhaps his work preserves the soul of Mogador, the soul of the Moroccan Jewish community in exile from all its villages. His work certainly speaks to all of us how yearn for home, yet cannot go home again. Perhaps the town still has its Jewish soul. It is Rafi.

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