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Max Miller 2004 - 2005
Wall St. Synagogue
New York
9 X 12 watercolor

A Son's Grief, in Word and Watercolor

Published: April 24, 2005

WHAT color is death and mourning? Should it be earthy or pastel, strong or subtle? Is it abstract or realist?

For the last 10 months, Max Miller has been working out his grief over the death of his father, Murray, by saying Kaddish, the ancient Jewish prayer to console those in mourning. But being an artist who lives in a loft in TriBeCa, Mr. Miller has been observing the ritual rather differently.

He has been traveling from synagogue to synagogue throughout New York and beyond, reciting the daily prayer and then painting a watercolor study of the synagogue in which he has recited it. You might say that Mr. Miller, a slight, dark-eyed man of 48 who favors a porkpie hat, has found the point where art and religion meet to transform life.

Painting synagogues as a symbol of grief is a departure from his usual focus on the living, his portraits of children, cats and dogs. His portraits are realistic, often with busy, kaleidoscopic backgrounds. Mourning, it turns out, is lush and impressionistic, at least for Mr. Miller.

To represent the Wall Street Synagogue he has painted a stained-glass window in brilliant reds and blues that make it look as if a firecracker is exploding. The First Romanian-American Synagogue, in the old Jewish Lower East Side, is drenched in Old World shades of brown and gold.

Maybe it's the enforced reflection, but something about the ritual and obligation of saying Kaddish, Mr. Miller says, inspires creativity. Look at Allen Ginsberg, who wrote one of his most celebrated poems, "Kaddish," as a lament for his psychotic mother.

At first, Mr. Miller found, saying Kaddish was not easy. He had forgotten how to read the Hebrew letters. He was not a synagogue regular and felt bashful about being there. "And then in the art world," he added, "religion is really sort of an uncool thing." But he felt a duty to his father, an architect, who was raised an Orthodox Jew in Flatbush, Brooklyn , and whose first language was Yiddish.

It turned out to be easier than he expected. When a newcomer walks into the early morning service, where Kaddish is recited, Mr. Miller says, "Everyone knows why you're there," and tries to be helpful. He has been offered food and shelter. In Middlebury, Vt., where he taught art for a while, the congregation held only a Sabbath service, but the rabbi sent e-mail messages to everyone he knew and organized daily minyans - quorums of 10 people (traditionally men, but this was an egalitarian congregation) - so Mr. Miller could say Kaddish every day.

To his surprise, Mr. Miller has found that he feels most comfortable in Orthodox congregations, like the Bialystoker Synagogue on the Lower East Side . And in some places, he has felt distinctly unwelcome. An Orthodox rabbi in a Midtown synagogue was afraid that Mr. Miller was a terrorist, and angrily demanded that he erase the digital photographs he had taken as studies for a painting. The rabbi later apologized, but Mr. Miller was too stung to paint that shul.

Mr. Miller estimates that he has visited 50 synagogues, not only in New York but wherever he has traveled. When he can't drag himself out of bed before 7 a.m. , he goes to the Synagogue for the Arts, on White Street , around the corner from his loft. There a regular named Morrie, an assistant district attorney, showed him how to bind his tefillin, leather boxes containing patches of the Bible. The rabbi, Jonathan Glass, tutored him in Hebrew. In exchange, Mr. Miller is painting a portrait of the rabbi's daughter's cat.

Often during his visits, Mr. Miller has found himself in the middle of small psychodramas. Most of the people who attend the morning services, he discovered, are much more conservative than he is. He has learned to avoid talking politics.

On a recent morning at the Synagogue for the Arts, the sole woman at the morning service brought a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red so she could mark the anniversary of her mother's death by drinking a toast. Ten people sat down to a breakfast of cucumbers, tomatoes, bagels and cream cheese, then downed plastic cups of whiskey. There was some grumbling when the woman picked up her half-empty bottle and took it home instead of donating it to the shul.

Mr. Miller expects that his synagogue paintings, which can be seen on his Web site,, will not be as commercial as his dog portraits, which landed him a spread in the May issue of New York Dog magazine, alongside an exclusive about Hilary Duff and her five dogs. But when the 11 months of ritual mourning are over in May, the watercolors will remain, a chronicle of his grief.

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