From Moshe Segal to Marc Chagall in 40 Pages


The Story of Marc Chagall
By Michelle Markel
Illustrated by Emily Lisker
40 pages. Henry Holt. $16.95.
Ages 4-8

What do Jewish parents dream for their children? Apart from the sincere but obvious cliché of “health and happiness,” most mamas and papas want their kids to become brilliant lawyers, rich doctors, learned professors—in short, members of the respectable professional class. I’ve yet to meet anyone who says, “My kid’s gonna become a struggling artist, or else!” The artistically inclined child, in truth, is something of a parental nightmare.

Once such kid was a boychik named Moshe Segal, the hero of a recent volume by Michelle Markel called Dreamer from the Village. You probably know him as the famed painter Marc Chagall. ("The baby was named Moshe, but later he was called Marc," is about all Markel has to say about the name change, which is too bad; there's a world of difference between the two monikers.) Marc grew up in a 19th century Russian shtetl. An observant Jewish kid, he stared in stunned wonder at his picturesque fiddler-on-the-roof world: village women came “out of shops, their baskets laden with cones of sugar and candles wrapped in blue paper”; at Passover, his father opened the door for Elijah and “silver stars trembled on a velvet spring sky”; and one afternoon “the color of his uncle’s skin drifted out the window, onto the street, and rested on the cupola of the church.” Markel writes that Marc “knew was different from other boys. He saw things they didn’t see.”

There weren’t many career options, in that provincial world, for a visionary kid. Marc eyed his father—who rose at dawn to pray, schlepped herring at a factory, and then returned “with frozen hands, clothes wet with brine, too tired to eat his dinner”—and decided that he’d better dream up a way to get out of town. "I want to be a painter,” he whimpered his mother. “I can't be a clerk in a warehouse, or an accountant, or a butcher. Save me!"

So Mama Segal shipped Marc off to art school, and a peripatetic existence of obscurity and hunger (as a student in St. Petersburg, Marc “didn’t have the money for a room, so he shared beds with people, slept on their couches or in cubbyholes under the stairs. He could only dream of bread and sausages”). And, oh yeah, he lived a life of great aesthetic avidity. He ditched his kipah for a beret and the village for Paris—though he eventually returned and married his local sweetheart, Bella—and, after a long while, became the noted illustrator of Jewish life, not to mention Jewish residential and synagogue walls.

But before we toast the great man's legacy, let's consider another artist, Emily Lisker, the woman who wonderfully adapted Cagall's surrealistic style for the illustrations in this book. I don't know what Mr. and Mrs. Lisker made of their daughter's talent, but my sense is they were probably supportive. The lively, colorful pictures posses a youthful charm, and they are a wonderful introduction to Western art for der kinder.

And this volume, while it will certainly entertain parents, is really meant for the children sitting on their laps. Question is: What will it teach them? The last part of Chagall’s biography (the fame and fortune part) seems important here. While Markel explains just how difficult the aesthetic life is, the story wouldn't work without the requisite third-act miracle. Dreamer suggests that the visions of Chagall's early life protected him and led him from an impoverished shtetl to the holy land of artistic success.

Some parents might find this reading—suffer, young artists, and maybe, in the end, you'll become the next Marc Chagall—a dangerous message for impressionable pishers. They might want an authorial disclaimer: “Have something to fall back on, in case your art career doesn’t work out. Here's a dental-school brochure.” Not me. I believe it’s important for children to know that a life dedicated to a higher calling involves some form of struggle, and that a tenacious fidelity to one's ideals, no matter what one’s field, is essential.

Now, my daughter is three and my son is just about one, and neither of them have any real professional goals yet. (That's normal, right? Right?) But if they want to follow the vocational lead of Chagall—it could happen, their Nana is a painter—I will encourage them to prepare for a life of palette and canvas by reading the biographies of famous artists for lessons on how to succeed. The Dreamer from the Village will simply be the first volume in the series.  Of course, if they want to get law degrees while they paint, I won’t complain. No artist should ever count on being as lucky as Marc Chagall…