Matthew Whiman

While riding with the Cossack cavalry as a journalist during the Polish–Soviet War in 1920, the Russian writer Isaac Babel kept a diary. In one entry, he recounts waiting for a cup of tea at the end of a brutal day only to come under enemy attack before he can enjoy his drink. Babel and his companions flee. Their escape is arduous. Yet, Babel writes, “What I feel worst about in this whole business is the tea I was deprived of, feel so bad that it seems strange to me.”

Lately I’ve been thinking about the tea of which we have all been deprived. Since the Museum closed, I’m without my daily trips to see French artist Edouard Brandon’s Juif Lisant, a quiet painting of a Jewish man reading a large book beside a burned-out candle. It is less than six inches tall—a small thing, like my visits, which only ever lasted a few minutes. They were routine stops on ordinary days, but in their regularity they became something close to ritual.

I miss seeing Brandon’s Juif. I feel bad for thinking about it as much as I do; with everything going on right now, with all there is to fret over and ponder, I, like Babel, feel so bad it seems strange.

Close crop of Hebrew text and the artist's signature on a painting.
Edouard Brandon, Juif Lisant (Jewish Man Reading) (detail), 1870. Oil on panel. Charles and Lynn Schusterman Collection.

In a corner of the canvas, Brandon painted a phrase from the Shema, an important Jewish prayer recited each morning and evening. Its invocation is a reminder of another day gone, a new one beginning. To chant the Shema is to implicitly acknowledge the normal passage of time. In another way, so is having a cup of tea or taking a few minutes to look at a favorite painting. Now, when I think of Juif Lisant, I’m thinking of so much more: my morning reading on the bus, dinner with friends at a favorite neighborhood pub, trips to the library to pick up new books, and, yes, an unassuming little painting that used to center me and give rhythm to my days. For the time being, it’s gone, leaving a hole much larger than the space it used to occupy.

Painting of a man in a hat reading a book.
Edouard Brandon, Juif Lisant (Jewish Man Reading), 1870. Oil on panel. Charles and Lynn Schusterman Collection.

Matthew Whiman is an associate editor at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.