Noah Brown is pointing his phone at the mezuzah printed on a white canvass. He’s at BUREAU, a small studio and co-working space in Adams Morgan, and as his phone’s camera captures the image, he’s trying to get the angle just right, gently tilting from one side to the other.
Suddenly, there’s an explosion of color on his screen. The canvass remains unchanged, but on the phone, reds, yellows and pinks appear. The mezuzah is quickly engulfed, as if someone took a series of paint cans and tossed their contents against the canvass.
“Pretty cool, right?” Brown says.
Brown, who lives in Moishe House Columbia Heights, was one of about 40 young adults at BUREAU Thursday night to see the work of Yitzchok Moully, a chasidic rabbi turned artist who works with Jewish themes and imagery in the style of Andy Warhol.
Shabbat candles, dreidels and dancing rabbis were all on display, created with silkscreen in bright, expressive color alongside two pieces of augmented reality art like the mezuzah. The show was organized by Moishe House and EntryPointDC.
Moully, 39, has been working with silk screen for about 13 years. He’d always had an artistic bent, he said, typically using photography to indulge his expressive side, until he discovered printing.
Dubbed “The Pop Art Rabbi,” Moully calls his parents hippies who had him in the Australian outback and then, through a “long confluence of events” landed in chasidic Brooklyn, where he spent much of his youth.
“I’m this mix of hippie, color, energy and the black and white chasidic world,” Moully says. When he was growing up, he saw the rabbinate as the best way to share his passion for Judaism. So he entered the clergy as a youth rabbi at Chabad Jewish Center of Basking Ridge, N.J.
But discovering silkscreen created an even bigger draw to his creative side, and about 10 years ago, he found himself at a crossroads. His art was taking up time he should have been devoting to his rabbinical duties, he says, and he approached his mentor, a fellow rabbi, considering dropping his creative pursuits.
“I was spending all this energy on my art and my expression, but I’m a rabbi and I have this responsibility to my community. Maybe I should stop the art because it’s getting in the way,” Moully says. “My mentor said, ‘You’ve got the wrong question. The question isn’t: should you paint? The question is: how can you take the gifts God gave you and impact the world in a meaningful way?’”
Soon after, he jumped into the art world full time.
When the Pokémon Go craze took hold in 2016, Moully saw another opportunity. He’s always been captivated by the idea that fulfilling a mitzvah, or religious commandment, leaves unseen energy in the world. He recognized that the augmented reality technology being used in Pokémon Go could simulate that.
So with the help of some developer friends, Moully created an app that allows his canvasses to come to life in digital form, like the mezuzah lighting up with color.
“Every mitzvah that we do has an impact on the world, every mitzvah that we do creates spiritual energy,” he says. “But the way God has structured the world at the moment, we don’t get to see it. … And when Pokémon Go came along and augmented reality came to the fore, it hit me that this is the most epic prism through which to talk about this idea.”
Moully says he’s made art that isn’t explicitly religious in the past, but right now, Judaism is what he’s passionate about. Other pieces on display at BUREAU explore the modernization of Jewish customs, something he thinks about in the context of his upbringing in chasidic Brooklyn, a community that’s grappling with how to rigidly maintain its traditions in the digital age. In one piece, Shabbat candles stand next to a Zippo lighter. In another, a traditional Kiddush cup faces a martini glass.
“When you realize you can connect with God through both, God becomes so much more accessible,” Moully says. “That’s what I’m hoping people will see.”