Artist Ellen Lefrak passed away recently in her beloved Jerusalem. Westport was her other Jerusalem, sharing her life between both for over 30 years. Proud of her Jewish heritage, Ellen was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1943 and moved to Israel in 1962, where she acquired degrees in Archaeology and Fine Art.
In 1968 she led the first ever excavation of the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount. This went on for five years. Meeting her on my return from London in the mid-1990s was the start of a lovely friendship.
Ellen lived in Dooncastle, a few minutes from my home outside Westport. She marvelled at the mezuzah (which contains a scroll with verses from Deuteronomy 6) on my front door and my Jewish religious collection of tallit, tefillin, kippah and books.
One of my most precious memories of Ellen is when she led a Passover Seder in my home. Ellen was delighted to host it for our 28 guests, many of whom attended bible study. It was deeply spiritual, enlightening and great fun. Several Jewish people were present, and there was no problem with the female ‘rabbi’, who was superb!
Ellen loved Israel like those of us who appreciate the country of our spiritual ancestry. The difficulty is always the ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestine. While certain elements are happy with Israeli leadership being hawkish, Ellen was always a dove when it came to politics. She had an appreciation of history, religion, rights and responsibilities.
She had an innate sense of fair play. She never resorted to arrogance, nor possessed any semblance of superiority or entitlement. She was biblical in her expressions of always being kind and forgiving, constantly encouraging, trying to bring out the best in people. She did this through her disarming sense of humour, her wisdom and her gentleness.
Ellen became known as the Jazz Artist thanks to her great series on jazz musicians. This evolved to Irish musicians when she came to Westport. Many of her works are in public and private ownership in this area (check Wyatt Hotel). She had that gift of catching a ‘musical moment’ when the subject of her piece was unaware of her presence. She captured musicians in the silent spaces between notes.
Her artwork – portraits and landscape – is vibrant, exuberant and full of presence. Her pictures of Olcan Masterson, Matt Molloy, Dave Munnelly, Johnny Fadgin and others are proof of her work breathing new life into frozen moments, like Goethe’s ‘architecture is frozen music’.
Ciara Moynihan interviewed Ellen for The Mayo News in 2013:
“Her landscapes are as distinctive, and as full of movement, colour and character, as her people-centred artworks. ‘Before, I never even dreamt of doing landscape … But here in the west, the landscape just spoke to me … I know I see it differently to others. I see all the bright greens. A lot of people see the black clouds and the darkness; I see the colour. I’m probably looking at it with a Mediterranean eye,’ she says.
“Ellen’s take on landscape is a refreshing reminder to never feel hemmed in by over-familiar surroundings, there’s escape there too: The west’s ever-changing light and weather mean that the view is never static. ‘I like when you’re sitting outside here, and it changes all the time. You can play with it, ’cause it’s already gone, what you saw two seconds ago,’ Ellen says, wistfully. Itching to capture the fleeting moment.”
She enjoyed sharing her talents as an artist, and her deep knowledge of politics and history, especially of her beloved Israel. She was a fount of information when it came to Israel’s archaeology. We spent many an hour pouring over details of digs and ongoing excavations.
Ellen was great company and never more so than in Jerusalem. Meeting up during a visit to the Holy City was such a pleasurable experience. She was on home turf! Text and context flowed easily from her heart. She blossomed in Jerusalem, a city that pulses with energy.
We recited the Jewish mourning prayer, Kaddish, at home in honour of this lovely woman and pilgrim soul. May her memory be a blessing. Shalom, chaver.