A year ago this week, Lesya Verba, a well-known Ukrainian artist, was in her hometown of Odessa, celebrating the opening ceremony for her series of murals of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Jabotinsky (1880-1940) was the writer and orator known for leading the revisionist Zionist movement, the inspiration for the Irgun, and the founder of the Jewish Self-Defense Organization in Odessa, the city where he was born. His interpretation of the founding of Zionism—with military force—had a profound influence on Israeli politics: Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was his protege; Benzion Netanyahu, the father of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was his personal secretary and historian. (Jabotinsky also wrote for Der Moment, the Yiddish daily published between 1910 and 1939 for which Moment is named.) Moment editor Nadine Epstein interviews Verba, who is now living in New York, about the Jabotinsky murals, her other art projects in Ukraine, and what she is doing now to help her homeland.
Why did you create murals of Jabotinsky in Odessa?
I was invited as an artist to implement the Ukraine-Israel international project “Art Speaks History” in Odessa. The Kyiv curator found me after seeing my solo exhibition project dedicated to great emigrants—“I’mGrand / t”—at the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa. My project was built around the idea that change occurs in world history thanks to great personalities. I think that it was my understanding of this, and my experience as a muralist, that helped the project curators to choose me.
Murals are a relatively new phenomenon in Ukraine. They differ from street art in that it is necessary to obtain official permission from the city authorities—and to carry out a whole list of approvals. Therefore, I have created dozens of street art works but few murals. The first was the international project “Odessarium,” a jazz abstraction on the building of Odessa’s Municipal Theater of Wind Music. And then I created one in Kyiv on Andreevsky Spusk, the city’s oldest street, based on the Ukrainian classic comedy “Chasing Two Hares.”
What do your murals of Jabotinsky depict?
My mission as an artist was to convey the essence and idea of his life, to be a guide to his world. The first mural is a portrait of Jabotinsky depicting wisdom, dignity and depth; it evokes new life and the power of freedom sprouting from the blade-feather, a symbol of peace and Israel, and branches of an olive fruit-bearing tree.
The second is Jabotinsky the rebel, warrior and extraordinary personality. It is painted in bright colors, in grunge style, with pomegranate blossoms behind him. The menorah shines through the pages of his deeds and books. There is a Magen David, the Shield of David, in which there is the image of an open book with heavenly wisdom sprouting from it as an inscription. Young Ze’ev relies on the books that inspired him to write his life path. Youth is a time when nothing has been decided yet, so you can still decide as you like, or as you at least think. You stand on the threshold of the whole world. There are a hundred doors in front of you. You can open any one you like, and look in without entering; if you don’t like what you see, you can slam it shut and try another. This gives a terrible feeling of omnipotence: youth is omnipotence.
I did two sketches for the third mural. The first one I called “Altalena, White Crow.” Atalena was Jabotinsky’s pen name when, as a young man, he translated Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” into Russian and Hebrew—it is recognized as the best in the world. But for me, he is like a white crow [Russian slang for a person who is unusual, or not like the others]. A simple journalist from Ukraine who stood up to customs and currents and became a great person and a symbol of freedom and dignity. At first, another building was chosen for the mural, but it had no direct relationship to Jabotinsky’s life. The sketch had to be changed to harmoniously fit the window of the house where he was born and raised, 33 Bazarnaya Street. Now the window is part of the exhibition. The lights are on there in the evenings, so the people who live there have become new characters. My mural is alive.
How did the mural project come about?
I don’t know who had the idea for the project, unfortunately. But the purpose was to identify key personalities from Israeli history who were also immigrants from Ukraine, and to show them in the cities where they were born and raised.
Why did you know about Jabotinsky when you began the project?
Jabotinsky is the author of my favorite novel about Odessa, Five. But I got to know him as a politician when I started working on the sketches.
Are you Jewish?
My great-great-grandmother was Jewish. I was even named after her— Elena Ferdinandovna. My sister Yulia Verba, a writer, described the history of the city and our family in her novel Odessa Saga, so many readers know my origin. Odessa Saga was one of the top three books nominated for the “Sholem Aleichem” award in 2022.
Have you ever been to Israel?
I have not. But my picture—the first sketch—a portrait of Jabotinsky, was presented to an ambassador of the State of Israel and is already settled there.
Do you know if the buildings on which the murals were painted are still standing or if the murals are damaged?
These paintings have been preserved.
Can you believe it was only one year ago that these murals were publicly introduced?
It’s hard to believe now. A month after the creation of the mural, I immigrated to New York on a fiancee visa. My life has drastically changed. Coincidentally, it was my future husband, Artur Zolotarevsky, who four years ago gave me Jaobotinsky’s book Five.
What plans for other Jewish-themed murals did you have?
I am fascinated by history and bright personalities. On the last day before flying to the United States, I made a mural dedicated to the writer Arkady Lvov in my yard. Coincidentally, my apartment was located exactly in the courtyard about which the writer wrote his novel The Yard. All the residents came to see me off and told touching stories of their native yards. And then with music, they helped me pack my bags.
Is it fair to assume that plans for more murals in Odessa and other cities will not come to fruition, at least in the near future?
I never plan anything. It’s just that when the idea of creating a mural, a concert, a performance ripens inside me, the space itself finds the best option for realizing this idea. I can say that I trust the Almighty, although I am not religious.
Are you from Odessa?
Yes, I am from Odesa. I prefer the Ukrainian spelling of the city [with one “s”]. Now this is especially important for me personally.
When did you leave, and why?
I could never have imagined that I would live in America. Love took me to another continent. May will be the first anniversary of my New York life.
How does it feel to leave your home country and watch it be consumed by war?
My sister and my nephews stayed in Ukraine. I pray every day and keep in touch with them all the time. I believe that this bloody horror will stop. Here I can somehow help and support a little. I constantly participate in charity events, concerts and exhibitions. I was able to make a presentation of the works of Ukrainian artists made during the war—a collection of posters. Part of the sale goes to the artists, as they are currently unable to work. I play the bandura, and I was engaged in the rituals of Ukraine—now I can show who we are—how free and beautiful our culture is.
What else are you doing in New York?
At the moment I perform as a musician and bandura player. I act in two theater groups—the Yara Arts Group, part of La MaMa experimental theater, directed by Virlana Tkacz, and the Anomalou Co theater. My art is now on display at the Evans Gallery in New York, and all funds received go to charitable foundations in Ukraine.
Are you creating new Ukrainian related art today that you’d like to tell us about?
Yes. Now my feelings and emotions can only be conveyed with the help of art. These are paintings on canvas, textiles, anything that can convey emotion. And I believe that some kind of wall is already waiting for my next mural about love and freedom.
Top image: Ze’ev Jabotinsky mural in Ukraine. (Courtesy of Lesya Verba)