MARCH 29, 2018 – Last weekend at Lynn Arts, Marblehead artist Rickey Schwed stood next to three striking charcoal drawings of three generations of women. They were displayed vertically, and included Schwed’s great-grandmother Esther, dressed in an elegant 1940s hat. In Schwed’s charcoal, Esther stares straight ahead, serious and concerned. It’s as if she knows that misfortune awaits her: Esther perished in Auschwitz.
The two other portraits are of women who survived the Holocaust. Esther’s daughter Eva beams bemusedly from the side. Her eyebrows are raised and her eyes dance – Eva was able to survive the Holocaust, and left Communist Romania in the 1950s, where she was not able to openly practice her religion. On the bottom is Schwed’s mother, Esther, named for her grandmother, who looks straight at us with an almost sheepish grin.
Schwed has been an artist her whole life, but only recently has she felt the need to use her work to make an overt statement. “What do you mean we have neo-Nazis marching in the USA?” Schwed asked incredulously. “I take this personally. This is my family’s history – they survived this, and they were there. You can’t whitewash history. You can’t dismiss it as if it didn’t happen.” By showing human faces of people who were directly affected by tragedy, Schwed hopes she can encourage people to speak up against anti-Semitism and discrimination.
Schwed is the fourth generation to call herself a survivor. She grew up in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Monsey, New York, and attended yeshiva. She spoke Yiddish before she learned to speak English. But for as long as she can remember, Schwed felt like an ausvarf – an “outsider” – in an insular community that demands rigid conformity. Right from the start, Schwed pushed back.
“I was given a gift,” said Schwed of her artistic talent. “It’s both a blessing and a curse.”
In kindergarten, her teacher told her that after the giant flood of old, God told Noah that he would never again flood the world. Schwed, ever skeptical, decided to test this out. She went to the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and let it run for a few minutes. A mini-flood ensued, and she decided that she had just proven her teacher wrong. Her teacher was not amused, and she was sent to the principal’s office.
As a young artist, Schwed was a frequent visitor to the principal’s office, sometimes for supposed infractions as small as questioning why men could earn $100,000 as Torah scribes, but as a woman, she could not. In ninth grade, Schwed was reprimanded for drawing rock stars like George Michael. Her teacher discouraged her from portraiture because it is considered a form of idolatry, but suggested that if she was going to draw at all, she should at least draw rabbis. Schwed came back a few days later with a drawing of the Chofetz Chaim, the famous rabbi who is best known for writing about “guarding one’s tongue.” Once again, her teacher was not amused. “She took it as chutzpah,” Schwed explained. “She didn’t think I was actually going to do it.” Her father was called to the school, and he took her side. After that, Schwed was asked to attend a different school.
Schwed briefly attended a Modern Orthodox high school, but she once again felt like an outsider because she was raised to be more religious than her classmates. At 16, she decided to leave the fold altogether and moved to New York City.
Leaving the fold is not easy, and to this day about half of Schwed’s family won’t talk to her. For the next several years, Schwed used the instinct for survival she inherited from her grandmother and great-grandmother to create a life for herself. She studied art, computer programming, chemistry, fashion design, and painting at New York University and other colleges, and paid for it with a number of odd jobs, sometimes holding down three to four at the same time. She also worked as a lifeguard, a bartender, and taught at different Hebrew Schools. “One night I bartended in the East Village, and I rollerbladed to shul the next day,” Schwed said. All the while, her work was exhibited in galleries across the Tri-State region.
Eventually, she settled down. Schwed married a man from Marblehead in a quiet civil ceremony and moved to the North Shore and raised four children. In her new life, she’s been able to preserve the positive aspects of her religious upbringing and instill them in her children. “I do religion-lite in my house,” said Schwed. “Every Jewish holiday I bake a lot.” Schwed attends Chabad of the North Shore and is especially grateful to Rabbi Yossi Lipsker for providing the tolerant and inclusive version of Orthodox Judaism that she so yearned for growing up.
After years of being a full-time mom, Schwed has finally found the time to re-engage her artistic passions. Three years ago, she was invited to join the Marblehead Arts Association, and has since attended drop-in sketching classes.
Standing in front of her three pictures, surrounded on all sides by admirers, Schwed had a new insight on her life. “I’m in a very good place,” she said.