Israel Tsvaygenbaum views what is happening in Israel a painful reminder of his own family history. His father was 29 when he fled Poland in 1939 to escape the Nazis. The remaining family members were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. “I have always reflected in my paintings the theme of the Holocaust and, in general, human tragedy, the loss of people close to us,” said the Russian-American artist, whose work representing the magic realism art movement is known throughout the world.

Tsvaygenbaum has worked to find comfort and purpose in his artwork. In our interview, he cited three works that were especially meaningful to him during this time of war. In The Holocaust, blood red angels on a darker red background are joined by two white doves. The Tree of Weeping depicts draped hooded figures with their arms outstretched in supplication. Prayers at the Tree of Life portrays an Orthodox Jewish man praying to a tree made of bright branches. “At some point in our lives our prayers turn to a Tree of Life where each branch represents the prayers of a generation,” he said, “We all have our Tree of Life that hears our prayers.”

Immediately following the October 7, 2023, Hamas massacre, Tsvaygenbaum began work on his latest piece. The Broken Jar features a fractured vase holding red roses on a background of yellow sunflowers. “Their yellow color represents the anxiety that the Israeli people are now experiencing while waiting for their kidnapping loved ones,” he said. “The hearts of the Israelis are now broken like the jar in my painting, but their souls, like those roses, have preserved their integrity, unity and harmony.”

Tsvaygenbaum was born in 1961 in Derbent, Dagestan, Russia, the youngest child of a Polish Holocaust survivor and a “Mountain Jew” a mother who was a descendent of Persian Jews from Iran. As a result, Tsvaygenbaum children were raised in a uniquely Jewish household, a mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions and customs. Although often struggling financially, the family kept a kosher home and observed Shabbat and all religious holidays. His father, respected for his erudition and prior religious education, served as a “spiritual bridge” to fellow survivors who had settled in Derbent.

Adding to young Tsvaygenbaum‘s cultural experiences were his interactions with both Christian and Muslim neighbors. “The memory of these people prompted me to create some of my paintings,” he said. “They were sources of my inspiration.”

These events are chronicled in his 2023 memoir, My Secret Memory: The Memoir of the Artist, where he describes the process of how the ideas for creating his paintings were born to him. The book outlines key events in his childhood that shaped his paintings later in life, including frank and often graphic descriptions of violence and sexual encounters. These dramatic events and the tragedies of his own family members, especially the loneliness and sadness experienced by his father as a result of the Holocaust, are the main themes of his writing. “I pour my soul into my painting,” Tsvaygenbaum said in the YouTube eponymous video. Most importantly, his art represents universal themes of kindness, peace, and our shared humanity.

Tsvaygenbaum’s artistic interests and talents began at an early age. By eight years old, he was asking his parents to purchase painting supplies so he could capture important moments on canvas. After both undergraduate and graduate fine art degrees from Russian art institutions. From 1983 to 1985, he pursued an acting career, which inspired him to paint pictures of fellow thespians. In 1986, Tsvaygenbaum organized an artist’s group called Coloring, an association of artists based in Derbent. Tsvaygenbaum’s art was well received throughout Russia, with his paintings displayed in both museums and private collections.

In 1994, he held two successful solo shows in Moscow. This was to be his last in his home country. The escalating conflict between Russian and Chechnya, which bordered Dagestan, made it too dangerous for Tsvaygenbaum and his family to remain in the war-torn area. In 1994, he, his wife Katerina, their three daughters ranging in age from 14 months to nine years; his mother and his maternal grandmother immigrated to New York’s Capital District to be close to his brother. The family quickly settled in Albany, New York, as they  felt the bigger city would provide more opportunities to build a new life for the family.

“Time is showed that I was right,” he remarked. Tsvaygenbaum has enjoyed a successful career in the state’s capital. His extensive collection of paintings have been exhibited in Russia and the United States and are part of private collections in nine countries, including Austria, Bulgaria, France, Israel, Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US. Tsvaygenbaum’s two graphical works (ink on paper) The Sarcasm of Fate and The Grief of People are in the Museum of Imitative Arts, Derbent, Dagestan, Russia. 

In 2001, Tsvaygenbaum began a collaboration with Judy Trupin, a choreographer and poet, who created dance compositions based on nine of Tsvaygenbaum’s paintings. Worlds in Our Eyes, created to elicit memories of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and Russia while touching on universal themes, was performed in several cities in New York State. Tsvaygenbaum dedicated the performance to the people of his home city, Derbent.

Tsvaygenbaum also has found success and pride in his family life, especially in seeing that his love for Judaism has been carried onto his children and grandchildren. “I always wanted to pass the baton that I got from my parents,” he said in My Secret Memory. “I am happy to realize I made it.” He and Katerina’s three daughters have instilled Jewish values and traditions in their own families.

“Everything in this world is interconnected,” Tsvaygenbaum wrote in My Secret Memory. He hopes what he has created from his patience, his passion for the conceived idea, and his dedication to work will make the world a little kinder place. Just like the roses in The Broken Jar, he hopes his life and legacy will reflect integrity, unity and harmony.

Article by Author/s
Marilyn Shapiro
Marilyn Cohen Shapiro, a resident of Kissimmee, FL, is a regular contributor to the (Capital Region NY) Jewish World and the Orlando Heritage Florida Jewish News. She is the author of two compilation of her stories, There Goes My Heart (2016) and Tikkun Olam: Stories of Repairing an Unkind World. (2018). Both books available in paperback and e-book format on Amazon. You can read more of her stories on her blog,

1 Comment

  1. I started wearing my magen dovid after October 7th. I refuse to be
    intimidated by the malevolent antisemitism that has surfaced in Melbourne.
    I was stopped by a acquaintance from my local park today…he said “I see you are wearing your Star of David.
    I raised my head and said of course, I am proud, went on a bit of a discourse about how Jews have influenced the world. He wandered off but he was sympathetic.
    So sad that I have become so alert to anything someone says.
    Always knew that Australia was very antisemitic but these days I feel utter despair. Sorry to have put this out there but am so frustrated by all of it.I wonder if Israel will succeed. Anxiety, fear for our people .

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