Interview with Simone Greenberg
by our Art Editor Aliza Marton
Aliza: How did your upbringing in Brazil influence your art?
Simone: I grew up in a warm Jewish community in São Paulo, Brazil, where everyone knew each other. My family always had strong Jewish values and an open home where everybody was always welcomed. The community was very diverse and non-judgmental. In my class, some girls didn’t keep Shabbos, while others married rabbis at the age of 17. We are still very much connected; even after 30 years apart, we daven for each other when something happens to one of us. The love of every type of Jew was ingrained in me during my childhood. Going to Bnei Akiva helped develop my love of Israel. It always amazes me that Jews from so many different countries feel at home in Israel. I try to portray that feeling in my art.
Aliza: Have you always had a love of art?
Simone: Since I was little, I was always drawing, sometimes even getting into trouble for it during class. I would sketch anything and everything: scenes from my life, a shoe store, a hospital stay. I think I was always fascinated by the world around me, and art is a powerful tool to convey emotions. Art moves me, whether it’s Impressionistic art hanging in a museum or observing nature – art created by the ultimate Artist. Art has always made me happy, and I like to share that experience.
Aliza: When did you start painting?
Simone: For many years I only drew. When I was 21 years old, I started painting, but I only got serious about it when my husband bought me a massive canvas for our first wedding anniversary. He had paid for me to attend a series of art classes while he watched our newborn baby, Yoni. It was the best present. I remember showing up at my first class with this huge canvas. All I wanted at the time was a painting of Jerusalem, but I couldn’t afford to buy one. That was my first painting, and I haven’t stopped since.
Aliza: From Brazil to Israel to Los Angeles. How did that happen?
Simone: I grew up pretty modern, trying to have the best of both worlds. I went to a great university and worked in advertising, but I felt an emptiness. I travelled to Poland with the programme “March of the Living”, where we visited the concentration camps. It was a very powerful experience. The trip ended with us going to Israel, where I began my journey of becoming more religious.
After a year and a half there, a shadchanit introduced me to my husband, who had been living in Los Angeles. At that point, I put my dream of living in Israel on hold, but that yearning is in my art.
Aliza: As an art teacher, can you please tell us about some of the rewards and challenges of teaching?
Simone: It’s a privilege to teach at two great high schools in Los Angeles: Bais Yaakov and Machon. The biggest reward is seeing the girls grow in front of my eyes. High school is a time when their identities are formed, when there can be many insecurities. Art has the capacity to build them up. Showing them that they can create something beautiful is empowering.
The challenge is when they are hard on themselves and expect perfect results immediately. They need to learn to have patience and understand that creativity is a process that takes time. I love teaching. The girls are inspiring and capable and teach me new things every day.
Aliza: Living in the sandwich generation, where our parents are aging and we are dealing with the shidduchim of our children, as well as children still in school, how do you find the time to paint?
Simone: It is a challenge, and I wish I had more time to paint. Sometimes I feel like I’m being pulled in different directions, trying to make everyone happy. My wise father always told me, “If you don’t take care of yourself, nobody will.” So, in the middle of my daily demands, I try to do a little of what makes me happy, whether it’s exercise, painting or connecting with a friend. I have a responsibility to make myself happy, so I do.
Aliza: Which were your favourite commissions?
Simone: Last summer, I was commissioned to create a three-panel painting for the Link Kollel in Los Angeles. It was a wonderful, meaningful present from Hashem and a very enjoyable process. It was the first time I worked with watercolours, and I found it liberating and more freeing than oil. With watercolour you can’t control the results 100 per cent, and it’s harder to hide mistakes. I’d daven before I worked on it and listen to shiurim as I painted it. It was for a shul, so I felt the responsibility to have the right kavanah as I was painting it. It gave my summer a whole new meaning.
Another project I loved creating was a couple of 3D models as gifts for donors. I used everything from wood, buttons, resin, clay and watercolour. It was a lot of fun.
It’s a big brachah to be able to use art in a way that brings attention to causes I believe in. A couple of years ago, I created a menorah for an international Chanukiah auction run by a tzedakah organization. My entry portrayed the achdus of Klal Yisrael. I made nine clay models of different types of Jews. They were mounted on a base inscribed with the passuk “Ke ish echad b’lev echad –Like one man with one heart”. I was so happy that my menorah was auctioned off for the tzedakah’s benefit. It’s a brachah and a privilege to use art that Hashem gave me to be able to give to others. I don’t take it for granted.
Aliza: What inspires your art?
Simone: The world around me is a visual feast. There is so much beauty in nature, and capturing these moments gives me joy. My art is idealistic, and I paint what I appreciate: the love of Torah, Jews together and Israel. It’s a way to portray important values on the walls of our homes. I want my kids to see paintings that encourage the message of different types of Jews dancing together in front of the passuk “Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha – serve Hashem with happiness”. It’s important to me.
Aliza: Being a parent of a child with severe special needs, how has that impacted your art?
Simone: I believe that children with special needs teach us patience, acceptance, compassion and unconditional love.
Four years ago, we had a baby girl diagnosed with Trisomy 18, a syndrome where only 10 per cent make it to term, and only five percent of those babies make it to a year old. If they survive, they are usually severely delayed, forever in diapers, never walking or talking.
When Aliza Bracha was born, the doctors prepared us for the worst. It was a scary and incredibly sad time, but Aliza taught our family the value of life, how to appreciate little things, and not to take anything for granted. She couldn’t breathe without an oxygen tank for a year and a half. She is fed through a G-tube because she can’t eat or drink yet.
When she made it to her first birthday, after 10 emergency hospitalisations, we started to breathe a little easier and appreciate each of the little things she could do. She may not be able to walk or talk – yet – but she is the happiest little girl, and her smile is magical.
It was quite traumatic at the time, but I’m so proud of all my kids, who became more compassionate, accepting, loving and resilient. As a family, we became more aware of other people’s pain. Our families and community were also incredible, so there were a lot of feelings of gratitude.
I was completing a Vineland Adaptive Behavior form, which is basically hundreds of questions (such as, when did your child start talking, walking, etc.?), and for every single answer I had to write “Not yet”. My 10-year-old was sitting next to me and said, “Mommy, they’re so mean!”, to which my husband answered, “You know, Dovi, the problem is that this test compares Aliza to a typical child. If they were comparing her to another child with Trisomy 18, the questions would be ‘Is your child alive? How much oxygen is she on? Does she recognise her parents? Does she smile?’” When put in these terms, we realise just how great Aliza is doing!
I’m so grateful for my husband’s positive outlook on life and his understanding that if we realign our expectations and focus on the positive, we can experience incredible happiness from the smallest of achievements.
In terms of art, it moved me from oil to watercolour, a less time-consuming and less controllable medium. I was finally able to just let go and recognise that Hashem was in total control.
I created my most recent piece, “In the Middle of the Chaos”, expressing my trust that He will carry me all the way. The faded words “Ein od milvado – there is no other besides Him” are superimposed over a photo of the painting skirt I wear when I paint or teach. It’s chaotic and colourful. It hangs on my bedroom wall and is a great reminder each morning to take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the ride.
Find out more at www.simonegreenberg.com
Aliza Marton is a Los Angeles based Judaica artist who specializes
in traditional oil on canvas as well as her own novel technique –
blending abstract acrylic pours with realism on wood panels. Her art
serves as a window into Aliza’s passionate and emotional connection
to our Creator. Many of her works incorporate biblical passages
into scenes of nature and of everyday life. Aside from teaching art
to hundreds of students in the Jewish community, Aliza’s proudest
moments are when her clients’ connect deeply with one of her
pieces and decide to make it a part of their home. Her artwork
can be purchased on line and shipped anywhere in the world at