ESRA Magazine
ESRAmagazine categories

Sisters of The Same Tree

We first met, Dolores and I, in the Medical Records Department of the Children's Orthopedic Hospital in Los Angeles. It was early January 1966, the era of dictaphones, shorthand, and first electric typewriters, and we were medical secretaries.

I was 24, she was 28, and the mother of three. Instant affinity…

My daughter Yael was born on Dolores' daughter Carla's birthday. Carla named her daughter Tovah, my middle name. Dolores' children, now great-grandparents, still call me Auntie Helen.

Dolores grew up playing, and still plays, the harp. Dr. Herbert Sheen, her father, whom I adored, bought property in Watts, the underprivileged area in Los Angeles, and said to her, a school goes here, it's yours. Thus, in 1971, the Sheenway School and Culture Center was born. I was there to celebrate with her, as she had celebrated the birth of my two babies in 1969 and 1970.My babies slept at her home from time to time, and played with brown-colored dolls they named Dolores and Carla.

Before my children were born, Dolores and I went together to an open-air Harry Belafonte concert, and afterwards, on one of my visits back to LA, we attended a concert together, wearing identical African skirts neither knew the other had!  On one such trip to LA, I gave a brief lesson in classical drawing to Dolores' students at Sheenway.

I Afro-ed my hair, Dolores-like.

In 1972 I received a degree in Anthropology at Cal State Northridge; in 1973 I made aliyah with my little ones.

In 1992, George W. Bush invited her to the White House to consult with her on matters of education. In 1993, Dolores was invited to Bill Clinton's inauguration. In 1996, Bill Clinton gave her the President's Service Award. 

In 2001, she spoke at the United Nations in Switzerland for the Commission on Human Rights, focusing on "A Village Raises the Child".

In 1995, Dolores founded Sheenway Ghana. DNA showed her to be of Ewe descent (Ewe is said to be derived from the word "Ivri", Hebrew for "Hebrew".)She was "stooled" (crowned) Queen Mother Ayawovia II in 2007.

In 1975, I resumed my art studies in Rehovot with Eliyahu Gat and Rachel Shavit, having abandoned art in LA because I was not an Op-art, Pop-art person, the craze at the time. In 1976 I participated in my first group exhibition, and in 1977 my first solo show, at Beit HaAm in Rehovot.

From there I studied drawing with the incomparable Yosef Hirsch for a year, then moved to Jerusalem to paint its monochrome landscapes in brown watercolor. For an eight-year period I lived in the compound of the Ethiopian Church in downtown Jerusalem, so comfortable in the presence of the monks.

Thence to the Artists' Colony in Tsfat where I had my own gallery, switching now to a full color palette, the irresistible blues being responsible for that. Then Jerusalem again, and now, last stop, 14 years in Metulla, colored pencils and ink, and for the last 1 1/2 years, only miniatures, 11x15 cm. And shortly after I moved to Metulla, Dolores visited me! We traveled together to the Golan, to the Kinneret, to Jerusalem. In the Old City she bought me an embroidered white and blue pillow case and I bought her an embroidered brown full-length dress. At the Wailing Wall Dolores left a note for her Papa.

Her photos are on my refrigerator, on my computer, in my heart – we've never lost contact and each infrequent time we met it was as though we were continuing a conversation we'd just had the day before. My house is filled with Ghanaian artifacts Dolores has sent me over the years; hers with my paintings. Our hearts filled still with so much love for each other.

And I, always painting, often exhibiting, 100 exhibits exactly, in Israel, USA, Europe, at the time of this writing. Always contact with Dolores, be it by aerogram then or computer now.

In 2013, I visited Italy and for six years did pencil/ink paintings of that country, most of Italy's Jewish ghettos. Then, early 2020, after Italy tired of inspiring me, I asked Dolores if she'd like me to do a series of paintings of Sheenway Ghana, which is in the lower Volta region. The paintings were to be sold in LA as a fundraiser for the Ghana school. Her enthusiasm flamed mine, and so it happened and that spark that connected us in 1966 magnified into the fireworks these little paintings have set off.

Now I am 78 and Dolores 82. Dolores the dynamic, the sociable. Helen the recluse.

In 2010 I wrote this poem for Dolores: 

Sisters of the Same Tree

for Dolores

We are sisters of the same tree

intertwined decades ago

in a dismal office in your city

into which you exploded

with an infectious grin


and the boss cringed;

you were the sunshine

which lit that dimness

Oh, I loved your hairdo,

a huge copper halo

and so I permed mine,

back to the way it was once

in that other life, when we were sisters

together in Africa, before I was white

Our roots too entangled

to ever be severed,

our children sisters and brothers,

and we, like lionesses, mothers to them all

Then I returned to my Land –

during the ensuing decades

we touched a few times, no more,

long enough to kiss hello and goodbye

but oh how our conversation flowed,

as though we had spoken only a day ago,

as though we had grown older

in the same household

Branches over oceans

sisters more than sisters,

twin souls,

roots forever connected

beneath the surface of the earth

We are sisters of the same tree,

when the leaves of our seasons

tumble down, new ones sprout again

from the same eternal source

I mourn the thought of losing you;

it's Winter now

where will all your leaves go,

come Spring?

And what will happen

to my roots

if yours dry up?


Comments 1

Guest - Judith R. Robinson on Friday, 04 December 2020 16:50

How marvelous in our deeply troubled times to see such heartfelt, genuine friendship celebrated. Kudos to the gifted Helen Bar-Lev for sharing her talents as a poet and artist, and to ESRA for this fine article.

How marvelous in our deeply troubled times to see such heartfelt, genuine friendship celebrated. Kudos to the gifted Helen Bar-Lev for sharing her talents as a poet and artist, and to ESRA for this fine article.
Tuesday, 16 April 2024

Captcha Image


MagazineIsrael- 2019-homepage
There are pockets of coexistence
which kindle hope.
Old cities and very new cities with amazing stories
Find out about the Israeli art scene
The best tours in Israel with ESRA members