Whimsy is not a word often associated with Hasidic Jews, who include those stern-looking men with beards and broad-brimmed black hats.
But it does come to mind when looking at the paintings and prints of artist Michoel Muchnik, which will be displayed Sunday at Howard County's Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education.
Muchnik, a member of the Lubavitcher sect of Hasidic Jewry, started his career as a writer of children's books. And his works, even the interpretations of Jewish mystical concepts such as the overflowing wine goblet or the spiritual marriage of God and the chosen people, have a lovely fantasy quality.
In a work owned by the Columbia Lubavitch Center, a painting that was used in one of the children's books, a miniature shtetl (village) sits on the banks of a woodland river. A pretty cottage has Shabbat candles in the window and a mezuza (inscription) on the doorjamb.
At the top, a scroll bears the Hebrew letter bet (B), which is the first letter of the first word in the Torah: "Boreshis" (in the beginning). And contemplating it are several tiny scholars, with beards and yarmulkes.
"They're Jewish Lilliputians," says Muchnik. "I call them menschniks [little men]."
Muchnik, 46, a native of Philadelphia, lives in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, in the community ruled by the man called the Lubavitcher Rebbe (rabbi).
The Lubavitchers are a conservative sect of Hasidic Jews who practice Judaism with biblical or Middle Ages customs -- uncut hair and beards for the men, home- and child-centered lives for the women, and daily study of the Torah, as interpreted by the rebbe.
Muchnik and his wife, Sara, have nine children, ranging in age from 6 months to 21, and he considers it a blessing -- "Thank God for it" -- that he can support them with his art.
Self-sufficiency is something many artists never achieve, and for a Jew from a conservative tradition, it's even more unusual.
The proscription by the second of the Ten Commandments against graven images has been the obstacle. In Jewish law, God is unknowable, therefore unpicturable. Synagogue tradition also steers away from representations of biblical figures.
However, Muchnik, who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the finest art schools in the United States, believes the traditional avoidance of figurative art needs to be examined.
"The prohibition against graven images is not all that encompassing," he says. "You can't paint ha-Shem [God]; that would be limiting him. And you can't paint something like the soul -- you can't show it in a physical sense.
"But there are descriptions [in the Bible] of gorgeous things in the Temple: marble floors, walls of gold, the garments that the priests wore. Do you know about the hanging clusters of golden grapes? Whenever a great gift came to the Temple, a grape of pure gold would be added."
He contends that the enforced insularity of Jews, who lived in ghettos in most European cities and towns, is behind the lack of attention to the fine arts.
"The concept of art for art's sake wasn't a part of Jewish culture. And often such art was made for royalty or for the [Christian] church," Muchnik says. "For a Jewish person to study art meant leaving the Jewish community and assimilating into a foreign culture and even a foreign religion."
So most Jews with artistic impulses chose to regard their talent as a blessing and to use it for practical ends: spice boxes for religious ceremonies, breastplates to adorn and shield the Torah scrolls, lamps for the everlasting light above the Ark, where the Torah is housed.
Muchnik, following tradition, still devotes some of his artistry to religious artifacts such as Torah pointers and mezuza cases. His designs on spiritual themes have been used for book jackets and greeting cards, including the Jewish New Year cards sold by the Jewish women's organization Hadassah and by UNICEF for its holiday card collections.
The Columbia Lubavitch Center has a set of his Hebrew alphabet paintings -- flashcards for preschool children -- though they are far more than a utilitarian teaching tool. Their intricate workmanship and the delightful complexity of fruit, flowers, vines and symbols on each letter recall the capital letters of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
"There's a childlike, naive quality to his work," says Hillel Baron, director of the Lubavitch Center. But he points out the rich accumulation of spiritual significance in the work: the rose with 13 petals (a number that in Judaism signifies maturity); the Hanukkah menorah in the corner of a pictorial history of olives (because olive oil was the fuel of the Temple lamp that held only enough to burn for one day yet burned for eight days).