Brushing away the shadows

Brushing away the shadows

An IDF reservist — and grandson — fights PTSD, grows through his art

Ranaan is at work.
Ranaan is at work.

My grandson Raanan Kwalbrun recently gifted me with one of his paintings.

The painting, like my grandson, has evolved since the first time I saw it on his living room wall in September 2021. It was much larger then, with the lower trees rising up into the Van Gogh-like colorful swirls of the heavens, while a significant portion of the left side had a thick red line running through it, a sharp contrast to the rest of the piece.

I mentioned to my grandson how much I loved this particular painting. I didn’t think much about it again until April 2023, when I was visiting Raanan and his wife in their apartment in Israel, preparing my notes for this article.

The painting was no longer on the wall. When he brought it into the room, I was a bit surprised that the entire red side was gone. “I didn’t really like that part of it,” he casually commented.  I was even more surprised when I saw that the remainder of the painting had been cut into four equal squares.  “It’s for you to keep, Boubie,” Raanan said in his deep, soft voice. And I was beyond delighted.

I have no idea why he chose to cut his work into four pieces.  But his exact instructions that evening about the painting were very clear. I was to frame each square individually and then hang the four pieces quite close to each other, so that the viewer could clearly recognize that the four separate parts equaled one remarkable whole.

Raanan as he was in 2019.

The painting has come to represent to me Raanan’s life’s journey.

A little background here might be helpful. Raanan is my second grandchild.  Born in January 1999, he was 6 years old when his family made aliyah. Soft spoken, quiet, gentle, sweet, he was a boy who marched to the beat of his own drum. Elementary and high school classes were rarely an easy road for him, for he struggled with language and retrieval. But he excelled at conceptualization. He was and is remarkable with his hands; he could take anything apart and put it back together. He could simply use his imagination and his creativity to design; for example, an entire kitchen out of random pieces of Lego or clay, complete with cabinets and doors that opened and closed. For his own pleasure, he taught himself how to play the piano, the guitar, the ukulele.

Although he sometimes struggled with anxiety, he possessed an inner strength that was reflected in his determination to accomplish a goal, where nothing could stand in his way. As an example, he loved basketball, but he was not very good at it at first and was always being benched when playing on a team. But sitting on the bench was not his plan, so he practiced and practiced until he became the best. Ultimately, he was a member of an Israeli team of high school basketball players that came to the United States one summer for a tournament with other players in Jewish camps.

And he was very, very artistic.

He entered the army in January 2018 and completed his service in July 2021. He served in tanks and felt enormous pride when he became a tank commander. At first he commanded new troops of about 30 to 40 soldiers; after about four months, he moved up to an operative platoon and became a tank commander, in charge of the four soldiers in that tank. True to his innate talents, he could take a tank apart and put it back together.  He served for six months on the Gaza border, trained for four months, and then moved north to the Lebanon border.

2-year-old Caped Crusader Raanan stands with his big brother, Superhero Gershon.

Raanan recalled that he felt responsible and strong and welcomed the opportunity to lead. At the end of his stint on the Gaza border, he was awarded a certificate as the best tank commander serving on that border. His anxieties were quiet. He adds that his unit felt strong together, and he describes his relationship with those under his command as close and meaningful. They trusted each other with their lives.  On a lighter side, twice he was the subject of the IDF’s public relations videos and interviews.

Like his painting, he appeared whole and complete.

After he was out  of the army for about two months, he married his beloved longtime girlfriend, Rivka, who had completed her service in the IDF a few months before he did. They bought a dog a few months later, and together they decided to take some time to figure out the next chapter of their lives. Occasionally, anxieties resurfaced for Raanan, with challenging thoughts of who he was and what he wanted out of life. Raanan candidly admits  that he occasionally struggled with depression. But he was working through it.

And then came October 7.

On October 8, Raanan was called back into active service and was sent north to the Lebanon border. But all the positive pieces of his earlier time in the army were missing. The army designated him as a reserve soldier, so he was not performing those tasks for which he was trained, that of a tank commander. He was not with his old unit, with men he could trust, men who had his back, and whose backs he had. Instead, these soldiers were a mixed match, so to speak, and they were strangers to him. He was guarding yeshuvim, but his anxiety was increasing.  He felt as though he was always sleeping with one eye open. His “wholeness” began to break into pieces.

Raanan stands with a painting he’s just sold.

There were frightening nightmares; sometimes he’d wake up with his clothing drenched from sweat. He was having trouble breathing. His symptoms escalated. When he was guarding a yishuv, he experienced panic attacks. He couldn’t hear people and became confused. He struggled to make sense of things. Panic disoriented him. He thought that if he were sent into Lebanon, he might die. And the feelings of dying without having truly accomplished anything were overwhelming him.

Within three weeks, the army sent him to the hospital and ultimately he was diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder — PTSD. His milluim draft was canceled and he was sent home.

Until recently, very little focus has been placed on healing the trauma experienced by a soldier in war. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, the famous author of “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” explains that all that changed in 1980 when a group of Vietnam veterans were assisted in successfully lobbying the American Psychiatric Association to create a new diagnosis — PTSD.  Fortunately, that led to much research and efforts to find effective methods of treatment.

Dr. Van Der Kolk writes: “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past: it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.”

And he adds: “For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present. Our search to understand trauma has led us to think differently not only about the structure of the mind but also about the processes by which it heals.”

Raanan and his grandmother, Tzivia Bieler, on the day he became a tank commander.

Once he was released from the army, Raanan and his wife lived with his parents for a number of weeks. Struggles continued, although medication and therapy were helpful. But he often felt outside of reality, lost, disassociated, disconnected from himself and the world around him. He would be driving in his car, stop at a red light, and then his mind would wander and he would think about the fact that if he died moving forward, he would have never had the opportunity to accomplish the things he was meant to do.

He stopped driving at all for a time. But then therapy helped, and to explain simplistically, he learned that it is okay to panic.  But his therapist would also discuss with him that he might not panic. Recognizing that reality, he slowly, slowly grasped the ability to think positively and recognize, as Dr. Van der Kolk notes, that the danger had passed. Ultimately, he successfully returned to the driver’s seat.

And when he chanced upon the paint and the old easel in his parents’ basement, he remembered his love of painting. In time, his talented hand picked up the brush, and the process felt good. It felt therapeutic.  He began to paint pictures of soldiers.

Dr. Van Der Kolk agrees that art and music and dance are all tools that can help overcome the speechlessness that comes with terror. He quotes a line from  Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” in Act 4, Scene 3, when Malcolm advises: “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.”

Raanan’s painting continued with themes that, for now, revolve around battle. For him, it was therapeutic, a way to express his feelings and thoughts not through words, but through art. And he became more focused. As his emotional strength returned, he and his wife returned to their own apartment and Raanan continued painting.

This is Raanan’s painting, cut into quarters and hung as specified on his grandmother’s wall in Teaneck.

Then my grandson saw a way to make his healing experience even more meaningful. He has created a website through which he shares his paintings. He auctions off an original painting, and then sells prints for less.  Fifty percent of his profit is donated to Soldiers Save Lives, an organization, according to his website, that “provides tactical equipment and humanitarian aid to soldiers and civilians in Israel.”

His website is

It was Raanan who asked me to write a piece about his struggles with PTSD, as he was eager to break the stigma often associated with depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. I was a bit resistant; he was determined.

On his website, Raanan introduces himself first and foremost as an artist, but he does not hesitate to share a brief bio that describes his struggles. His art has created a valuable path for healing and he continues to move forward. He writes: “Brushing away the shadows, where art becomes healing.”

I look at my grandson not simply with the deepest love, but also with enormous pride and admiration because of his journey. And I’m a little wiser (the “older” part of the expression is a given) in appreciating the gift we must all recognize of Israel’s remarkable soldiers, particularly since October 7. Unique young men and women. Committed to the security and safety of their holy land. Brave. Devoted. Proud. Challenged. Worried. Sometimes frightened. Heroes without capes.

I framed the four squares of Raanan’s painting and placed them on my dining room wall precisely as he instructed me. I cannot help but smile each time my eyes turn in that direction. It is clear that the viewer is looking at one whole piece, and you are not distracted by the small separations between the framed squares.

I see my grandson in the same way.  He has learned and continues to learn how to frame the different, sometimes difficult pieces of his young life in such a way that all the experiences and emotions work together to make one remarkable whole.

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