Growing up in central New Jersey in the early 1950s, Allen Hirsh knew virtually nothing about Judaism as a religion. “My family was rather typical of the community: extremely left-wing labor Zionists,” he said of his parents, who spoke Yiddish at least half of the time in the house. Hirsh’s father, a chicken farmer-turned-landscaper, went to kheyder for 11 years and “was considered a Yiddish language scholar by other farmers,” Hirsh said. His father, he notes, took several “extended trips” to Israel during the Suez crisis “to help build the fledgling chicken industry at Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv in northern Israel.”
As a young adult, though, Hirsh, a Silver Spring, Maryland-based biophysicist and artist, turned to his faith. After what he describes as a “tumultuous period” in his life as a neurophysiology graduate student at Columbia University, he studied Jewish mysticism as part of what he calls “my teshuvah.”
“It has long sat in the background of my life,” he said, “but its rich concepts of an infinite God are compatible with my theological, artistic, and scientific instincts.”
Those instincts, honed at Caltech prior to Columbia and in a doctoral program in plant physiology at the University of Maryland, College Park, have led Hirsh down a rare path. The self-declared “abstract gardener” — whose digital print “Early in the Big Bang” is on display in the exhibit “Fireworks” (through July 27) at Washington’s Foundry Gallery — maintains an exotic garden.