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Hagaddah Art: Illuminating our Way Through Jewish History

Haggadah Art: Illuminating our way through Jewish history

By Ozzie Nogg

Once upon a time in 1320, a wealthy Jewish family in Barcelona said, “We need a magnificent Haggadah, muy linda, to grace our Passover Seder.” And so they commissioned artists to create such a manuscript. And the artists took sheets of vellum and quills plucked from geese, and wrote the Hebrew text in black iron gall ink and applied gesso and bright pigments to the pages and drew miniature scenes from the Book of Genesis on gold leaf backgrounds — Adam naming the animals, the creation of Eve, Noah and his family leaving the ark — and when the artists’ work was done they presented the family with the illuminated Golden Haggadah. And it was very beautiful, indeed.

Other sumptuously illustrated and gloriously calligraphed medieval Haggadot include the Bird’s Head Haggadah, the Prato Haggadah and the legendary Sarajevo Haggadah — each resplendent with gilded furbelows, whimsical plant motifs and phantasmagoric creatures frolicking among stylized biblical imagery. When the first Hebrew printing press opened in Prague in 1512, scribes could finally soothe their arthritic fingers, rest their weary eyes and buy the printed Prague Haggadah (1526), embellished with sixty woodcuts designed to bring the Passover story to life (See Moses in the basket! See Egyptians drowning!) and thereby keep kids from nodding off into their matzoh ball soup during the seder.

But how do we Jews reconcile the illustrated Haggadah with Commandment #2 that speaks against graven images? In the above mentioned Bird’s Head Haggadah, the artist avoided transgression by swapping human faces for birds’ heads complete with prominent beaks — an acceptable, albeit weird, compromise with the graven image prohibition. Eventually, medieval religious leaders saw no danger of idolatry by using human forms in Haggadot, since the books were aimed at children and created for home ritual, not a synagogue service. This decision was (you should excuse me) a godsend for future generations of artists.

Today, there are an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 different illustrated versions of the Haggadah. And since the text tells us, “In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as having come out of Egypt”, Haggadah art often serves as a barometer of how the political, social and cultural winds are blowing. Case in point. In her Antisemitic Hate Signs in Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts from Medieval Germany (1999), art historian Ruth Mellinkoff writes that the drawings in the Bird’s Head Haggadah are not the work of a wily Jewish illustrator, but rather the mark-making of a non-Jewish, Anti-Semitic artist who deliberately put large, beak-like noses on the human head. To buy Mellinkoff’s theory is to own a perfect example of life imitating art. Or art imitating life. Indeed, if we compare different periods of Jewish history through the imagination of different Haggadah artists, we learn much about our changing attitudes since the Exodus. With apologies to those ( including me ) who prefer the more egalitarian Four Children, on this tour the Four Sons will guide us.

The wise son is traditionally shown as a passive scholar wearing glasses, his delicate back hunched over a book. Four hundred years later, the drawing of the wise son by Tzvi Livni in The Socialist Zionist Haggadah (1955) shows a smart kid holding the traditional book, but this sun-burnt teenager is dressed as a pioneering kibbutznik, a symbol of the newly triumphant Zionist socialist spirit of the young State of Israel, a member of the generation who will reject the old ways in favor of Jewish nationalism.

In many early Haggadot, the wicked son is depicted as a helmeted soldier armed with dagger, sword, club and shield. His eyes stark and black, his teeth bared. In the 1879 Chicago Haggadah, the wicked son is a newly-minted American businessman, smoking at the seder — the son who thumbs his nose at his parents’ old-world traditions, a symbol of the  generation gap and cultural divide between immigrants and their assimilated children. By 1959, in the Clashing Cultures Haggadah illustrated by Siegmund Forst, the wicked son (who resembles the Marxist Leon Trotsky) has morphed into a Jewish socialist revolutionary with his ax raised against the Ten Commandments, in conflict with his elderly ultra-orthodox Eastern European ancestors.

The simple son and the child who does not know how to ask have received make-overs, too, and today they appear in contemporary guises — a kid wearing a baseball cap; a little lamb that follows blindly; a toddler asleep beside a mother goose; a baby with a binky. My personal favorite? The Comedy Trans/gender Queer Liberation Haggadah by Reuben Zellman, MC Ettinger, Sierra Springarn and Rachel Kliegman. This version brings us the Eco-Feminist Crusty Punk Rock Vegan Hypochondriac Child who asks, “Was this Haggadah printed in a union shop on 100% post-consumer recycled hemp paper using soy ink that was not tested on animals, and has anyone seen my inhaler?” Gotta love it.

No overview of Haggadah illustrations is complete without a deep bow to the Szyk Haggadah, cited by The Times of London as ‘worthy to be placed among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has produced.’ Created by Polish-Jewish artist Arthur Szyk in Lodz, between 1934 and 1936, the Haggadah combines illuminated miniatures with biting satire. In forty-eight watercolor and gouache paintings, Szyk’s visual commentary equates the genocidal Pharaoh of the Passover narrative with Adolph Hitler, and draws vivid parallels between the oppressive Egyptian bondage and tyrannical Nazi Germany of the 1930s. The first edition of the Haggadah was printed in London in 1940, but only after pressure from the publisher forced Szyk to remove the more blatant political references, such as the swastikas on the armbands worn by the Egyptians who oversaw the Hebrew slaves. Szyk’s illustration depicting the wicked son as a blond Aryan with a Hitler-like mustache, remained. Szyk immigrated to New York in 1940 where he became an advocate for the rescue of European Jewry and a supporter of Israel’s struggle for independence. In 1945, Szyk illustrated the pamphlet, There Were Four Sons, issued by Zionist activists in the Untied States. His starkly modern retelling of the Four Sons creates a new image of the muscular Jewish worker/soldier, and is taken straight from the debates then raging in the American Jewish community over the future of Palestine.

In Haggadah and History (1975)  the late professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi observed, “The Haggadah as a book is, time and again, inseparable from its role as a mirror of history itself. No matter from which angle the printed Haggadah is approached, sooner or later we confront some significant development of the last five hundred years, some modicum of knowledge concerning the time and place in which they were printed.” According to Yerushalmi, “Many more Haggadahs will yet be published before the ‘ultimate’ edition appears.” Will that edition include the ‘ultimate’ version of the Four Sons?

While we wait for the answer, read The Four Sons as Characters from Glee — an article from The Forward, written by Jay Michaelson and available at http://www.forward.com/articles/136960/

Ozzie Nogg’s self-syndicated features take a slightly off-beat look at the history and observance of Jewish holidays, festivals and life-cycle events. For a look inside her book, Joseph’s Bones: A Collection of Stories, go to her website  — http://www.rabbisdaughter.com

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