The Illustrated Book
The illustrated Hebrew book par excellence is Mashal
ha-Kadmoni (The Fable of the Ancient), written in 1281 by Isaac
ben Salomon Abi Sahula, a Castilian poet and student of Kabbalah.
From its first printing in Brescia (1491) by Gershom Soncino, through
six Hebrew and nine Yiddish editions, it has contained woodcut illustrations.
This book of fables whose characters are animals is described by Galit
Its sources were in the Talmud and Midrash.... their moral lessons
are Jewish, and the animals, well versed in Jewish learning: the deer
is an expert in Talmud, the rooster, a Bible scholar, and the hare
knows the posekim [legal authorities], They are also knowledgeable
in such fields as logic, grammar, and biology.
The most profusely illustrated early Hebrew printed book was Mashal ha-Kadmoni (The Fable of the Ancient). This 1546
Venice edition is influenced by its Italian provenance. The animals are drawn in the flowing fine lines of Italian fine
Isaac ben Salomon Abi Sahula, Mashal ha-Kadmoni, Venice, 1546. Hebraic Section.
Illustrations differ in the various editions. Thus,
in the 1546 Venice printing, the animals
are charmingly drawn in fine line illustrations. On pages fourteen and
fifteen a crowned lion dines with his friends, the deer and fox; the
lion and deer consulting; the fox calling on the wolf, and a bear beheading
the fox. The illustrations in the Frankfurt an der Oder 1693 edition
are heavier and darker, and so is the type. Book illustration has moved
from the lighter, graceful Romanesque to the angular, heavier Gothic.
One illustration shows a seated scholar, a book on a stand before him,
discussing with a standing disputant, since the work is a dialogue.
The heavy, dark, angular illustrations of the Frankfurt an der Oder, 1693 edition of Mashal ha-Kadmoni (The Fable of the
Ancient) reflects the gothic influence on Hebrew printing and illustration.
Isaac ben Salomon Abi Sahula, Mashal ha-Kadmoni, Frankfurt an der Oder, 1693. Hebraic Section.
In post-World War I Germany there was a sudden efflorescence
of bibliophilic illustrated books. The finest creations were by such
graphic artists as Jakob Steinhardt and Joseph Budko. Two works by Steinhardt,
in editions limited to one hundred copies, and one by Budko serve as
good examples: Gleichnisse by Jizchak-Leib Perez (Isaac Leib
Peretz), the great master of Yiddish literature, in German translation
by Alexander Eliasberg, with eight lithographs by Jakob Steinhardt,
published by the Verlag fur Judische Kunst und Kultur, Berlin, 1920;
and by the same author, translator, artist and publisher in the same
year, Musikalische Novellen, Joseph Budko and Arno Nadel produced Das Jahre des Juden (The Jewish Year) for the same publisher,
also in 1920. A series of twelve short poems by Nadel on the Jewish
holidays, Das Jahre ... has each poem illustrated by a Budko
etching, reproduced in heliogravure and tipped-in. The frontispiece
is a Budko woodcut.
The words of Isaac Leib Peretz of Warsaw, in German translation, and the artistry of Jakob Steinhardt of Berlin (later of
Jerusalem) meet in this bibliophilic edition. The post-World War I years saw a flourishing of Jewish graphic art in
Germany in which Steinhardt played a major role, and of which this volume, published in 1920 by Verlag fur Judische
Kunst und Kultur (Jewish Art and Culture Publishing House), is a fine example. This copy is number 33 of an edition of
100 and is open to the illustration, "The Days of the Messiah." The elder is telling the young lad of a Jerusalem rebuilt and
restored to its former glory.
Isaac Leib Peretz, Gleichnisse, Lithographs by Jakob Steinhardt, Berlin, 1920. Rare Book and Special Collections
An artistic collaboration in Jerusalem of Levin Kipnis, who provided the verses, and Zev Raban, a teacher at
the Bezalel School
of Art, produced the most beautiful of Hebrew alphabet books. Printed
in Berlin in 1923, in brilliant colors, it is especially notable for
the gold of the alphabet letters. Each letter is illustrated with an
object whose name in Hebrew begins with that letter, as, for example:
the het by a stork, hasida; and tet by a
Published in 1923 in Berlin
for children, this most beautiful of Hebrew alphabet books has become
a favorite of collectors of Jewish graphic art. A collaboration of
Jerusalemites associated with the Bezalel School of Art Levin
Kipnis, words, and Zev Raban, an it was published in Germany,
since in 1923 Palestine did not yet have the facilities to produce
so fine an illuminated book. Published by Hasefer (The Book) publishing
Alef-Bet (Alphabet), illustrations by Z. Raban, verses by L.
Kipnis, Bezalel Jerusalem, Berlin, 1923. Hebraic Section.
An almost unknown masterpiece of the genre is a hand-colored
book of woodcuts in a limited edition of 200, Oif Waitkajten Krajzende
Fal Ich (in Circular Distances I Fall), Lodz, 1921. The Yiddish
words are by David Zitman, the illustrations by Ida Brauner. In the
bibliophilic books printed in Germany, there is a remarkable control,
symmetry, balance, and calmthese were, after all, the heady days of
the Weimar Republic. In this small Zytman volume, printed in post-World
War I Poland, neither letters nor
words are uniform or in alignment, and the impressionistic illustrations
are jarring in color and composition. The new Poland had risen only
a year earlier, and Polish Jews viewed their future with trepidation.
Their world was not at all in order.
The Jewish artistic flourishing
in the early years of the Weimar Republic, Germany, extended
to Poland. The poet David Zitman and the artist Ida Brauner collaborated
on this powerfully evocative little volume, In Circular
Distances I Fall, The words are of mystical yearning, the illustrations,
arresting in their color and strength. Few, very few, copies of this
little volume, published in an edition of 200, have survived
the Holocaust. The Library's copy is number 67.
Oif Waitkajten Krajzende Fal Ich (In Circular Distances I Fall), words composed by David Zitman, hand-colored
woodcuts by Ida Brauner, Lodz, 1921. Hebraic Section.
At first glance, the most chilling bibliophilic book
of that time seems the most benign, Had Gadyah, Berlin, 1920.
Illustrated in color by Mena chem Birnbaum, its words in lovely Hebrew
and German type, it contains the song, beloved by children, which closes
the Passover seder service:
A kid, an only kid
My father bought for two zuzim.
Came a cat and ate the kid,
Came a dog and ate the cat,
Came a stick and hit the dog,
Came a fire and burned the stick,
Came water and extinguished the fire,
Came an ox and drank the water,
Came a slaughterer and slew the ox,
Came the angel of death and slew the slaughterer,
Came the Holy One, blessed be He,
And slew the angel of death.
Violent, to be sure, but with such a wonderful ending,
the promise of life eternal!
The illustrations begin idyllically. The father holds
a pure white kid in his arms; the child clings to the father. The lamb
is meek, the cat is big and black. The dog biting the cat fills the
page with his menacing presence; a minuscule cat now, the victim has
shrunk in the presence of its attacker. It is not a stick which hits
the dog, but a mammoth bludgeon. The slaughterer revels in his slaughter,
and blood-red is the dominant color of that illustration. The angel
of death is white-winged darkness with talon claws gouging out the eyes
of its bloodied victim. In the final frame, God appears a shaft
of light cleaving the darkness. But somehow the darkness of death and
its white wings and talons dominate the scene, its dark presence hemming
in the narrow ray of light.
The artist is crying out his warning; the pictures
become the text. Happy endings are only in children's songs. Reality
is what I have just seen in four long years of bloody war. Each devours
another. In this world of ours, only violence persists.
Menachem Birnbaum (1893-1944), son of the Nathan
Birnbaum who coined the term Zionism,
was born in Vienna. A portraitist and
graphic artist, he worked as an art editor for Jewish journals, and
after World War I became the art director of two Jewish publishing houses.
He fled the Nazis to Holland, but in
1943 he was seized in Amsterdam and sent to Auschwitz,
where the Angel of Death slain only in Had Gadyo
reigned supreme. His Had Gadyo illustrations warn of the enduring
ominous presence of violence and evil on the European continent and
in the heart of man, a first book prophetically foreshadowing the Holocaust two decades before it began.
The Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever survived the Holocaust
in the Vilna ghetto and, as
a partisan in his native Lithuania, received an award for heroism from
the Soviet Union. In 1947, he went to Palestine,
where he has remained an honored citizen of the State of Israel, editing
the country's leading Yiddish literary journal, Die Goldene Kayt (The Golden Chain).
His poem Sibir, describing his family's experience
in Siberia during World War I, was published in Israel in Hebrew (1952) and in Yiddish (1953), and in English in London (1961). All the
editions are similar, with eight magnificent Marc
Chagall drawings. A Chagall preface appears in the English section
only, in which the artist writes:
We had not yet met personally when he [Sutzkever] approached me with
the request to illustrate his poem, Siberia. Of course, I
put all my other work aside at once, and set myself to tackle his
world of Russian Siberia.... I wanted to show him and his friends
... the men of the Resistance ... my love and respect for
what they had done: they have raised high our Jewish banner and our
Considering such Jews as Sutzkever, I would wish us
all to find within ourselves, now and in the future, our inner Jewish
strength to preserve and cultivate our purity of soul, which
alone can and must lead us toward genuine human ideals. It alone has
been in the past, and must be in the future, the basis of art, of social life and of culture, and only for its sake
is our life worth living and our art worth creating.
Particularly poignant is Sutzkever's written memory
of his father in Siberia, and Chagall's visual depiction of it:
White as the moon is my father's face.
The silence of snow rests on his hands.
He cuts the black loaf
with his white blade of mercy
and his face grows blue.
Sharp images cut through my mind
as I dip in salt a slice of my father's bread.
(Translation by Jacob Sonntag)
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From
the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress,
(DC: Library of Congress, 1991).