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 Hasan-Rock:
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.
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.
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.
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 peacock, tavas.
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.
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 Jewish honor...
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).