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Beauty is in the Hands of its Creators: Three Haggadot

In 1939, the year World War II broke out, Arthur Szyk, after seven years of labor, completed his illuminated Haggadah. it was published a year later in an edition of 250 copies on vellum, half to be distributed in the United Kingdom, half in the United States. Cecil Roth, who edited the publication, writes in his Introduction:

In the general deterioration of the art of book-production in the nineteenth century, the Hebrew Book considered as an aesthetic object sank to its lowest depths.... The art of the scribe, the calligrapher and the illuminator ... waned with the eighteenth century... It has been left to a contemporary, Arthur Szyk, to rediscover the secret and revive the art.... To call him the greatest illuminator since the sixteenth century is no flattery. It is the simple truth.... He does not illuminate a page.... He thinks of each page in its relation to the text and to the volume, integrating calligraphy, illumination, illustration and narrative into one harmonious whole.

The Szyk Haggadah is more than a work of simple beauty; it is also, as all great works of illustration must be, a commentary. In Szyk's portrayal of the Four Sons, Roth notes:

The Wicked son ... according to a very ancient tradition ... is always shewn as a soldier. . . —an eloquent expression of the peace-loving nature of the Jew... Yet recent events have indicated that, in these days of organized brutality, nonresistance may sometimes be equivalent to suicide.... The real betrayer of his people to-day is the full-blooded assimilator, who will do his best ... to out-Junker the Junkers: and it is thus that Szyk shows him. It is not a pleasant type: nor is it intended to be.

Where Szyk turned to the medieval scribe for his artistic inspiration, Ben Shahn absorbed it from contemporary America. Of his Haggadah for Passover, Boston, 1965, Shahn writes:

The making of this book has proceeded much more in the manner of a painting perhaps, than of a proper book. it reflects my memories of the Passover in my father's house.... If the work is less than accurate from the purely pedantic point of view, let us say that it more than compensates for such lapses by being full of the glory and mystery that form the essential meaning of the Passover, that kind of meaning which is so woefully lacking in the customary Haggadas.

The Hebrew title page and facing menorah frontispiece are an aesthetic delight. The blessing beneath the menorah, "Blessed art thou, O, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who hast kept us in life, and enabled us to reach this time and season," is appropriate to a Jew in the post-Holocaust world.

For Shahn the celebration of Passover is memory. For the American Israeli calligrapher-artist David Moss, Passover is a spiritual experience. For him "Next year in Jerusalem" is a religious mandate, as is his creation of a bibliographic Haggadah. As Szyk's Haggadah is in the tradition of its illuminated medieval predecessors, as Shahn drew on contemporary artistic idiom, so Moss's Haggadah is most authentically Jewish in its eclectic nature. The classical Hebrew book is more an anthology to which the author adds his mite, than a work of original creativity. Though Moss is marvelously inventive in his illuminated pages, he has consciously striven to have them reflect the variety of artistic expressions of those before him who had made Hebrew manuscripts and books things of beauty, as he accomplished in his own creative effort. His Haggadah is a splendid addition to the bibliophilic Hebrew book, the most authentically Jewish art form.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).