The Passover Haggadah
  Modern Art in Dialogue with an Ancient Text
      About the Exhibit

The Passover Haggadah is not the creation of a single author but rather a composite liturgical text made up of biblical and rabbinic passages with the addition at the end of what one might call folk songs from long ago. The Haggadah was probably assembled sometime during the late Second Temple Period in Palestine and was meant to be read on Passover eve during the Passover seder, a ceremony held in Jewish homes and meant to commemorate the Israelite redemption from Egyptian bondage in biblical times.

The Haggadah text has been embellished and enhanced over the centuries with illustrations. These illustrations serve both esthetic and instructional purposes. Not only do they beautify the appearance of the text but they add depth, meaning and even content to it. For example, Moses is not mentioned in the Haggadah at all even though he is such a dominating figure in the Exodus story in the Bible. In the illustrations that accompany the text, however, he is present in most of the images that deal with biblical narratives concerning the Exodus. These include the Pharaonic decree that all Israelite male new-borns be thrown into the Nile, the suffering and hardship of the Israelite servitude, the ten plagues, the parting of the Reed Sea and receiving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai. The latter is mentioned in the well-known hymn, Dayenu. The illustrations revolving around Moses may even contain scenes from his life that are not mentioned in the Haggadah text such as his coming across the burning bush in the desert. Scenes from the lives of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob also figure in illustrations that appear in the Haggadah. The illustrations fill in details that the text does not emphasize but are important in Jewish tradition and belief.

The Haggadah's message of redemption and freedom has also inspired and captivated modern artists. However, whereas the artists of the past were by and large anonymous and saw themselves as representatives of their various communities, Haggadahs illustrated by modern artists are personal statements as well as communal ones. Be they observant or secular, their Haggadah illustrations give expression to their most personal feelings as artists and as Jews. David Moss in his introduction discusses how his Haggadah reflects his joy at his immigration with his family to Israel. Avner Moriah, an Israeli artist, talks about the connection of his illustrations to his wife's serious illness and recovery. Victor Majzner tells us in his introduction to his Australian Haggadah that his illustrations express not only his connection to Judaism but also to his love for his adopted home, Australia.

There is also no way to categorize modern artists' Haggadah illustration. The art may be figurative or highly abstract, childlike and humorous or stately and formal, full of color or black and white. Many artists have specific agendas, be they religious, political, or social. The lack of women in the Haggadah, for example, has become an issue that many current artists address in their illustrations. Miriam, Moses' sister, is represented in Passover Landscapes by Matthew L. Berkowitz. Though not mentioned at all in the traditional Haggadah text, she is mentioned in the Book of Exodus as having led the women of Israel in song and dance after the people crossed the Reed Sea. Berkowitz makes use of the Exodus passage in order to include her and the Israelite women in his illustrations. El Lissitzky and Menachem Birnbaum reflect on the tumultuous times of war and revolution in which they lived in their illustrations for the Had Gadya (a children's song that concludes the Haggadah). David Wander in his powerful and disturbing illustrations interprets the text in light of the devastation of European Jewry during World War II.

The Haggadah is a timeless book; it has given voice to the hopes and dreams of Jews throughout the generations. And from medieval times to the present, artists have expressed these hopes and dreams in the magnificent illuminations they created. Text and image maintain an ongoing dialogue.

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