My mother left me one of her prized texts, a stunning illuminated Passover Haggadah by Arthur Szyk printed in 1962, edited by Cecil Roth. The book was hand-cased in the traditional way in beautiful blue Tsumugi silk cloth from Japan, and stamped in gilt on the spine and front cover. Many years of use and love shows, and the book is falling apart, pages taped in, binding spliting open. Through this piece I have tried to breathe new life into this magnificent rich text.
The Haggadah (Hebrew for “the telling”), the great book of freedom, tells the story of the exodus of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. One of Judaism’s most popular works of religious literature, it has been used during the Seder meal of the holiday of Passover—that is, Pesach—for more than one thousand years.
Jewish artists first began illustrating the Haggadah during the Middle Ages (the Sarajevo Haggadah of the 14th century is a well-known example), a vibrant tradition still observed today.
Without question, one of the most beautiful and moving of all illustrated Haggadot is the beloved Haggadah of Arthur Szyk (1894-1951). Drawn and first published during the rise of Hitler, The Szyk Haggadah is a triumphant and enduring work of hope and courage, the supreme expression of one artist’s love for his people and his heritage. A Polish Jew keenly aware of current events, Szyk fused his two passions—art and history—into a visual commentary on the dangerous parallel between the Passover narrative of oppression in ancient Egypt and the alarming developments unfolding in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The artist adopted illuminated miniature painting—an antique and nearly forgotten technique—to comment on the politics of his day.
I have taken portions of the Haggadah, namely the songs Chad Gad Ya to create the breastplate reminiscent of the High Priestly breastplates of the "Kohan Gadol", and "Who Knows One?" to create the skirting, trimmed with pomegranate style beading. The tunic beneath the breastplate shows the illustration of the Egyptian chariot in pursuit of the Israelites as they fled from slavery, along with the symbolic lions of Judaea and Sumeria guarding the Pesach crown. Along the sasch are the words that tell of the order of the Seder.
In keeping with the theme of singing and rejoicing, the outer coat, made from pages of Talmudic commentary, is trimmed with the rhythmic scoring of music, with treble clefs along the bottom. Musical references are also found on the collar, cuffs of the sleeves and underskirt. Music and Jewish traditions are very much intertwined.