"Signs and Wonders"

A just-published introduction to illustrated Haggadas imbues Passover with a new feeling this year.

L: The Szyk Haggada’s depiction of ‘Had Gadya’ (1940). R: Wise, wicked, simple and doesn’t know how to ask: The Four Sons in the Forst Haggada (1941) (photo credit: ‘SIGNS AND WONDERS’ BY ADAM S. COHEN)
L: The Szyk Haggada’s depiction of ‘Had Gadya’ (1940). R: Wise, wicked, simple and doesn’t know how to ask: The Four Sons in the Forst Haggada (1941)
What a pleasurable experience to open the beautiful new book Signs and Wonders by Prof. Adam Cohen, an informative introduction to the 100 Haggada masterpieces, included in the book.
His notes about each image and Haggada representation (most in full color) are incisive and informative. In his introduction, Cohen says, “Thousands of editions of the Haggada have been produced in every country where Jews have lived, often with the translations into many languages. We are all fortunate that the words of the Haggada were so important that everyone had to be able to understand.”
Among the myriad Haggadot that exist is one created by a Jewish social worker who lived on a Native American Navajo reservation in Utah. Coming from the East, she worked there for 10 years. Annually, she made a Seder, and publicly she invited all to come and participate. For the 11th year, she fashioned a new Haggada of her own with selected Hebrew and English passages and artwork, but also some Haggada passages translated into the Navajo tongue.
As a professor of art and an expert on Haggadot, the author shares valuable insights into the texts of the Haggadot and their artistic designs. He informs us. “It is clear that artists on their own initiative or at the request of a patron provided the Haggada with decorations for various and overlapping purposes.”
At first, Haggada art was the province of the wealthy, but once printing was invented, everyone could have a volume enhanced with images.
“To increase the value of the book,” Cohen tells the reader, “and to demonstrate the status of the owner or recipient,” artists invested more in their work. Many artists also “wanted to enhance the Seder experience visually and intellectually by illustrating the text directly with added visual commentary.” We are all in Cohen’s debt for assisting us in understanding this “visual commentary.”
You may be surprised, as I was, to discover that Signs and Wonders is linked directly to you personally. I will relate a few of my connections with reproductions from Haggadot.
IN 1946, I returned to Atlanta with my mother, Anna Geffen, and my father, Col. Louis Geffen. For six years, we were “camp followers” on the road, as my father served in World War II in a variety of US Army bases in the South. With great love, we accompanied him until he went overseas.
I remember only one Seder during those early travels, and I had never seen a Haggada. We arrived in Atlanta just in time for Passover. Since there were no apartments, we moved in with my grandparents, Harav Tuvia and Sara Hene Geffen. Coincidentally, August this year our family will mark the 120th anniversary of their wedding in Kovno, Lithuania. We lived in my mother’s home in Norfolk, Virginia, while my father was overseas; I began Hebrew school there and learned the Four Questions.
Still active in 1945 and running his own Hebrew school, was Mr. Rekonty, a Palestinian Jew, who had been my mother Anna Geffen’s teacher as well, 30 years earlier. At my Zadie’s Seder in 1946, I did recite the Four Questions. That Seder is memorable because it was the first time I read from a Haggada other than the one we “learned from” in Hebrew school.
Among the many Haggadot on that table 72 years ago were some small Haggadot with covers in color drawn by Siegmund Forst. For me, in particular, the presentation of the four sons truly struck me and I looked at them intensely with wonder. On page 227 of his book, Cohen has an enlarged picture in color of those four sons, with a little of Forst’s biography.
“Siegmund Forst was from a devout Orthodox family in Vienna, where, after spending some time in yeshiva, he studied art and calligraphy, principally with Rudolf von Larisch at the Academy of Visual Art in his hometown. With the Anschluss in 1938, the situation worsened dramatically, and Forst was fortunate to get a visa to America.”
Cohen stresses Forst’s beginnings in New York. “He settled in New York and even before learning English, Forst received commissions to illustrate Hebrew children’s books and the haggadot, the first of which was published in 1941.”
In Cohen’s explanation of Forst’s four sons, he notes that the bearded wise son is standing in front of a desk with “The righteous should live by his faith” written on it in Hebrew. The simple son is drawn “as a music-playing dandy lifting a glass.” When you actually see the illustration of the simple son, you can figure out what that might mean.
“The Wicked Son kneels before a globe of the world, under which he holds a lighted torch,” Cohen writes. “Forst is providing the viewer with a chilling reminder of the state of the world in the flames of world war.” Forst pulled no punches.
Found in the reproductions of pages from a Forst Haggada are multiple historical fighters on one page preserving the Jewish people from extinction. That complete image by Forst is from the artist’s over-sized Haggada of 1949. I liked all the historical figures in color, guardians of our people, but the most important was the Israeli soldier with a tractor behind him, on guard in our homeland. There is a special feature in this particular Haggada: a copy of the Declaration of Independence of Israel.
AS PASSOVER arrives, we board the boat of freedom on which we have sailed year after year. The vessel is comfortable because our parents and grandparents held the sails tightly and watched over us as we learned the lessons of the Haggada. Now it has become our turn to make our way through the storms, fortunate to be able to formulate our own understanding of freedom, a gift we have been given. The Haggada is basically always the same, leading us through its words to our continuing sense of being free and being Jewish. What Cohen has added to this journey are the powerful illustrations that he has chosen to include in his 100 Haggada masterpieces.
“The message of Passover is simple and complex,” a Chicago collector wrote. “Passover teaches the evils of slavery and the glory of freedom for us. Passover is the same every year and it is different; it is different across communities, yet it is recognizably the same. The Haggada that we continue to use year after year is both the vehicle for continuity and change.”
A major traveling exhibition was organized by Judaica collectors in the US in 1987 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress. Before that, most American Jews were not aware of the efforts of the Library of Congress as collector of Judaica. A massive volume, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress by Prof. Abraham Karp appeared. Along with that work was a facsimile of the Washington Haggada , a gift from an American Jewish philanthropist and leader many years earlier. Project Judaica was established to underwrite the exhibition and the facsimile. All of the contributors received a copy of the facsimile. I would have never seen it, but a good friend had one and I was able to study it thoroughly. Cohen explains that this Haggada was one of a number drawn by the artist Joel ben Simon, born in 1420 in Cologne.
Because he traveled widely, there are varied motifs in his work, which included 11 different illuminated manuscripts, six of which are Haggadot. The Washington Haggada, with his beautiful drawings is dated 1480. It was a thrill for me to see pages from that Haggada reproduced, since it was almost 30 years since I held the facsimile in my hands. The author of Signs and Wonders reproduced two fascinating pages from that Haggada for his volume. On one of the pages, there is a scene of a mother at work cooking. She and her woman helper have prepared a large tureen of soup. A vagabond is turning the spit with a large rack of meat and is eating the soup. A dog is on the floor is peering up – waiting for scraps. Cohen feels this is illustrating the words of the Haggada “all those who are hungry come in and eat.”
The second page reproduced shows an old man riding on a donkey with women and two youngsters behind him on the beast of burden. They are close to a gate of Jerusalem, where a man is waiting for them with a cup filled to drink. Cohen believes this drawing represents a vision of the Messiah arriving at the Holy City. Maybe the man on the donkey is the Messiah and maybe not. Joel ben Simon decided to capture the messianic dream of divine return.
WHEN I was a rabbi in Wilmington, Delaware in the 1970s before making aliya, I knew my predecessor there, the late Rabbi Jacob Kraft, quite well. He had spent his entire career at Beth Shalom, arriving in 1930. During World War II, he volunteered to serve and became an Air Force chaplain. He was in the European theater during the war and continued on for almost a year after the conflagration ended.
He was invited and was present at the famous Seder in Munich held on Passover in 1946. Chaplain Abraham Klausner planned it. Unafraid of organizing Jewish military and civilian events, he had worked tirelessly without military orders in 1945 and 1946 in the European displaced persons’ camps, trying to help these Jewish refugees. For that Seder, he arranged for a Haggada to be created and published. General Eisenhower became Moses in Klausner’s introduction. The entire work was in black and white with calligraphy and also pages with a typed miniature text. The illustrations were all original. Kraft sat in the audience, not at the head table, so he viewed the crowd from his perspective.
“It was a unique blending of conquerors, victims and onlookers. Our Jewish personnel there were individuals who had, for the past months in 1945-1946, molded the results of the victory with their hands. Also in attendance were DPs, who were now the major sufferers. They were treated in the DP camps worse than the despicable acts of the Nazi hordes. They were victims, but that night they were treated as royalty.”
The Haggada boldly connects the Passover experience with the Holocaust. “Haunting images of Jews doing forced labor,” Cohen writes, “under the whip of the Nazis and other features of the hard work performed by the Israelites and other features of the concentration camp experience evoke the hard work performed by the Israelites in Egypt.” In this Haggada, you are a witness as the faces of those lost, in this hell, are pouring out of the chimneys mingled with the billowing smoke.
THE POWERFUL woodcut-illustrated Haggada of Jacob Steinhardt, published in 1923, was a purchase of mine shortly after we made aliya in 1977. I was attracted to it at a local used-book store because I had never seen a book with such powerful illustrations adorning a Haggada. Cohen helped me understand Steinhardt’s four sons. Steinhardt was a soldier in the German army in World War I.
“Like many of his generation,” Cohen explains, “Steinhardt was scarred by the horrors of an apparently senseless war due to the use of modern technology, which killed and maimed an unprecedented number of people.” For Steinhardt, the Haggada was a place to publicly present his feelings and let them impact on those who would use the volume at the Seder.
“In his version of the Four Sons, the conflict is referenced directly and indirectly. Steinhardt presents the Wicked Son as a soldier, in this case as a Prussian army officer complete with the characteristic spiked helmet.”
Cohen takes us right into the minds of the artist and the viewers.
“The sword he grasps and his ugly grimace make the soldier particularly menacing. The deep lines the artist uses mold the expressive faces of the other figures and also suggest the absurdity of modern life.”
Many people have known about the work of Saul Raskin for many years. The Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers volume awakened many of us to this notable artist. Many a bar mitzva and bat mitzva celebrant in the 1940s and 1950s received that work of Raskin as a gift. Trained in Odessa and other places in Europe, he received a visa and immigrated to the US in 1904.
Cohen’s words explain the Ten Plagues illustration in the Raskin Haggada. This powerful work was published in 1901 before he came to the US.
“A towering figure of Moses,” Cohen writes, “stretches his arms and staff to the sky pointing with his forefinger as if to summon God’s wrath suggested by the elemental forces of billowing smoke and jagged lightning.”
Cohen awakens in us the real power of this illustration. When I found this volume in an old synagogue in Pennsylvania, I showed it to my rabbinical friends. Our eyes were glued to these two facing pages, which present the plagues.
“This monumental Moses,” Cohen emphasizes, “who dominates the right side of this unusual two-page composition, is thus the fierce agent of the Ten Plagues on the left, which seems to be projected across the page by the force of Moses’ upswept arms.”
Looking at the plagues, each one labeled and with the appropriate illustration, we see how they curve toward a kneeling, pleading Pharaoh. These pages are the only ones in the Haggada printed in red, a specific reference to the first plague of blood. As we look at those pages, we can see the hands of Moses/Charlton Heston splitting the Red Sea so the Jews can march through safely. I have always found these pages unforgettable. Raskin, I believe, made us focus on the tragedy in Europe. Too bad, we did not take sufficient action to halt the slaughter.
BACK IN the 1980s here in Israel, many of us were invited on a Shabbat to see the pages of a Haggada being drawn with great precision and love by David Moss. He employed Hebrew calligraphy in the pictures and borders, which he created with his tiny Hebrew letters. Moss’s micrography was a key factor in the revival of this ancient art form of the Jewish people. Now growing numbers of scribal artists are widening the impact of the Hebrew letters. After initially reviving the art of the illuminated ketuba (marriage contract) over 50 years ago, Moss moved to the Haggada, which a family had commissioned. When that was done, he diversified his creativity to variety of distinctive Jewish art forms, including architectural work as well. Cohen writes, “Moss marries flawless artistry with formidable ideas. The result is a magnificent Haggada that challenges the eye and mind to find new meaning and delight in the ancient Seder experience.”
As these Haggada masterpieces are now waiting for us to explore, let us study them not only on Passover, but throughout the year.