The art of the Jewish question

Educational organization Kol HaOt combines Jewish education with the arts.

Hagaddah 521 (photo credit: Copyright © Matt Berkowitz 2012)
Hagaddah 521
(photo credit: Copyright © Matt Berkowitz 2012)
Open the Passover Haggada, and you’ll find every type of question imaginable: philosophical, theological, practical, historical, numerical. For contemporary Jewish artists, transforming those questions into meaningful images can be quite a conundrum.
In creating his acclaimed Moss Haggadah, artist David Moss was constantly questioning both the text and himself. In the section on the four sons, for instance, Moss recalls that he asked, “What is this really about? How is it relevant to us? What else is like this? What can we learn from it?” His artistic solution was to portray the sons as individual playing cards.
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“It struck me that however you interpret the differences between the four sons, the essence is that every child is unique and that as parents or teachers we’re in a game of chance and have no control over the children dealt us,” says Moss, whose work has been hailed by the London Jewish Chronicle as the greatest Haggada ever produced.
“Our job, like the card player’s, is to recognize the specialness of each child, and help him grow from that place. This is exactly reflected by each son’s different question and the response that acknowledges that uniqueness.”
To reflect each son’s personality, Moss included a little book in every picture, and positioned it in different ways, to mirror the corresponding child’s attitude toward Jewish tradition. The wise son is seen immersed reading the book; the wicked son sits on the book, the simple son innocently holds a Torah scroll, and the son who doesn’t know how to ask a question carelessly uses the book to prop up his leg while juggling.
Moss wrote the opening text across the double spread, and framed each son with the large word “Baruch” (blessed). To make the point even stronger, he also assigned a different, traditional blessing to each child and used it as a final flourish, in micrographic writing, at the bottom of each Baruch.
“Diversity, how we deal with it, and how we can discover the blessing within it, is perhaps the theme of the Midrash of the four sons,” Moss notes.
THIS HOL HAMOED Passover, Moss, and his co-founders of the Kol HaOt organization, will be on hand to inspire visitors of all ages to probe their own relationship to questions, in the free event, “When Your Child Asks: Questions to Spark Your Curiosity.” The group’s center at the Martef Theater (7 Emek Refaim Street, in Jerusalem’s German Colony) will be transformed into a magical theater of questions on Tuesday, April 10, and Wednesday, April 11, from 5 to 9 p.m.
Throughout the event, visitors can stop by at any time and be challenged to creatively express their own answers to myriad questions, using a variety of artistic tools, including collage, video, writing and drawing.
The program is among the many events run throughout the year by the organization, which is dedicated to illuminating Jewish life through the visual, performing and culinary arts.
Also at the event, Moss and artist Matt Berkowitz, creator of the Lovell Haggadah, will discuss their illuminated haggadot and explain the challenges involved in creating the images in their respective limited-edition works.
“The talmudic tradition is about relentlessly pursuing the most penetrating questions,” notes Yair Medina, a Kol HaOt founder and Jerusalem fine-art printer, who has produced several world-class haggadot.
“It has been said that a question is the creative act of the intelligence.”
Artist Avner Moriah, renowned for his evocative landscapes of Israel, had never attempted illuminating a classic Hebrew text until 2001, when an illness in his family prevented him from traveling around the country to paint the Israeli landscape.
As the Jerusalem-born painter waited long hours in the hospital, he began making preliminary drawings for what was to become his original hand-painted Moriah Haggadah.
“Other people around me were reciting psalms,” recalls Moriah, who describes himself as a secular Israeli. “My solution for coping with the situation was to sketch.”
The result is his striking illuminated Haggada, in which he employs the roundel motif to represent and reaffirm the neverending cycle of Jewish history and life. To illustrate the question “why is this night different from all other nights,” Moriah cleverly contrasts modern activities with the Seder night.
On one side of his roundel, Moriah depicts eight pursuits that one does on regular nights: attend a concert, go to the ballet, a basketball game, or out to dinner; stay at home and read a book; go to the theater; watch television; or go to a movie. On the other side are scenes of eight individual Seder nights. In the center are images of the two types of nights, and the food eaten at each one, balanced on a pyramid fulcrum, representing the balance between the sacred and the mundane.
“I felt what it was like to be on the threshold of the inferno and to find the strength to overcome my despair and make something creative out of the experience,” adds Moriah, whose Haggada has been exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum.
For his graphic rending of the Seder song “Who Knows One?” Berkowitz, another Kol HaOt founder, created vertical columns on either side of his painting that list the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each letter, which has a numerical equivalent, is positioned next to a drawing of the song’s answer to each question.
“Questioning is an essential component of the Jewish religious and cultural DNA,” says Berkowitz, whose limited edition artist portfolio, Passover Landscapes: Illuminations on the Exodus is on permanent exhibit at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“We’re so obsessed that we can’t help turning our questions into songs.”
For those seeking to learn more about how Jewish texts and ideas are translated into visual images, Kol HaOt will be offering a six-week course, beginning after Passover, on “The ‘Art’ of Judaism” at the Martef Theater. Each week, participants will explore Jewish art through the ages, meet with leading local artists, and create their own works, including papercuts and collages, based on Jewish themes.
“It will be a fascinating journey to see how contemporary Jewish artists take on the challenge of interpreting Judaism’s ancient texts in a visual way that speaks to 21st-century Jews,” says Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz, director of Kol HaOt.
More information about Kol HaOt can be found on the organization’s web site:
The writer is the communications director at Kol HaOt – Interactive Jewish Educational Art Programs.