From concept to masterpiece

The Kol HaOt Illuminated Haggadah and Shir Hashirim Fair can be seen as an artistic journey

Few in Number521 (photo credit: Copyright Avner Moriah 2013)
Few in Number521
(photo credit: Copyright Avner Moriah 2013)
After spending five years creating vivid, colorful images for his illuminated Haggada, artist Maty Grunberg intuitively felt something was amiss.
The epic story of the Jewish people’s redemption and freedom, born out of suffering and pain, needed a more somber visual tone, he felt.
“I felt that the color was too frivolous. That’s when I changed direction and began creating the Haggada with woodcuts. Then, in a mysterious way, everything began to flow and I felt I got everything right. This is the magic of creating things as an artist,” he recalls.
The result was his impressive Bezalel Haggadah, published in 1984. This past year, he reopened his files, chose 40 sketches from his colorful preliminary studies, placed them alongside the final version of the more subdued woodcut prints, and published them in a limited edition art book, Selected Study Drawings from the Bezalel Haggadah. The publication follows the artist’s creative process, visually documenting the ardent search and transformations from the early sketches, which were never published, to the final woodcuts in the printed Haggada.
This magnificent “before and after” comparative work will be among a vast collection of illuminated manuscripts, books and prints featured at the upcoming Haggadah and Shir Hashirim Fair sponsored by the Kol HaOt organization on Thursday, March 28, at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, from 5 to 10 pm. The fair will also feature the illuminated works of renowned Israeli Judaica artists, including David Moss, Avner Moriah, Ya’akov Daniel, Matt Berkowitz, Enya Keshet, Ya’akov Boussidan, Liliana Kleiner, Eliyahu Sidi and Asher Kalderon.
Many of the artists themselves will be at the fair, and will provide the public with an “insider’s look” at the creative evolution they personally underwent to visually interpret the Haggada and Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) texts.
“Visitors will enjoy a feast for the eyes, soul and intellect, as they view these dazzling works of fine art,” says Yair Medina, a cofounder of Kol HaOt.
“People think that you just put your image on a page. But it’s actually a journey,” notes Grunberg. “Preliminary drawings are a stepping stone. Sometimes you miss a step and you have to jump.
It’s a process of thinking. Your mind and your eye question all the time if it’s right. Intuition also plays a part. Between the brain and intuition, you create art.”
WHEN ARTIST David Moss embarked on creating his acclaimed Moss Haggadah, he envisioned that it would only take one year to complete; in the end, the project took three years of full-time work. He devoted the first six months to research, visiting libraries in England and Israel, where he studied historic illuminated haggadot as well as traditional and scholarly commentaries to the Haggada text.
“Though I took many notes during this initial period, I deliberately made no sketches or drawings,” he says.
Once he began creating each page, the Haggada rapidly took on a personality of its own, he recalls. “Often [the Haggada text] seemed to urge a particular treatment of a subject. I always listened carefully to the dictates of the work.”
To illustrate the theme of “the Exodus as pure potential,” Moss chose the image of a tree for the opening page of his Haggada, since it represents the pure potential contained in the sprouting seed, and a visual metaphor for the sprouting of a nation. But just expressing his idea symbolically wasn’t enough.
“I wanted the opening page to actually be a beginning that contained the whole. So in the micrographic writing that forms the borders of the first page, I wrote out the entire Haggada in two intertwining strands,” he says. “Thus, the first page, as the opening of the whole Haggada, itself contains everything that is about to unfold.”
Enya Keshet’s breathtaking Shir Hashirim scroll was inspired by the artistic style of the Lisbon Judaica manuscript workshop, active during the last half of the 15th century. As she scoured the verses of the ancient love story – traditionally read on the Shabbat of Hol Hamoed Passover – for visual themes, she selected pomegranates as a motif for her scroll. This then sparked the idea to incorporate their luscious red as an overall color treatment for the ornamental work.
Reversed hearts, which subtly form a sensual Star of David, helped her further express her artistic vision of the “meaningful combination of the love between the Jewish people and God,” she says.
Artist Avner Moriah – a secular Israeli who has produced the illuminated Moriah Haggadah – sought out rabbis and scholars to enrich his understanding of traditional Jewish texts. He is now in the process of illuminating the entire Torah; as he worked on this project, he decided that many of his drawings would also be visual commentaries that compared various biblical episodes.
For instance, instead of simply depicting how the midwives in Egypt disobeyed Pharaoh and spared the firstborn Jewish males, he decided to expand the theme and compare their actions to Queen Esther’s heroic effort to save the Jews of the Persian Empire from Haman.
“God chose them, and rewards the midwives for their stand in saving the firstborn. It’s the same for Esther – she was chosen to save our people,” he says.
So far, he has published an Illuminated Book of Genesis, which has been acquired by major institutions, including the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Last May, Moriah personally presented pope Benedict XVI with a copy of his Illuminated Book of Genesis during a special audience in Italy; the book is now part of the Vatican Library. He is currently in the process of producing an Illuminated Book of Exodus; many of his preliminary studies of his Exodus drawings, as well as his stunning Moriah Haggadah, will be on view at the Kol HaOt Haggada and Shir Hashirim Fair.
For Rabbi Matt Berkowitz, creator of the limited edition artist portfolio Passover Landscapes: Illuminations on the Exodus, and The Lovell Haggadah, it was crucial that Jewish teachings, such as gratitude, be woven into his illuminations. Thus, the opening illumination of his Haggada is based on the prayer that the ancient Israelites said upon offering their first fruits to God.
“It is not just about art; it is about the visual reflecting the sacred. I wanted to encourage people to think deeply about their sense of appreciation to God when they gather around the Seder table with family and friends,” he says.
Kol HaOt, a Jerusalem-based organization established in 2009, sponsors a variety of interactive programs for tourists to Israel that combine the magic of the visual and performing arts with Jewish texts and ideas, history and values.
“Our holiday artists’ fairs are just one way we try to expose the public to the depth and creativity of Judaism and Jewish sources,” notes director Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz.
This past year, Kol HaOt began holding special performing arts programs at its center at the Martef Theater in Jerusalem, including the oneman show “LightHeaded: Jerusalem Unwrapped,” which will be performed this Wednesday, March 27. This enchanting journey explores the character and characters of the Eternal City, through drama, allegory, film and rap. In addition to conducting holiday artists’ fairs and educational programs, in the coming months Kol HaOt will also hold a film evening on April 11 that explores Israeli society and Jewish values, Bibliodrama, Jewish cabaret performances, ongoing exhibits, artist circles, educator training and visual Beit Midrash studies. ■
For more information about the organization and its activities, visit