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Sukkot is a holiday that readily lends itself to broad artistic expression, with particular focus on the special mitzvot so intimately associated with the yom tov – beginning, of course, with the sukkah and the arba minim and ending with hoshanot and Simchat Torah. Many of our greatest artists have produced striking graphic works on these subjects; what follows is a selection of original artwork from my Sukkot collection.

 

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front-page-011416-rabanExhibited here is an original sketch by Zev Raban portraying hoshanot in the synagogue, as worshippers march around the bimah holding their lulavim and etrogim.

Raban (1890-1970) was one of the most important artists and designers in pre-state Eretz Yisrael. Recognizing that the traditional European style did not fit newly emerging Jewish art, he integrated European techniques with specifically Jewish themes. Drawing freely from a variety of styles, including Classical and Art Nouveau, he developed a unique representation of Jewish themes with ornamental calligraphic script and other decorative designs that ultimately came to be characterized as the “Bezalel style.”

Raban’s work, which closely follows the historical events of the building of the Jewish state, reflected his desire to strengthen the identity of Medinat Yisrael through the revival of symbolic Jewish mystical art. He was actively involved in the culture of the emerging nation, encouraging tourism through posters, illustrating primers for teaching Hebrew, and designing attractive functional objects to instill Jewish content into Jewish homes.

He became renowned for his portrayals of beautiful Israeli landscapes, holy places, biblical tales, and people, principally Yemenites, whom he adopted as a model for the biblical figure. His prominent works include sculptures for the YMCA building in Jerusalem (1934); the brass doors for the Nathan Strauss Health House (1928); various pieces for the Bezalel Building, Bikur Cholim Hospital, and the National Bank; and the ceramic tiles that decorate many buildings in Tel Aviv.

Raban was educated in a Polish cheder before studying art, first in his hometown of Lodz and later in Munich, Paris, and Brussels. Upon his arrival in Lodz in 1911, he heard about a Bezalel School arts and crafts exhibition there and met with several new olim, whose enthusiasm for Eretz Yisrael proved contagious. He met Boris Schatz in Paris and accepted his invitation to teach at Bezalel, arriving in Eretz Yisrael in 1912. Initially appointed director of the brass and copper repousse department (1914), he ultimately became interim director of the school.

Sadly, at the end of his very productive life Raban became blind and suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

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Joseph Budko (1880-1840), who leaned first toward art nouveau and later toward expressionism, created a whole new Jewish iconography ranging from Zionist symbols to representations of the shtetl of his youth. Developing a unique style that integrated Jewish tradition with a modern artistic approach, he was among an influential group of graphic Jewish artists who embraced the revival of the woodcut. Like his teacher and mentor, Hermann Struck (see below), he used etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs to revive the use of graphic and book illustration in the Jewish art world.

With its unique combination of line and form, Budko’s work reflected the emergence of early twentieth century Expressionism, which used the sharp contrast of black and white and hard, dramatic cuts as an expressive style. He is credited with reviving the spirit of Jewish book illustration and elevating it to modern design.

Budko’s works include woodcarvings illustrating biblical events; decorations for the books of Agnon, Bialik, and others; and numerous etchings and lithographs. In 1923 he published the first modern Hebrew haggadah with woodcuts and the first book in which the Hebrew letters are presented in traditional yet newly developed ornamentation.

He developed his famous “Budko” script in response to a request from a Bezalel committee for a modernization of Hebrew script for teaching in grade schools.

Exhibited here is an original Budko miniature etching, Simchat Torah (1919). The central design is an open Torah scroll, within which a number of white-bearded elderly Jews hold Torah scrolls, presumably during the hakafot ceremony. The four corner banners, beginning with the banner at the upper right and continuing counterclockwise, contains the verse “sisu vsimchu bSimchat Torah” – “rejoice and be happy on Simchat Torah.”

Born in Plonsk, Poland, Budko was educated in a cheder there and entered art school in Vilna in 1902 before moving to Berlin at age 22 to study with Herman Struck. He eventually fled Germany, immigrated to Eretz Yisrael, and was appointed the first head of the reopened Bezalel School of Arts in Jerusalem two years later (a position he held until his death), where he took advantage of the talent of the many new European immigrants to Eretz Yisrael and succeeded in revitalizing the school. His aliyah and his great love for Eretz Yisrael impelled creation of a new and independent Jewish artistic expression.

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Alphonse Levy (1843-1918), affectionately called “the Millet of the Jews,” was struck by the beauty and majesty of Jewish worship and tradition, which formed the core of the subject matter of his works and which he infused with a rare combination of whimsy and love.

Born into a family of strictly observant Jews, he grew up in a rural village in Alsace and, though he moved to Paris at age 17, his best known works remain the exaggerated yet affectionate depictions of the rural Jewish community of his childhood. Much like Rembrandt, who often painted the Jews of Amsterdam and whom he studied and admired, Levy sought his subjects from Jewish people of modest means, such as the pious ones of his family’s villages in Alsace and Lorraine:

 

When I was a child, I was not rocked by the song of the nightingale, but I was struck by the beauty and magic of the worship of the religion to which I belong. I was only looking for my models among the little people among the native and pious villages…. my models have not crossed the limits of their villages of Alsace and Lorraine, where my family lives…

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Saul Jay Singer, a nationally recognized legal ethicist, serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar. He is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters, and his column appears in The Jewish Press every week. Mr. Singer welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.