Perhaps at the extreme end of the non-illustrational and ‘arm’s length to text’ spectrum is Robbie Ami Silverberg’s collaborative artist book created in Johannesburg, South Africa. Twenty-two artists contributed images addressing a Zulu creation myth in Emandulo Re-Creation (1997). The pages were divided in half vertically and then cut in thirds horizontally. Bound together so that a viewer could effectively mix and match different aspects of as many as six different artists simultaneously. To further the complexity, a video was made showing exactly these kinds of arbitrary combinations unfolding in time.
Pursuing a radically different approach, the primacy of text and its meaning dominates at least five other works. Siona Benjamin’s Esther Megillah (2010) recasts and thereby returns the Esther story to its Persian roots. Reflecting Benjamin’s Bene Israel roots in Mumbai, India, this illuminated Esther Scroll re-imagines the Esther narrative in a Persian/Indian setting with Esther transformed into a floating blue skinned echo of Vishnu, the Hindu blue skinned Savior, and the wicked Haman as a Bollywood villain, complete with handlebar mustache and outlandish costume. Nonetheless, Benjamin’s vision of the story (reviewed JP March 25, 2011) is no fairy tale, indeed in the climax the Jews are merciless to those who dared to plot their destruction, impaling the decapitated heads of Haman’s sons and riveting their corpses with a barrage of arrows under Mordechai’s firm direction.
Ellen Holtzblatt hews the primal narrative of destruction and survival in the biblical account of The Flood, “HaMabul,” Genesis 6:11 – 8:22 with her 14 woodcut prints. They bring a heartfelt urgency to the obliteration of human and animal life that God commanded. The Hebrew text is diversely integrated with close-up images of destruction: dead birds, washed away figures tangled with weeds and detritus that slowly give way to images of hope epitomized by a final panel of a woman with a newborn child, symbolizing God’s mercy in renewal. Missing are images of Noah, his family, the ark and the end of the flood itself; instead the artist notably expresses an intensely personal micro reaction to the first great world catastrophe. Even the passage “And Noah was 600 years old in the days of the flood,” is transformed into an image of a young man beginning to be entangled in the threads of the gathering storm. Her vision of the ancient devastation is visceral.
A simpler tack is taken by veteran illustrator Mark Podwal with his concise but encyclopedic “Ezekiel’s Vision” (2012-2013). His 12 drawings depict 12 prophecies, divided into three registers reflecting 1) Call of the Prophet, 2) The Doom of Jerusalem and 3) Israel Restored. Each image features an iconic image superimposed over a page open to the Hebrew text. In the first Chapter, Ezekiel’s vision of the Four Beasts, each of whom had 4 faces, are here represented as the head of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle mounted on the heads of a 4-pronged letter shin. Surely the shin represents the Divine name, thereby bringing the prophet’s vision an even more holy resonance. The Lord’s question to Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” is seen in a collection of human bones in the shape of a menorah, reflecting the ultimate restoration of the Jewish people both in the miracle of the oil in the time of the Maccabees and the creation of the modern State of Israel, its proud symbol also the Temple Menorah.
David Wander’s Illuminated Megillah Project, perhaps the ultimate expression of contemporary Jewish Book Art, is represented by the Book of Ruth and the Book of Lamentations (Eichah). Both are accordion books measuring approximately 2’ high and 30’ long, here fully displayed. Wander’s narrative of Ruth (reviewed in JP May 10, 2013) is depicted as a contemporary tale with Boaz as a prosperous frum businessman and Ruth as a mysterious young woman searching for her destiny in an urban setting. His Lamentations is radically different, digging deep into the gritty horror of the destruction of the First Jewish Commonwealth. The Hebrew text is written predominately in white on a black and frequently burned background. Relentless images of executions and deprivations lead to vicious birds of prey swooping down as women and children wailing lead to the Temple engulfed in white-hot flames. While it is terribly painful to hear Lamentations on Tisha b’Av, and so too it is the visual experience of Wander’s scroll, in a brilliant way the artist demands hope for the viewer. Dominating the last section is the verse “Bring us back to you, O Lord, and we shall return; renew our days as of old,” accompanied by the fateful image of a pack of foxes, echoing Rabi Akivah’s faithful prophecy (Talmud Makkos 24a) concerning the certainty of rebuilding our beloved Temple.