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Reading Szyk’s Cards


King Saul, King of Spades by Arthur Szyk
Heroes of Ancient Israel: Playing Card Art published by Historicana

King Saul, King of Spades by Arthur Szyk Heroes of Ancient Israel: Playing Card Art published by Historicana

King Solomon represents the King of Hearts with a passive equanimity, gently holding his Song of Songs, his calm serenity expressing his legendary wisdom. Ruth as the Queen of Hearts is likewise sweetly self-possessed, a blond convert among all the other dark-haired Jews. John of Giscala (Yochanan ben Levi) as the Jack of Hearts presents a calm warrior; indeed his cunning allowed his strategic escape from Titus to take up the leadership of the Zealots in the final battle for Jerusalem. Unfortunately his latter history in the siege of Jerusalem was violent and divisive. Therefore it is hard to fit him into the pensive paradigm of the other two.

King Solomon, King of Hearts by Arthur Szyk
Heroes of Ancient Israel: Playing Card Art published by Historicana

Finally the King of Diamonds is fittingly represented by King Hezekiah. Quite beyond his courage in resisting the brutal assault of the Assyrian Sennacherib on Jerusalem, it was King Hezekiah’s determined religious reforms and return to the worship of Hashem that earned him the praise that he: “trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him” (2 Kings 18:5). Defense of Torah similarly characterized Deborah as Queen of Hearts. She calmly holds a miniature scale representing her role as the only female Judge of Israel, one who wisely defended Israel in the face of the assaults of the Canaanite general Sisera. The choice of Simon Bar Giora as Jack of Diamonds does not fit the pattern he was a deeply violent leader during the Siege of Jerusalem, tragically contributing to the carnage and civil war that led to the defeat of the city in 70 CE.

Arthur Szyk’s “Playing Card Art” is a sensitive survey of what it means to be a Jewish hero. While indeed the series offers “the heroes of ancient Israel as the paradigm for Jewish survival and triumph over adversity” (Irvin Ungar), nonetheless the artist has presented a greatly nuanced view of Jewish leadership and its consequences, all in a format in which one can settle down to a friendly game of poker while pondering the complexity of Jewish history.

[I am indebted to the excellent catalogue by Allison Claire Chang on this series for background and historical perspective.]

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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