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Foundations Of Jewish Life: An Auction At Kestenbaum

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The foundations of a Jewish life may be discerned in three outstanding works of Jewish art that I had the pleasure to preview for the Kestenbaum auction scheduled for March 30, 2004. An unusual Chumash with five engraved title pages provides an intriguing commentary on the Torah. The beautiful and delicate Siddur, hand written by a chazan for his personal use, was a unique surprise. Finally, the famous Amsterdam Hagaddah of 1695, with its remarkable
copperplate engravings, enhanced the visual highlights of this auction of selections from the Rare Book Room of the Jews’ College Library, London. Each represents an essential aspect of Jewish life that is enhanced by the pleasures of Jewish artistry.

The Chumash, published in Prague in 1801, with the standard commentaries of Rashi and the Targum, is unusual in that it also contains the Biur of Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn (1729 – 1786), philosopher of the German Enlightenment and leader of German Jewry is of course a controversial figure in Jewish history as a progenitor of the early Haskalah movement. His translation of the Torah into German in 1780-1783 caused consternation among traditional rabbis, but did not sever the good relations he maintained with the Berlin Jewish community. This translation and commentary, written in German with Hebrew characters and known as the Biur, was “essentially based on traditional exegesis, although Mendelssohn introduced a number of modern conceptions, and emphasized aesthetic aspects” (Encyclopedia Judaica). The title page etchings are therefore especially noteworthy in light of the controversial nature of
the author and the commentary.

Bereishis is introduced with four etchings. The bottom right depicts Eve giving the forbidden fruit to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Next we see them expelled by a fearsome angel from the Garden. Visions of the victims of the terrible destruction of the Flood and the Sacrifice of Isaac dominate the top of the page. The visual theme is of sin, punishments and the hint of redemption in the merit of Abraham.

Shemos features the Finding Moses in the Bulrushes and the Burning Bush along with the Revelation at Sinai and Moses on the mountain learning the Torah. This selection seems standard if not a bit superficially picturesque.

Vayikra provides a startling contrast of stern warnings. Nadab and Abihu are swept away in a Heavenly fire for bringing the forbidden to the altar. Next to that image is a vividly violent stoning of a desecrator outside the Israelite camp. At the top of the page, proper religious
behavior is demonstrated, as the Levites and Kohanim are shown meticulously washing before serving Hashem and performing a letter perfect burnt offering on the altar. The necessity of ritual and ethical adherence to the Halacha is the clear message.

The image of Bamidbar similarly depicts divine retribution with Heavenly fire that consumes rebels in the camp and crushes the rebellion of Korah, as the earth swallows them alive. Only the final book of the Torah, Devarim, relents and offers visions of acceptance and transmission. Moses transcribes the Torah as Joshua, clothed in military garb, patiently waits. Finally we see the poignant scene of Moses’ last moments, alone on a high cliff overlooking the land of Israel.

The etchings by Marcus Klauber, an unknown artist, are deeply affecting, in both the way they selectively interact with the subjects of each book of the Torah and in the convincing manner of representation. It is interesting to see how this controversial text was presented to a contemporary audience through the interpretative lens of the illustrations.

An insight into the piety and aesthetic excellence of Jewish communities is similarly gained in the handwritten and decorated Siddur (1673) by Shimshon ben Yochanan HaLevi who served as chazan of Gelnhausen (Hesse, Germany). According to the exhibition catalogue, the scribe apparently wrote this prayerbook for his own use. On page after page, initial words, important phrases and refrains are decorated in bold letters or delicately ornamented in a filigree style,
reminiscent of the finest medieval manuscripts. While the design of the ornamentation combines floral and geometrical elements, the viewer has the constant impression that fantastic animals and humanoid faces will appear at any second. For this scribe, each Hebrew letter and its
placement on the page was a source of joy and potential creativity.  While predominately in black or sepia ink, occasionally the artist introduces red ink in an initial word or in the midst of the prayer to emphasize an important word or phrase.

Perhaps the most stunning example of this technique is the page dominated by Av HaRachamim. The text alternates in red and black, forming the shape of a inverted pyramid precariously balanced on the base that reflects our supplication to judge the nations that oppress us, to “crush the leader of the mighty land… therefore he [Israel] may proudly lift his head.” The power of the contrasting red and black is further concentrated by the image of a pair of eyeglasses in red, flanking the red-lettered word “Av.” This image is a powerful
metaphor demanding that G-d examine and judge.

Finally, the excellent specimen of the Amsterdam Hagadah from 1695 elicits more commentary than space will allow. This printed Hagadah was the first to use copperplate engravings that were, “destined to be copied and imitated more than any Hagadah in history”
(Yosef Yerushalmi). The etchings were done by a righteous convert Abraham ben Jacob and were themselves closely based on the work of Matthaeus Merian (1593-1650), a Christian artist who created the Icones Bibicae.

What is especially instructive is the subtle emphasis in the Jewish versions of these images in which small details reveal a running commentary on the text of the Hagadah and the uniquely Jewish view of the Biblical story. Abraham Smashing the Idols is a revealing example. The dizzying contradiction of perspectives (one set of buildings from below, others in the distance at eye level while the idols are seen from above) evokes a world in chaotic change. The two smashed idols, one an elderly male and the other a female, tellingly look directly at Abraham with alarm. The artist’s choice of this midrash and its depiction, comments that Abraham’s idol smashing also is a destruction of his parents and their world as the verse says, “go from your land, your birthplace and your father’s house.”

The image of the Three Strangers Appearing to Abraham also exposes the artist’s personal insight. Abraham faces the angels and we only see a darkened profile whereas Sarah, piously hiding behind the door of their house, is wonderfully illuminated. This detail, brought out by an
artist acutely aware of lineage, animates the narrative, visually alerts us to the fact that this visitation substantively concerned her.

Likewise, the Revelation at Sinai becomes an occasion to personalize the text. The encampment of the Jews is seen in the distance as the foreground holds ten figures, awe-struck by the central image of a miniature mountain with Moses receiving the Law. The mountain is tiny and yet the people are astounded and the text below proclaims, “And they said, ‘Everything [that] Hashem has said we will do and obey!’” For the artist even a distant appreciation of Sinai was enough to compel his observance.

Each of these masterpieces, among the 223 other items to be auctioned, communicates something essential about Jewish life. The unique opportunity an auction exhibition allows us to pick up these objects, peruse rare and precious, well worn books and examine the multitudinous images as we discern our own connection to our history and tradition.

Once you have experienced the excitement of exploring a 300-year-old Hagadah, noting the beautiful clarity of the text and the illustrations within its delicate old age, time begins to shrink and you feel as if we not only stood at Sinai together, but also at each Torah learning, each davening and at each Seder; we have stood together throughout the generations.

I gratefully acknowledge the use of background material from the Encyclopedia Judaica, Yerushalmi’s Haggadah and History and the exhibition catalogue in the preparation of this review.

Kestenbaum & Company, 12 West 27th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001; 212 366 1197; www.kestenbaum.net. Exhibition: Sunday, March 28, Monday, March 29, Tuesday, March 30. Auction: March 30, 2004; 3:00 p.m. Extensive Illustrated Catalogue at www.kestenbaum.net; $35 at the Gallery; $42 by mail.

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

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

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