Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Three Alphonse Levy Passover postcards.

Passover is a festival that readily lends itself to broad artistic expression. Many of our greatest artists have produced striking graphic works on these subjects, and I present here a selection of original artwork from my Pesach collection.

 

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Exhibited here are two etchings from Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly: “Weighing and Delivering the Matzes or Unleavened Bread” (1858) and “Weighing and Kneading in Presence of the Rabbi” (1877). Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper was an American literary and news magazine founded in 1855 and published until 1922 that was renowned for its reports featuring beautiful artistic wood engravings depicting American life.

As Passover approached in 1858, tens of thousands of Jews lived in Manhattan, comprising about three percent of the population, and there were thousands of poor Jews needing kosher staples for the holiday – not the least of which, of course, was matzah. The Association for the Free Distribution of Matzos to the Poor, a group of benefactors and Jewish organizations, raised $681.87 (almost $24,000 in today’s dollars) for Passover provisions.

The effort was led by Robert Anderson and Mark Isaacs (Isaac’s name may be seen in the etching) and the 14,330 pounds of matzah that were purchased were distributed to 640 families for the benefit of some 3,000 people; about five pounds per person were apportioned to larger families and seven pounds per person for smaller ones.

 

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Zev Raban’s rendering of a family sitting around the Seder table exhibited here is the initial draft of the illustration of the Seder that appears in Chageinu, his famous book on the Jewish holidays (the final illustration, also exhibited here, is significantly different from this sketch). Raban wrote several comments on the right side of the leaf (which are not shown here), including “try to add grandfather”; “Map of Eretz Israel on the wall”; “Pitcher with the bowl?”

Raban (1890-1970), who acquired his reputation through the designs he created for Bezalel, was undoubtedly one of the most important artists and designers in pre-state Eretz Yisrael. Synthesizing European techniques with authentic Jewish art based on specifically Jewish motifs, he developed a visual lexicon of Jewish themes with decorative calligraphic script and other decorative devices which came to be known as the “Bezalel style.” His work, which closely follows the historical events of the building of the Jewish state, reflected his desire to strengthen the identity of the emerging Medinat Yisrael through the revival and artistic expression of Jewish symbolism, and he designed symbols and brands for Zionist entities.

 

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Displayed here are three original works by Joseph Budko, all signed by him. The first is The Ten Plagues, an original etching from his famous Pesach Haggadah; the second is a miniature engraving of a Seder; and the third depicts the head of the household, about to commence the Seder, standing by his open door issuing an invitation to anyone in need of a Seder.

Budko (1888-1940) created a whole new Jewish iconography ranging from Zionist symbols to representations of the world of the shtetl of his youth. Developing a unique style that combined his personal approach with Jewish character and synthesized Jewish tradition with a modern artistic approach, he was among an influential group of graphic Jewish artists who embraced the revival of the woodcut, a medium which lent itself perfectly to express the views of Israel and Jewish culture in various lands. He used the expressive form of the printing methods – etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs – to revive the use of graphic and book illustration in the Jewish art world.

 

Three Alphonse Levy Passover postcards.

 

Exhibited here are three postcards of Passover works by Alphonse Levy that feature a smiling Jewish peasant woman. From left to right: Pesach, in which the woman rolls kreplach for the soup (the caption underneath delightfully reads “the pellets of Passover”); Kosher for Pesach, where she is stirring soup with water vapor wafting upward; and Seder, in which she is bringing the Seder plate to the table dressed in her Yom Tov finery.

Born into a strictly Orthodox family, Levy (1843-1918), affectionately called “the Millet of the Jews,” infused his subjects, who came from among the native and pious Jews of the French villages, with a rare combination of whimsy and love. In particular, he was struck by the beauty and majesty of Jewish tradition, which formed the core of the subject matter of his work and, against bitter criticism from the upper-class Jews of Paris, who refused to recognize his work, he remained determined to be “the witness of the lives of the Jewish people.”

Gur-Arie’s sketch of The Four Questions.

The original pencil sketch by Meir Gur-Arie exhibited here was most likely a design for an ad for kosher for Passover chocolate. To the right, a young man asks the four questions of the Ma Nishanah; an elderly Jew on the left panel answers him with Avadim Hayinu from the Haggadah; and the caption below reads, “we were slaves (in Egypt) . . . and now we are in Eretz Yisrael; eat, my son, the good chocolate . . .”

Born Meir Horodetsky (1891-1951), Gur-Arie studied at the Bezalel School of Art (1909-11), where he later taught painting and ivory carving (1911-29). His work is exhibited worldwide, including at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem. 

The Search for Leavened Bread &c., a Domestic Ceremony in the Jewish Religion (London, 1780) by noted engraver and publisher Alexander Hogg.

The striking Alexander Hogg engraving of the search for chametz exhibited here was included in Dr. William Hurd’s A New Universal History of the Religious Rites, Ceremonies, and Customs & Ceremonies of the Whole World: or A Complete and Impartial View of all the Religions on the Various Nations of the Universe (1788). The book included engravings of the religious practices of “the Jews [interesting that the Jews got top billing], Egyptians, Carthagenians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Chinese, Japanese, Africans, and all other Idolators and Pagan Nations [one of the engravings depicts “natives of the Caribee Islands feasting on human flesh”], Greeks, Christians, and Romish Church, with the Various Orders of the Communion. 

The Feast of the Passover, by Oppenheim.

The engraving of The Feast of the Passover exhibited here is by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882), the first Jewish painter of the modern era to receive classical artistic training, to gain recognition in the non-Jewish art world, and to be broadly recognized as one of the foremost Jewish artists of the nineteenth century. Always outspoken about his Jewish identity, his work, which was influenced by his cultural and religious roots, often explored the encounters between Jewish tradition and the modern world.

In Passah, Ephraim Moses Lilien depicts an old Jewish man in Egypt on the eve of the Exodus. The artist draws a pyramid to the left, Egyptian sarcophaguses at the upper center, and the rising sun of redemption and freedom beginning to rise on the far horizon.

Postcard of Lilien’s Passah

Lilien (1874-1925), the first artist to become involved in the Zionist movement, collaborated closely with Theodor Herzl, and his photograph of the Zionist leader on the Rhine Bridge has come to be the definitive pictorial representation of the Father of Modern Zionism. Along with Boris Schatz and others, he was a member of the committee formed to establish the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem (1905), where he taught the following year. His drawings, executed mainly in India ink, show a crisp, elegant line and a strong contrast between black and white areas, and many of his better-known etchings, which record his impressions of Eretz Yisrael, have entered the collective Jewish consciousness.

A 1945 reproduction of The Search for Leaven, subtitled The mistress of the family puts Leavened Bread in various places, to the end that her husband in his search may find it.

Whenever I look at these old artworks that illustrate the Pesach scenes so familiar and beloved to all of us, I remember a short story that my mother asked me to read about 60 years ago, which she characterized as “remarkable.” It was little more than a mundane description of cleaning the house for Passover, baking the matzot, and preparing for the Seder, which left me distinctly unimpressed – until she told me that it was a translation of an account written over 400 years ago. None of these things had changed, and that story, as well as the art exhibited here, speaks eloquently to the eternity of the Torah, the festivals, and the Jewish people.

Wishing all a chag kasher v’sameach. L’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim!

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.