The Sinaic revelation! The culmination of the Exodus! Staying up all night to study Torah! The story of Ruth and Naomi in the fields of Boaz and the birth of King David! The bringing of the first fruits! And, last but not least, the culinary dairy delights!
Shavuot 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 Shavuot collection.
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In the woodcut displayed here, Joseph Budko beautifully depicts the giving of the Ten Commandments on Shavuot amidst pillars of fire and thunder and lightning.
Budko (1888-1940), who leaned first toward Art Nouveau and later expressionism, 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 personal attitude with Jewish mentality, and which 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 that lent itself to expressing the views of Israel and Jewish culture.
Like his teacher and mentor, Hermann Struck, Budko used etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs to revive graphic and book illustration in the Jewish art world. Budko developed a unique fusion of line and form and rhythm and harmony, and his work reflected, and was influenced by, the emergence of early 20th-century Expressionism, which utilized the sharp contrast of black and white, and hard, dramatic cuts to express artists’ souls and turn a small format into a monumental image.
Budko’s works include carving for the Pesach Haggadah, woodcarvings illustrating biblical events, decorations for books by Agnon and Bialik, and numerous etchings and lithographies. In his unique ex libris, he exploited for the first time the monumental effect of Hebrew characters, which he uses as the keynote of his composition, emphasizing the character of his bookmarks as a sort of trademark.
With his famous Passover Haggadah (1923), he presented the first beautiful modern Hebrew Haggadah with woodcuts, and the first book in which Hebrew letters are presented in traditional, yet newly developed ornamentation.
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In this original pencil sketch, Ze’ev Raban depicts a group of harvesters working in the field of Boaz.
Raban (1890-1970) was undoubtedly one of the most important artists and designers in pre-State Eretz Yisrael and acquired his reputation through the designs he made for Bezalel. Recognizing that the traditional European style did not fit the 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, which 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 the emerging Medinat Yisrael by reviving 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.
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Shown here is one of a series of sequential paintings by Uriel Birnbaum that tell the story of Moses (1922-24).
Birnbaum (1894-1956), an American painter, engraver, caricaturist, novelist, writer, and poet, and devout Jew, was the youngest son of Nathan Birnbaum, a Jewish philosopher famous for coining the term “Zionism.” His art education reportedly comprised only one month at a Berlin art school in 1913.
He was severely injured during World War I, and he and his family fled to the Netherlands after the Austrian Anschluss. He wrote and illustrated comics pages for the children’s magazine Der Regenbogen (1925-26) and illustrated several books, including works of Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (Vienna, 1923).
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Finally, shown here are two beautiful Shavuot receipts from Keren Tel Chai, the Revisionist charity for Eretz Yisrael.
The green receipt on the left depicts a Beitar soldier standing next to a tent and blowing a horn in front of a large cliff atop of which is a distinctive Eretz Yisrael structure bearing the Beitar menorah symbol. The legend at the bottom reads “For training camps and defensive training.”
Written atop the blue receipt on the right is Chag HaBikurim (“the Festival of First Fruits”), and to the left is the beautiful Psalms 126:5 verse that we recite in Grace After Meals every Shabbos and Yom Tov: “They who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” Written on the right is “From the edges of the land we have come bringing first fruits,” a line from the traditional Shavuot song, Saleinu al K’tefeinu:
Our baskets are on our shoulders, our heads are crowned,
We came from the ends of the land and we brought first fruits.
From Yehuda and the Shomron, from the valley and the Galilee.
Make way for us, we have first fruits with us,
bang the drum and play the flute.
May we merit to see the bringing of the first fruit to the rebuilt Third Temple in Jerusalem. Wishing a chag sameach to all.