Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

One of the most enduring and endearing images from my earliest childhood is an illustration in my first grade Chumash workbook above the verses of Genesis 15:5-6:

And G-d brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And he said to him, “So shall be your offspring.”

“Can you count the stars? . . . So shall be your offspring” stamp issued by the Israel Postal Authority in 1977.

The illustration depicts old Father Abraham with a long flowing white beard standing outside in the desert night with his tent slightly visible behind him. Clad in a tallit-like cloak, he holds a staff in his right hand with his left hand over his heart while his eyes, set in a sweet kind face, are lifted heavenward gazing up at a constellation of blazing stars evocative of Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Even as a young boy, it brought to life my teacher’s description of Abraham and his all-consuming faith, and I have thought of him as portrayed in this illustration ever since.

(Top) Original print of Lilien’s etching of a Sephardic Jew at the Kotel.
(Bottom) Keren Kayemet stamps depicting the work drawing.

A century of Jewish children have grown up picturing Abraham as depicted by this beloved and monumental work without ever knowing the identity of the artist. I did not learn until many years later that he was Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874-1925), an art nouveau illustrator, master printmaker, and award-winning photographer who was the greatest contributor to the early visual vocabulary of the Zionist movement.

Lilien’s etchings, executed mainly in India ink, show a crisp, elegant line and a strong contrast between black and white areas, and many have entered the collective Jewish consciousness, even while the artist remains generally unrecognized. Exhibited here is another of his unforgettable etchings in which he portrays an elderly Sephardic Jew arriving at the Kotel stares up at it in awe.


(Left) Official postcard of the 15th Zionist Congress (Basel, 1927) featuring Lilien’s photograph of Herzl on the Rhine Bridge (with facsimile signature).
(Right) Final original drawing of the photograph for the Israel by stamp by M. Shamir. (Note that the denomination is 0.12 instead of 0.25 as ultimately issued.)

Another of Lilien’s best-known works is his photograph of Herzl on the Rhine Bridge in Basel, Switzerland, in 1901, which has become the definitive pictorial representation of the Father of Modern Zionism. He worked closely with Herzl, whose face he considered to be an emblematic prototype of the “New Strong Jew” and who he frequently used as a model, and his Herzl portraits and his decorations for the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund also became familiar to Jews all over the world. 

Born to a poor Jewish family in Drohobyez, Galicia, Lilien’s artistic abilities manifested themselves early in his life and, when his father could no longer afford to keep him in school, he apprenticed his son to a sign painter. His well-to-do relatives in nearby Lemberg financed his study at the Krakow Academy of Arts, where he learned art and graphic techniques for two years before his funding ran out and he had to return home. He later moved to Munich (1896), where he won second prize in a photographic competition sponsored by Die Jugend, a literary and artistic journal, which launched his lifelong interest in photography. By 1899, his finances had improved to the point that he could move to Berlin, where he received various commissions that gave him some measure of fame and launched his career as an artist.

Self-portrait of the artist.

Lilien was neither religiously observant nor even traditional in his practices and beliefs. For example, in a letter to his wife, Helene Magnus – who, ironically, was a vociferous anti-Zionist – he wrote that he had not attended synagogue in many years and that “like, you, I am averse to all ritual.” He expressed contempt for fellow artist Hermann Struck “who eats only kosher and covers his head when eating” and he characterized renowned painter Josef Israels as “a meshugana” for refusing to paint on Shabbat. Nonetheless, he was outspokenly and defiantly proud of his Jewish heritage and, in particular, for being a Kohen, and his correspondence leaves no doubt that he was Jewishly knowledgeable.

At the end of the 19th century, pro-Zionist German poet Boerries Freiherr von Muenchhausen (who, ironically, later became an ardent Nazi and committed suicide at the end of World War II), showed Lilien a collection of ballads that included 17 on Jewish themes celebrating the heroic qualities of the Jewish people. Lilien was struck by the compatibility of the ballads with the Zionism of his friend Martin Buber, the renowned Zionist philosopher and theologian who first introduced him to, and sold him on, the Zionist idea, and he offered to do the artwork for a book, which became Juda (1900). The book, which demonstrated for the first time the possibility of a specifically “Jewish” art, created a sensation in Jewish circles and marked an important development in the Jewish/Zionist artistic renaissance.

Lilien’s Pessah (from Juda).

Exhibited here is Pessah (Passover), one of Lilien’s better-known images from Juda. A classic example of the artist’s incorporation of Zionist themes into the iconography of Jewish tradition, it portrays an old Jew encircled by thorns standing against a background of enormous Egyptian architecture while the distant sun of “Zion” emits its golden rays of freedom, health, and love.

Copy of photograph of Zionist leaders at the Fifth Zionist Congress. Herzl may be seen at the center, and Lilien sits and leans at bottom right.

Due to the increasing influence of Buber, his Zionist mentor, Lilien joined him, Chaim Weizmann, and Leo Motzkin as co-founders of the Democratic Faction, an opposition group strongly influenced by Achad Ha-Am that aimed to promote a more evolutionary, more deeply rooted nationalism and a cultural Zionism leading the way to cultural, political and economic renewal for Jews. In 1901, he collaborated with Buber to organize the first ever exhibit of Jewish artists and purposely scheduled it to be held concurrently with the Fifth Zionist Congress (Basel, 1901), for which he created the Official Postcard, another of his most treasured works.

(Top) Original Official Postcard of the Fifth Zionist Congress.
(Bottom) Portrait of the artist at his office desk, with his etching for the Fifth Congress hanging on his wall. (Inset) Stamp issued by the Israel Postal authority.

The original rare card exhibited here depicts a portrait of the artist at work in his studio beside a blow-up of his original illustration for the Fifth Congress, which strikingly depicts a sad old Jew behind barbed wire that obstructs his dream of the Promised Land; an angel wearing a Magen David rests one arm on his shoulder to comfort him while directing his attention across the horizon to an enchanted dream-vision of Eretz Yisrael where, in the distance, robust ears of corn bend and a Jewish farmer plows his land as he walks toward the setting sun. The legend beneath is the Hebrew verse from the thrice-daily Amidah: “May our eyes behold your return to Zion with mercy.” One can only imagine the emotional impact that this powerful illustration had on the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe.

Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld commissioned Lilien to illustrate the German translation of his Lieder Des Ghetto (“Songs of the Ghetto,” 1902), a collection of songs that poignantly told the stories of Jews who had set sail from Eastern Europe for New York only to find themselves exploited by factory managers in garment industry sweatshops. Rosenfeld was himself such a poor Jewish refugee, and his work – and Lilien’s – reflected the alienation and humiliation of the impoverished and oppressed immigrants and gave them a voice, and the book became a seminal work of Jewish art.

In his childhood, Lilien had witnessed the plight of small Jewish craftsmen like his father, who could barely provide support for their families. Exhibited here is the illustration featured on the title page of Lieder der Arbeit (“Songs of Labor”), the first section of Songs of the Ghetto, in which Lilien portrays his father, a poor woodturner (a tradesman who used a wood lathe with hand-held tools to cut out symmetrical wooden shapes) at the lathe surrounded by the tools of his trade as wood shavings are thrust off the block. The weary but proud look on the woodturner’s face captures both the struggle of the Jewish worker and Lilien’s sympathy for him.

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Also exhibited here from Songs of the Ghetto is At the Sewing Machine, one of the Lilien’s most terrifying and memorable illustrations in which a large black-winged vampire (representing the sweatshop manager or owner) sucks the blood out of a Jewish tailor bent over his sewing machine engaged in ceaseless toil to eke out bare support for his family. The message may not be subtle, but it is highly effective.

In The Storm, another disturbing work, Lilien portrays two exhausted and disconsolate Jews denied entry into the United States pursuant to the March 3, 1891, immigration law barring entry to “paupers or persons likely to become a public charge.” As they sit on the floor of the storm-tossed ship with eyes staring blankly out at nothingness, a black-winged skeletal Death awaits them across the hold.

In 1903, Lilien met Helene Magnus (1880-1971), a graphic designer studying at the Munich Art Academy, but the couple did not wed until three years later because of her wealthy assimilated Jewish parents’ opposition to her marriage to an Eastern European Jew from a poor family. (Her parents eventually came around after their son-in-law achieved economic success and artistic fame.)

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In 1904, Lilien and Boris Schatz began discussions about the possibility of establishing a “Jewish Art Company” in Eretz Yisrael, which ended up as the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. In this historic November 20, 1904, correspondence on his personal letterhead, which may mark the very beginning of the founding of Bezalel, Lilien writes to Buber about setting up a secret private meeting with Schatz at Lilien’s workshop which, after Lilien settled in Berlin in 1899, became the Zionist meeting place of choice in the city:

Dear Doctor,

I thank you for your friendly message and your promise of support. Herr Schatz would like to get started with all the steps which now . . . unfinished work . . . are to be taken, without attracting attention. It won’t work so well in the cafe because if we three were to sit down there, it will surely not go unnoticed. Thus, be so kind and come to my studio. I too will be pleased to [meet with you]!

It has to do with the founding of a Society for Establishing Jewish Cottage Industries and Crafts in Palestine. The project is Herr Schatz’s. The Zionist Commission for the Exploration of Palestine proposed it to one of your people in [Prusig/Plusig?]. Herr Schatz and I would like to meet with you to work out the plans and the initial projects.

I request once more that you treat the matter as confidential, tomorrow you will learn all the details.

We expect you then tomorrow, Sunday at 5:00 in my studio, Grossbeeren Street 69.

With Zionist greetings

Lilien presented the idea of establishing a Jewish art school in Eretz Yisrael at the Seventh Zionist Congress (Basel 1905), which appointed him and Schatz to take action to implement the plan. In late 1905, they went to Eretz Yisrael, where they successfully established the school on land purchased by the Jewish National Fund. Lilien served as the first director of the school’s Painting and Colors Department and as its first Black and White Drawing instructor before returning to Berlin after eight months. Although he remained at Bezalel for only a short time, he left an indelible stamp on the foundation of a unique and distinctive artistic style that exhibits biblical subjects in a specifically Zionist context using an idealized Western design. For many decades thereafter, Lilien’s style served as a model for Bezalel artists.

Lilien originally planned to also use his visit for the further purpose of publishing a book of his artistic impressions of Eretz Yisrael, for which he had been paid an advance. Although the book was never published, he did produce many beautiful images of Eretz Yisrael and its people and, in a letter written shortly after his return to Germany, he waxed enthusiastic about the “64 thriving Jewish colonies” and how Jewish labor had transformed the swamps and deserts into fertile arable land.

Top to Bottom: Head and Hand of the Torah Scribe; Jews from Galicia; Father and Son Walking Together to Synagogue.

Lilien assigned great importance to the topographic and ethnographic accuracy of his subjects and, as such, he took copious photographs during this trip to Eretz Yisrael and during his three subsequent trips in 1910, 1914, and 1917. Interestingly, his final trip at the end of Word War I was as a lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army, when he sketched and photographed extensively through the land.

In 1924, Lilien had the heart attack that caused his death a year later. In 1939, Helene sent a cache of his etchings and drawings to Jerusalem, where their son Otto was then living, but a second shipment of her husband’s etchings on copper plates, which were sent after the commencement of Word War II, was confiscated by the Nazis and has never been found. Helene remained in Germany until she escaped the Third Reich in 1943, and she was buried in a communal grave with her husband at the Jewish cemetery in Braunschweig in Lower Saxony, Germany.


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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 [email protected].