While Israeli artist Avner Moriah was creating "Haggadat Moriah" (Moriah Haggadah), his wife, Andy, was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia.
"I sat next to her when the chemicals were dripping in," said the 50-year-old artist, in Los Angeles this week for an exhibit opening of his work at the University of Judaism. "In Israel everyone davens and says 'Tehillim' when someone is sick, but I came up with images for the haggadah. When I started, the images were really small but as she got healthier, they became more colorful and more lively. When I finished [and Andy recovered] I realized that I had painted my own journey from Egypt."
Those hospital-bed images are bright, watercolor roundels -- circular panels -- that interweave the ancient Israelites' journey to freedom with ruminations on modern-day "slavery" (e.g., being a slave to the office) representing the cyclical repetition of Jewish history and life; panels that illustrate the story of the text and add different interpretations that Moriah found in his research; and a few full-page calming celestial paintings. The illustrations manage to pay homage to the ancient text and make the story of the exodus from Egypt a personal one that has as many modern understandings as it does ancient ones.
Moriah paired his art with Hebrew calligraphy by Izzy Pludwinski to create a limited-edition leather-bound illuminated haggadah that Moriah is selling to collectors for $4,000.
Moriah's new project also helped him turn away from painting Israeli landscapes, a project made difficult by the intifada. For 30 years, Moriah had been a landscape painter in Israel, capturing on canvas the vistas of unique light that filtered through the Judean hills, and the vast changes of terrain that roll through Israel, from the desert to the savannah areas. To paint these works, Moriah would stand on hills with his huge canvases weighted down with rocks.
"Wherever I painted in Israel, Arabs would always find me, because they were always in the fields," he said. "They would be curious and they would come to look at my work, and offer me tea and coffee. But I wouldn't sit on the hills today by myself. It has changed that much in the last three years. People are getting killed left and right, and I felt more secure to work in my studio."
In creating the haggadah, Moriah drew inspiration from religious and artistic sources. He worked with Rabbi Shlomo Fox, a Conservative rabbi and an old army buddy of Moriah's (they were both officers together in the Yom Kippur War) to study the text to get ideas on developing biblical themes. He also looked at illuminated haggadot of old, as well as the Egyptian and Assyrian wall paintings, reliefs and drawings of human and animal figurines from the Bronze and Iron ages, the period when the Israelites settled in Israel. While the haggadah has a definite modern feel to it -- the bright reds, blues and greens jump off the page -- the figures in the illustrations are elongated stick figures, much like the ones in ancient art.
"We are not religious," Moriah said, "and this was one of the reasons why I worked with Shlomo, to make sure that my ideas made sense and that I was finding a visual way to come up with interpretations. In Israel, most people who aren't religious are anti-religious. I myself don't practice it, but I think there is a tremendous amount of beauty and culture in Judaism. There is really no need to look for it anywhere else."
As an Israeli artist, Moriah has spent much of his career finding the beauty and culture of Judaism, and the horrors and meaning of Jewish history. In addition to his landscapes, he did series on the expulsion of the Jews from the Spain, the Holocaust and Middle East violence.
"I painted the intifada before it happened," he said, referring to his 1981-87 "Soldiers Series," that, depicts in an Edward Hopper-ish way, how violence in Israel insidiously infiltrates the domestic culture.
He also painted two murals at the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York, which explored biblical themes: "Gathering at Mount Sinai" and "Women's Zodiac." Next up is a 45-foot-long illuminated Megillat Esther, which will be painted on parchment so that it can be a kosher megillah.
Moriah is dyslexic, so it is through images that he understands the world.
"Lots of artists are dyslexic," he said. "The way our electricity is connected is different. We don't see things in a regimented, organized way like most people. I hate reading and writing -- and I respond to images, not words. I barely know the words to 'Hatikvah.' I created the haggadah for the dyslexic. I wanted the whole story told in a visual way."
For more information about Avner Moriah, go to www.artworksisrael.com.
"The Moriah Haggadah: The Creation of a Contemporary Illuminated Manuscript" is now showing through May 23 at the University of Judaism's Platt and Borstein Galleries, 15600 Mulholland Dr., Los Angeles. Exhibition hours are Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, call (310) 476-9777 ext. 201.