April 17, 2008
The classic Szyk haggadah becomes a modern masterpiece of the digital age
The Art of the Seder
Szyk (pronounced Shick) was a Jew, a Pole, an American, and always an artist, whose brilliant paintings and cartoons could give new life to ancient traditions or eviscerate a Hitler and Mussolini.
Now, almost 57 years after Szyk's death, antiquarian bookseller Irvin Ungar has come up with a new edition of the artist's 1940 Haggadah, which, Ungar believes, gives new meaning to the term state-of-the-art, particularly in digital technology.
To create the new haggadah, Ungar said he assembled an international team of top-flight craftsmen, including a digital photographer, writers, designer, bookbinder, printer, boxmaker and film director. To provide the perfect paper for the haggadah, Ungar tracked down a mill in Germany, which had been in business since 1584.
Szyk was born in Lodz in 1894 and started drawing portraits of guests in his parents' home at age 4. After studying painting in Paris and visiting Palestine in 1914, he was drafted into the czar's army in World War I but deserted. Later, he fought against the Soviets under the legendary Polish Marshall Josef Pilsudski.
With the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany, Szyk became one of the first anti-Hitler cartoonists, explaining that "the painter of books wants to reply to the wall painter." The Fuehrer allegedly put a price on the head of his nemesis.
At the same time, Szyk worked for two years on his haggadah, and, in 1937, took his 48 paintings to London, hoping to find a publisher who would do the work justice.
However, Szyk had injected his anti-fascism into his art, such as putting a swastika armband on the Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave and a Hitlerian moustache on the Wicked Son. In the pre-war British appeasement days, every publisher turned him down until Szyk reluctantly deleted the Nazi symbols.
When the haggadah came out in 1940 in an original edition of 250 copies printed on calfskin vellum, it was one of the costliest publishing projects of the 20th century. Subsequent photo reproductions could not match the brilliance of the original.
The same year, Szyk immigrated to the United States, and, as a self-described "soldier in art," his ferocious depictions of the Axis leaders soon graced the covers of Time, Colliers and newspapers across the country. Amazingly, his use of medieval techniques of manuscript illumination proved to be the right style for biting, contemporary satire.
After the war, he applied his talents to supporting Israel's struggle for independence, in the process creating a new image of the muscular Jewish worker and soldier.
Szyk, whose cartoons had attacked McCarthyism and racist prejudice against blacks, ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee in early 1951, and within a few months he died at the age of 57.
In the subsequent decades, Szyk and his art were largely forgotten, until a renaissance during the past decade -- including a spate of documentaries, biographies and one-man exhibits -- brought him to the attention of a new generation.
One of the early rediscoverers was Ungar, a Reform congregational rabbi in Forest Hills, N.Y. and then Burlingame, who had left the pulpit in 1987 to found Historicana, an antiquarian bookseller firm in the northern California city.
Once introduced to Szyk's work, Ungar was smitten and, as president of the Arthur Szyk Society, is now devoting his life to the master's legacy, he said.
"No Jewish artist has been more devoted to liberty and social justice than Szyk," Ungar declared. "No artist has done more to translate Jewish values into art. His haggadah is the great book of freedom."
The new Szyk Haggadah is being printed in a one-time edition of 300 copies, divided into 215 copies of the deluxe edition at $8,500 per copy, and 85 copies of the premier edition at $15,000 each.
Each copy, resting in a clamshell box, is accompanied by 248-page companion volume on Szyk's art and life, with essays by such scholars as former museum director Tom Freudenheim (a frequent contributor to The Jewish Journal) and Israeli historian Shalom Sabar. Also included is a DVD of the documentary "The Remaking of the Szyk Haggadah."
For more information, call (650) 343-9578.
The Four Questions
Images reproduced with the cooperation of Historicana, publisher of the new edition of The Szyk Haggadah