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Archive for April 2011

Book review: The Szyk Haggadah

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You can get a Passover Haggadah from almost any synagogue or bookstore or even many supermarkets, but you’ll seldom find one like The Szyk Haggadah (Abrams, $40 hardcover, $16.95 paperback, 128 pp). This volume is graced with gorgeous, exuberant pictures and elegant Hebrew script by Polish-American Arthur Szyk (1894-1951).

The book has the full Seder, or Passover service, but the 48 full-color pictures are the literal draw. Rendered in astonishing detail, they set the Hebrew Exodus both in ancient Egypt and the Europe of the 1930s.

You’ll see not only an idealized Eastern European Seder — complete with fur hats on the men — but the epic events such as the parting of the Red Sea. You’ll

Cover of The Szyk Haggadah, published by Abrams. © 2008 Historicana, artwork © 1940 Arthur Szyk.

also see lesser-known tales like when Moses killed an Egyptian for beating a Jewish slave. Szyk also adds other biblical heroes, like the priestly Aaron, the gentle Ruth, and the boy David (toting the severed head of Goliath).

Szyk (pronounced “shick”) used a hybrid technique. He rendered each picture in ornate detail and stylized figures, like sickle-shaped waves. Yet he also shows action and intensity in their postures, conveying a feeling of movement and urgency. Even in the softcover version, they are sharp and vivid.

The book is in a large, 9×12 inch format, suitable for reading at the Seder table. The service itself is in fancy calligraphy, but the vowel marks should make it easy for anyone who reads Hebrew to use it.

But you don’t even need to refer to the Hebrew if you can’t read it; on each facing page you’ll find easy-to-understand text by Rabbi Byron Sherwin of Chicago and Szyk expert Irvin Ungar of California. They also add context with their thoughtful commentary, and even a 49-page section on background and development of Passover.

The commentary deals with matters as basic as how to light the candles and “What is the Afikomen?” It also looks into Kaballistic insights, whether there were really 10 plagues on the ancient Egyptians, and the state of Israel, which many Jews see as a modern redemption. It all may sound overwhelming, but the section is broken into 15 chapters from one to nine pages each. And the longer chapters are broken into several units.

The main problem with this otherwise outstanding book is, well, something about the drawings themselves. Everyone looks so grim. They all scowl even when walking through the Red Sea, which is supposed to be the climax of the Israelites’ deliverance. Passover does have its grim side, but it ends in rescue and liberation.

It’s a small quibble, given the beauty and intelligence of the book. The Szyk Haggadah is one book you may not want to put away after Passover. You may wish to leave it out on the coffeetable during the year.


Written by Jim Davis

April 17, 2011 at 3:50 am

DVD review: ‘Pink Smoke Over the Vatican’

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Nearly 100 women have been ordained as priests or bishops in recent years, and been condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Their actions, feelings and spiritual urgings make absorbing material in Pink Smoke Over the Vatican.

Unfortunately, the documentary has a lot of other stuff: biased reporting, strident rhetoric, manipulative lighting, and repetition of arguments that make it feel way longer than its 58 minutes.

Patricia Fresen of South Africa ordains another woman in "Pink Smoke Over the Vatican."

The title is drawn from an incident on April 17, 2005, when protestors released pink smoke in front of several U.S. cathedrals. The act was timed to the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, who soon informed the world he would hold the line on male-only ordination.

“The Church is an unapologetic boys club and deeply hostile to women’s agency, power and voice,” says author Angela Bonavoglia.

The documentary is actually more current than when it came out several months ago. On March 31, the Religion News Service reported that the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, one of those quoted in the film, is under threat of defrockment for helping ordain Janice Sevre’-Duszynska. He said he’s seeking a church lawyer and plans to fight the order.

Pink Smoke takes pains to show advocates’ intellectual creds: As Kathleen Kunster speaks, a subtitle shows her M.Div., M.A. and Psy.D. degrees. They are earnest, articulate, engaging as they tell their stories and explain their beliefs.

“My faith is in my DNA,” another says.

“I felt cellularly rearranged,” one says about the instant of her ordination.

“I knew that there was a place for women on the altar more than just in a coffin or as a bride,” Sevre’-Duszynska says.

Victoria Rue of San Jose, Calif., crosses herself not in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but “our Creator, our brother Jesus and wisdom, Sophia.” As part of a homegrown Mass, she uses tai chi-like movements as a bodily way of worshiping.

Patricia Fresen gushes about feeling a “flame of hope and longing and incredible excitement” to hear of the ordination of seven women in 2002 on a ship on the Danube River in Europe. She herself was then ordained by two of them.

But this film doesn’t stop at reporting; it takes the feminists’ side. Only one talking head on the other side is allowed — bald, elderly Father Ronald Lengwin, a spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh — sitting at his desk, backed by coldly blue-lit walls. When feminists answer, they’re shot at gardens and seashores and sunlit churches.

Lengwin says church law is not about sexism but “an understanding of one’s part in the church, male and female.” He also appeals to tradition going back to when Jesus picked 12 males as apostles.

In rebuttal, the advocates note that the Church once supported slavery, condemned money lending and allowed priests to marry.

They also cite a Bible verse that honors a woman named Junia as an apostle. And they show early frescos of women in vestments apparently saying Mass.

Pink Smoke stumbles in examining Bible verses, though. It approvingly cites Paul saying that all differences — including those of gender — are erased, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” But it disapprovingly cites Paul’s verse not allowing a woman “to teach or exercise authority over a man.” Why is one valid and not the other, besides the fact that it agrees with the advocates?

It also goes too far as its subjects try to link women’s ordination with their own favorite causes. Several invoke civil rights leaders like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and, of course, Martin Luther King Jr.

Bourgeois and Sevre’-Duszynska complain about the U.S. military, reflecting their focus on peace activism. Fresen tells how she defied apartheid in South Africa by opening her school to all races.

Joanna Manning of Toronto, who has treated AIDS-infected babies in Africa, somehow links condoms with women’s ordination. And several advocates push for ending the celibacy requirement for priests.

But they stumble again by claiming that if priests could marry, sexual abuse cases cases would dwindle. Pedophilia, the form of abuse most priests are accused of, has little to do with marriage: Thousands of married men abuse their own biological children.

Besides, what does all that have to do with women’s ordination? You know, the issue this film is supposed to be about?

For all its arguments, Pink Smoke actually misses a few points. It could have pointed out that Jesus picked all Jews as apostles, yet the Church feels free to ordain non-Jewish priests.

In fact, the Roman Catholic Church itself has honored three women — Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and Terese of Lisieux — as “doctors of the Church,” whose writings are valid sources of Catholic teaching. If they can be thinkers, why not be pastors?

Finally, a poll in May 2010 by CBS and The New York Times found that 59 percent of American Catholics favor ordaining women. So the hierarchy’s position isn’t well-received in the pews.

As a chronicle of why some women feel driven to a ministry that the Church reserves for men, Pink Smoke is a textured, sensitive success. As a thoughtful, many-sided analysis of reasons for and against ordaining women, the documentary fails.

Whatever you think about women’s ordination, it’s bad form to tell you what to think. Isn’t that one of the things the advocates fault the Church for doing?

For more information on the documentary, visit pinksmokeoverthevatican.com.

Written by Jim Davis

April 4, 2011 at 3:05 am

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