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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.

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Written by Jim Davis

April 17, 2011 at 3:50 am

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