The intricate paper cuts, layered designs, and historic references in the illuminated Haggada created by David Moss offer nuanced midrash on every part of the text they illustrate.
A giant in the world of Judaica illuminations, the artist is credited with reviving and popularizing hand-designed ketubot beginning in the 1960s. His Moss Haggadah, published in 1996, is widely considered a 20th-century masterpiece.
About 40 adults had the opportunity to hear Moss guide them through his work and artistic interpretations on Feb. 28 at Golda Och Academy’s Eric F. Ross Upper School Campus, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. Joining him that evening was fellow Jerusalem-based artist Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, director of Israel programs for the Jewish Theological Seminary and cofounder of Kol HaOt, a Jerusalem-based arts and learning program where he and Moss have worked together. A native of Freehold, Berkowitz has also produced an illuminated Haggada. Completed in 2008, it is called the Lovell Haggadah after the couple who commissioned it.
Together, they served as artists-in-residence at the West Orange day school Feb. 26 through March 5.
Students in the upper and lower grades had the opportunity to work with both artists, hands-on. On an afternoon visit to the lower school following the evening presentation, a visitor watched as Moss and Berkowitz, in separate classrooms, each unrolled a pictorial version of the story of the Akeda, the binding of Isaac, created by Moss.
The second-grade class led by Berkowitz sat rapt as he slowly opened and “read” the scroll with them. Once they finished, they shifted to the story of Joseph and his brothers and his coat of many colors, in preparation for the students to create their own illustrated parsha scroll. After reviewing the main visual elements, including characters, objects, and landscapes, the youngsters, under Berkowitz’s direction, moved in groups to gather around tables, where their own blank canvases were waiting.
In his evening talk to the adults, Berkowitz explained that he was inspired to merge his then compartmentalized interest in Jewish text study and painting after seeing the Moss Haggadah in a religion class “at that great yeshiva, Colgate University.” Originally published in a limited run of 500 facsimile editions, the Moss Haggadah is now more widely available in several hardcover versions.
Berkowitz’s Lovell Haggadah is also widely available.
The audience got a sense of their methods in a discussion of their depictions of the Four Sons from the Passover seder.
In his artwork, Moss conceives them as royalty in a Renaissance-style deck of playing cards in order to portray, he said, the “gamble” families take in having children.
“We don’t exactly order our children. It’s a game of chance, and we are dealt what we are dealt,” said Moss. “Our job is to take the hand we’re given and do the best we can — just like in a game of cards.”
In the Moss version, the word “baruch” (blessing) waves over each of the children — the rebellious and the well-behaved alike — as a sort of flag. “That way, every child gets a ‘baruch,’” Moss said. “It’s our job to discover that blessing.”
For his version — from the Lovell Haggadah — Berkowitz casts characters from the Torah as the “Four Children.” Devorah is the wise child, Lot the simple one, King Ahab and Jezebel together are the wicked children, and Adam and Eve are the ones who cannot ask.
Both artists said they avoided overly cartoonish interpretations of the Ten Plagues.
“From the Egyptians’ standpoint, the plagues were horrible, disgusting, and life-threatening,” said Moss. “For us, they are God’s manifestation in history.” His Ten Plagues are somber and wine-colored — like the drops of wine that are spilled to represent the blood of fallen Egyptians.
GOA’s artist-in-residence program was made possible through the support of the Arie Halpern Fund for Jewish Heritage and was part of a GOA series, “Expressions — A Cultural Journey Through Song, Art, and Story.”