Arthur Szyk’s Haggadah at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Dave and I visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum last week, mainly to see the Arthur Szyk exhibit. Dave knew Szyk’s work as a political and satirical artist, but this is something different, an exhibit of the original artwork for Szyk’s illustrated Haggadah, which he drew mostly in the 1930s.

Both Dave and I made the mistake of starting to our left and heading clockwise around the gallery. I was over a third of the way around, and Dave was ahead of me, by the time I realized we were looking at the illustrations in the wrong order. Whoops.

The illustrations are stunning, rich and detailed, with lots of touches of grandeur, pathos, whimsy, and political commentary, sometimes all in the same illustration. You can find many of the illustrations online (for example, at szyk.com), but the electronic versions don’t come close to capturing the richness of the colors and the fine details in the pen work.

Szyk Haggadah - four sons

Here’s one that made me laugh. It’s an illustration of the four types of sons. Reading right to left (this is in Hebrew, remember), top to bottom, they are the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who doesn’t know how to ask. What made me laugh right away is that the wicked son is portrayed as fat and wealthy, a self-satisfied bürger with a mustache somewhat reminiscent of Hitler’s. (Probably intentionally — see the next paragraph.) But on a further look, it’s also pretty funny that the most attractive and interesting of the four isn’t the wise son — who looks a bit of a prig, to me at least — but the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Am I just projecting my own issues onto the painting, or was Szyk most sympathetic to the fourth son?

Dave noticed that there is a thin cut all around the rectangle containing the illustration of the wicked son. It looks as though Szyk changed his mind and decided to replace that illustration after he’d done all four, so he carefully cut out the rectangle, pasted a new piece of paper behind the hole, and drew a new character. Based on the other materials on display, there seems to be a strong possibility that Szyk’s first version of the wicked son was much more suggestive of Hitler.

The exhibit held an added bit of poignance for me, if poignance is the right word, in that I am descended from Jews who, like Szyk, fled Europe to get away from the Nazis. Yet I didn’t learn about this family history till middle age, so it doesn’t really feel like part of my personal heritage, doesn’t have much emotional resonance for me. I feel kind of sad that I don’t feel more of a personal connection, but there you go, that’s who I am, always seeming to have one foot in this realm and the other in that one, never quite belonging to any.

I did tear up, though, when I came to Szyk’s page of dedication to the Jews in Germany. A lot of my ancestors were included in that dedication, and only a handful of that side of the family ever got out. Something that I only learned about fairly late in life, and that still startles me a little to remember.

Dave and I want to refresh our dim memories of the Haggadah and then head back to see the exhibit one more time.

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2 thoughts on “Arthur Szyk’s Haggadah at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

  1. Hi – I’m a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. I stumbled across your journal in the course of grading a paper that one of my students wrote on the depiction of the four sons in Szyk’s Haggadah. I’m fascinated by your comment about the son who doesn’t know how to ask being the best looking of the lot. I’d put it differently – he is the most “manly”: athletic in appearance and self-presentation, bare forearms, crotch more defined than in the other drawings, one leg bent forward assertively, an expression that is intended to be seen as blank (the hand under the chin insures that we understand this) but can also be seen as calm and unafraid.

    And here’s what you need to know – none of this is necessarily positive in the eyes of the artist. Note the effeminacy of the wise son: slim and swaying, a garment that is dress-like, flowing hand gestures, tilted head: this is the stereotypical yeshiva student, far removed from the dirt and grime of the outside world. He has not left the Garden; he is free to pursue a life of study and piety. The son who does not know how to ask, on the other hand, is “animalistic”: he gets his hands – and not only his hands – dirty. (In a Haggadah published in the early 20th century in the US the wicked son is portrayed as a boxer.) In the world in which Szyk grew up, if not for Szyk himself, the yeshiva student was the big catch, not the laborer.

    So who is better looking? It depends on the looker. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    • Thank you for that perspective! Very interesting. Oh, I can see that the student is the better catch. He’s going to grow into someone different and greater in five or ten or fifteen years, while Mr. Laborer is still drifting from job to job trying to figure out what it is he wants from life. If I was looking for a keeper, I would definitely want to ignore the strong whiff of testosterone coming from the other side of the room and go chat up the student.

      But the laborer is still the one who would catch my eye on the street or in a bar.

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