Visu­al Arts

The Art of Passover

Rab­bi Stephan O. Parnes, Bon­nie-Dara Michaels, and Gabriel M. Goldstein
  • Review
By – April 1, 2016

From gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, in any and every cul­ture, artists offer new per­spec­tives on time­less themes. The most wide­ly and inten­sive­ly explored hol­i­day in the Jew­ish tra­di­tion has been Passover; tra­di­tion­al­ly, artists have infused the holiday’s rit­u­als with mean­ing by beau­ti­fy­ing objects asso­ci­at­ed with it. The Art of Passover offers a sam­pling of such work from over the last sev­en hun­dred years, pro­vid­ing read­ers with an overview of the holiday’s rit­u­al objects, such as Hag­gadot, matzah bags, and seder plates. The items pre­sent­ed range from numer­ous geo­graph­ic locales in which Jews set­tled over the past mil­len­ni­um, although it heav­i­ly empha­sizes Cen­tral and East­ern Europe.

The book is a reprint of a pub­li­ca­tion orig­i­nal­ly issued in 1994. It appears much like an exhi­bi­tion cat­a­log, though no muse­um exhi­bi­tion accom­pa­nied this assem­bly of fine artis­tic pieces. Each of the forty-eight items rep­re­sent­ed is giv­en a two-page spread, with text in two columns appear­ing on the left-hand page, and pho­to repro­duc­tion of the item on the right-hand page. Like extend­ed exhi­bi­tion labels, the text pro­vides back­ground on rit­u­als, cul­tures, artists, and prove­nance, as well as phys­i­cal descrip­tions to help con­tex­tu­al­ize the accom­pa­ny­ing pho­tos. In addi­tion, Parnes, the orig­i­nal com­pil­er of the items in the book, com­posed a short pref­ace, while Michaels and Gold­stein, cura­tors at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty Muse­um and the volume’s pri­ma­ry authors, pro­vid­ed a nine-page introduction.

The entries are arranged idio­syn­crat­i­cal­ly, alter­nat­ing accord­ing to the mate­r­i­al type of some objects and the con­cept of oth­ers. The first fif­teen entries show images of man­u­scripts and print­ed books that relate to the Exo­dus or to the seder. The accom­pa­ny­ing texts on their own are infor­ma­tive, but sev­er­al items appear unnec­es­sar­i­ly. Con­cur­rent­ly, inno­v­a­tive and artis­tic Hag­gadot print­ed dur­ing the six­teenth, sev­en­teenth, and eigh­teenth cen­turies are notice­ably absent.

The Art of Passover pro­ceeds with a hand­ful of tex­tiles, includ­ing matzah bags, tow­els, a ban­ner from Alsace, and a nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry afikomen pouch from Chi­na. The next twelve items are seder plates, almost all of which stem from nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Ashke­naz­ic com­mu­ni­ties. Most notably, there is a plate from Spain dat­ed to 1480 and anoth­er cre­at­ed in There­sien­stadt in 1944, both of which speak to the per­pet­u­al res­o­nance of Passover. The book also includes sev­er­al exam­ples of drink­ing recep­ta­cles, and con­cludes with visu­al pieces, includ­ing paint­ings by Cha­gall and Rubin, that cel­e­brate the hol­i­day or some­thing tan­gen­tial­ly related.

Tak­en indi­vid­u­al­ly, the items dis­played and dis­cussed in this vol­ume on Passover are infor­ma­tive and evoca­tive. Michaels’s and Goldstein’s research is reli­able and the pho­tos are nice, if not extra­or­di­nary. This rea­son­ably priced cof­fee-table book would serve as an excel­lent hol­i­day gift.

Relat­ed Content:

David Sclar stud­ies Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture in the ear­ly mod­ern peri­od. He earned his doc­tor­ate at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, and has held fel­low­ships at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, New York Uni­ver­si­ty, and the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry. He worked for sev­er­al years in the Spe­cial Col­lec­tions of the Library of the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, and present­ly teach­es his­to­ry at the Frisch School.

Discussion Questions