The classic Szyk haggadah becomes a modern masterpiece of the digital age


There’s a 1,000-year-old haggadah, there’s an Internet haggadah, and now there is a new $15,000 Arthur Szyk Haggadah.

Szyk (pronounced Shick) was a Jew, a Pole, an American, and always an artist, whose brilliant paintings and cartoons could give new life to ancient traditions or eviscerate a Hitler and Mussolini.

Now, almost 57 years after Szyk’s death, antiquarian bookseller Irvin Ungar has come up with a new edition of the artist’s 1940 Haggadah, which, Ungar believes, gives new meaning to the term state-of-the-art, particularly in digital technology.

To create the new haggadah, Ungar said he assembled an international team of top-flight craftsmen, including a digital photographer, writers, designer, bookbinder, printer, boxmaker and film director. To provide the perfect paper for the haggadah, Ungar tracked down a mill in Germany, which had been in business since 1584.

Szyk was born in Lodz in 1894 and started drawing portraits of guests in his parents’ home at age 4. After studying painting in Paris and visiting Palestine in 1914, he was drafted into the czar’s army in World War I but deserted. Later, he fought against the Soviets under the legendary Polish Marshall Josef Pilsudski.

With the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany, Szyk became one of the first anti-Hitler cartoonists, explaining that “the painter of books wants to reply to the wall painter.” The Fuehrer allegedly put a price on the head of his nemesis.

At the same time, Szyk worked for two years on his haggadah, and, in 1937, took his 48 paintings to London, hoping to find a publisher who would do the work justice.

However, Szyk had injected his anti-fascism into his art, such as putting a swastika armband on the Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave and a Hitlerian moustache on the Wicked Son. In the pre-war British appeasement days, every publisher turned him down until Szyk reluctantly deleted the Nazi symbols.



When the haggadah came out in 1940 in an original edition of 250 copies printed on calfskin vellum, it was one of the costliest publishing projects of the 20th century. Subsequent photo reproductions could not match the brilliance of the original.

The same year, Szyk immigrated to the United States, and, as a self-described “soldier in art,” his ferocious depictions of the Axis leaders soon graced the covers of Time, Colliers and newspapers across the country. Amazingly, his use of medieval techniques of manuscript illumination proved to be the right style for biting, contemporary satire.

After the war, he applied his talents to supporting Israel’s struggle for independence, in the process creating a new image of the muscular Jewish worker and soldier.

Szyk, whose cartoons had attacked McCarthyism and racist prejudice against blacks, ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee in early 1951, and within a few months he died at the age of 57.

In the subsequent decades, Szyk and his art were largely forgotten, until a renaissance during the past decade — including a spate of documentaries, biographies and one-man exhibits — brought him to the attention of a new generation.

One of the early rediscoverers was Ungar, a Reform congregational rabbi in Forest Hills, N.Y. and then Burlingame, who had left the pulpit in 1987 to found Historicana, an antiquarian bookseller firm in the northern California city.

Once introduced to Szyk’s work, Ungar was smitten and, as president of the Arthur Szyk Society, is now devoting his life to the master’s legacy, he said.

“No Jewish artist has been more devoted to liberty and social justice than Szyk,” Ungar declared. “No artist has done more to translate Jewish values into art. His haggadah is the great book of freedom.”

The new Szyk Haggadah is being printed in a one-time edition of 300 copies, divided into 215 copies of the deluxe edition at $8,500 per copy, and 85 copies of the premier edition at $15,000 each.

Each copy, resting in a clamshell box, is accompanied by 248-page companion volume on Szyk’s art and life, with essays by such scholars as former museum director Tom Freudenheim (a frequent contributor to The Jewish Journal) and Israeli historian Shalom Sabar. Also included is a DVD of the documentary “The Remaking of the Szyk Haggadah.”

For more information, call (650) 343-9578.


The Four Questions


Images reproduced with the cooperation of Historicana, publisher of the new edition of The Szyk Haggadah


Books: Czech teen’s words and art put a face on the Holocaust for me


I attended grades one through eight at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Los Angeles during a time of great unrest in our country — the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., police brutality against war protesters during the Chicano Moratorium. Yet one of my strongest memories is reading excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary.

I remember being moved by the words of that remarkable little Jewish girl with large eyes who hid from the Nazis for two years. I also remember the horror of learning that the Nazis eventually found Anne and her family and that she died in a typhus epidemic that ran through the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s diary spoke to this Los Angeles classroom across the decades, across an ocean, across cultures, across religions.

And that little Chicano boy never could have imagined that someday he would grow up and fall in love with a Jewish woman, marry in a temple, convert to Judaism and send his son to a Jewish day school for eight years.

But what did Anne Frank’s story offer me and my classmates at that time? The nuns who set the curriculum knew. While it is pretty near impossible to comprehend the annihilation of millions, Anne Frank offered us a face, one child to whom we could relate. And of course, the questions came. Who would want to kill this little girl? Will it happen again? Could it happen to us?
Atlantic Monthly Press now brings us the English translation of “The Diary of Petr Ginz: 1941-1942,” which, as with Anne Frank’s diary, puts a face on the Holocaust through the words and artwork of a precocious teenager. Simply put, this book should be read by everyone.

Ginz was a Czech Jew, born in 1928, who died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz at the age of 16. His diary had been lost for 60 years but resurfaced in 2003. Ginz’s younger sister, Chava Pressburger, edited her brother’s diary entries, which were translated from the Czech by Elena Lappin. They cover the 11 months before his deportation from Prague to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Also included are poems, an excerpt from one of Ginz’s unfinished novels, articles from Vedem (a weekly magazine Petr started in Theresienstadt), as well as linocuts, sketches and watercolor paintings. There is little doubt that if Ginz had survived, he would have developed into an accomplished writer and artist.

Ginz’s entries recount the daily routine of a teenager attending school and spending time with friends and family. But interspersed among the quotidian details are observations that illustrate the tightening Nazi noose: “In the morning I did my homework. Otherwise nothing special. Actually, a lot is happening, but it is not even visible. What is quite ordinary now would certainly cause upset in a normal time. For example, Jews don’t have fruit, geese, and any poultry, cheese, onions, garlic, and many other things. Tobacco ration cards are forbidden to prisoners, madmen, and Jews.”

And there are poems with lines such as these: “Today it’s clear to everyone / who is a Jew and who’s an Aryan, / because you’ll know Jews near and far / by their black and yellow star.”

Yet, despite all this, Ginz loved to play pranks and possessed a wicked sense of humor, as shown by this observation written on April 20, 1942: “Every building has to hang out a swastika flag, except for the Jews, of course, who are not allowed this pleasure.”

Aside from his writings, Ginz’s artwork is noteworthy for its detail and sophistication. There is an eerie 1943 watercolor titled, “Ghetto Dwellings,” that captures a foreboding atmosphere difficult to replicate in words.

Ginz had a particular love for the linocut, which requires great control over the tools needed to carve images into small pieces of linoleum, a process similar to making woodcuts. In one of his Vedem articles, Ginz describes this art form: “As the entire linocut technique shows, a linocut is the expression of a person who does not make compromises. It is either black or white. There is no grey transition.”

In another Vedem piece, Ginz explains that even in the squalor and deprivation of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, creativity can thrive: “The seed of a creative idea does not die in mud and scum. Even there it will germinate and spread its blossom like a star shining in the darkness.” Ginz proved this to be true as he founded a magazine and continued to write and create artwork while in the camp.

Also included in this book are photographs of Ginz and his family. There is one from February 1933 of Petr and Chava holding hands, walking toward the camera, both dressed in thick coats, knitted caps and scarves to protect them from the Prague winter. The 5-year-old Petr has a determined look in his eyes, lips tight with purpose, as he leads his younger sister along the city street. His face is the face of all children whose lives were cut short by the Nazis. And it is a face that implores us to remember two essential words: Never again.

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books of fiction including, “Devil Talk: Stories” (Bilingual Press). His book reviews have appeared in the El Paso Times, The Multicultural Review, La Bloga, The Elegant Variation and elsewhere. He makes his home in the San Fernando Valley. His Web site is

Books: Shmegegis of old, shmegegis of gold


“Old Jewish Comedians,” illustrated by Drew Friedman, edited by Monte Beauchamp. (Fantagraphics Books, $14.95) www.fantagraphics.com .

“Weep before God. Laugh before people.”
— Jewish Folk-Saying.

Who doesn’t love old Jewish comedians? Those mamzers of mirth and halutzim of humor who paved the road from the Catskills to Vegas as first-generation entertainers. Now comes “Old Jewish Comedians,” a book to honor these slapsticklers and ticklemen of the 20th century. Thirty-two pages of funny faces (all guys), the book is “An Illustrated Gallery of Jewish American Comedians, Comics, Comic Actors, Clowns, and Tummlers Depicted in the Sunset of Their Years.” Artist Drew Friedman’s portraits cover the greats and the greatly forgotten, from George Burns and Buddy Hackett, to Benny Rubin and Joe Smith.

Friedman, whom I first enjoyed for his funny illustrations in SPY Magazine, and whose work currently is seen in MAD, the New York Observer, Los Angeles Magazine and other publications, said that none of the comedians posed for him.

“I have a fairly extensive photo file which was very helpful,” he said.

He’s collected pictures of comedians since he was a child. (Bruce Jay Friedman, the author’s father, appears in “Old Jewish Comedians” in a photo from 1940 in the Catskills with comedian Jackie Miles.)

“Rich reality” is how Leonard Maltin describes Friedman’s style in his foreword. Included in the book are the real names for these “show-business survivors” as Maltin calls them: Shecky Green/Sheldon Greenfield, Freddie Roman/Fred Martin Kirschenbaum, Rodney Dangerfield/Jacob Cohen, Henny/Henry Youngman, et al.

Unfortunately, the only writing in “Old Jewish Comedians” is Maltin’s foreword.

“I didn’t want it to be ‘history’ book,” Friedman explained. “There are already those out there. I wanted their styles to be illustrated in their faces and the context of the drawing. Maltin’s intro puts everything into historical context.”

So where to go if you want to learn more about these Jewish jesters? The ones who didn’t make it because comedy was less marketable back then, 50 years before HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central and clubs expanded stand-up venues are described in detail by Betsy Borns in her 1987 treatise, “Comic Lives.” Most never even flashed the free- wheeling coffeehouse style that Gerald Nachman recounts in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 60s.” (Shelley/Sheldon Leonard Berman being the exception, appearing in that 2003 book and this one.)

To really evaluate the book, I went to 92-year-old Irving Brecher. After all, Brecher is old, Jewish and he has not only done stand-up, he wrote for some of Friedman’s alter kackers, like Milton Berlinger (Berle, on the cover), Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns, inside cover), and the Marx Brothers (Julius, Adolph and Leonard, middle two pages of book.)

Book open, over split pea soup and half a pastrami on rye at Label’s Table on Pico Boulevard, I quizzed Brecher about “OJC” who never found the fame of a Moses — Harry Horwitz/Moe Howard or Jerome Levitch/Jerry Lewis, a Jack Chakrin/Jack Carter or Archibald Donald Rickles/ Don Rickles, et al.

— Irv, here’s Harry Joachim.

“That’s Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers. Harry was the only one who was talented. Al and Jimmy were nothing.”

— Menasha Skulnik?

“That’s his real name. Great Yiddish comedian. The Yiddish theater was a remarkable place. I wish you’d seen it.”

— Joseph Seltzer?

“Joe Smith of Smith & Dale, the famous vaudeville team. They made a movie called “The Heart of New York,” which is a museum piece. For collectors.”

— Abraham Kalish?

“Al Kelly. Al did double talk. That was his style. He spoke gibberish in vaudeville sketches and all the people would try to be polite.

— While he mocked them?

“No, not mocking them. The audience would laugh. But people in the real world he dealt with would be taken in.”

— Sounds like what Borat does!

“Haven’t seen it. But most comedians couldn’t do it like Al Kelly could. He was unique.”

— Here’s a fellow named Ben Rubin…

“Benny Rubin used to work for me! When he was up in vaudeville. I’d give him a part in “The Life of Riley” radio show. In Hollywood, when they wanted a Jew with a long nose, they’d hire him. The lousy Hollywood producers. He’d make $150. I’d never use a character with a Jewish accent. Like Jack Benny [Benjamin Kubelsky] did with ‘Mr. Schlepperman.'”

— He used a thick Jewish accent?

“I hated it, that very stereotypical annoying character.

— Who played him?

“Artie Auerbach. Listen, do they have Jan Murray in this book?”

— No.

“I’m surprised.”

Friedman said not to worry; Jan Murray/Murray Janofsky will appear in the sequel, “More Old Jewish Comedians,” due in 2008.

Brecher said he hopes the sequel has a bit, or routine, a catchphrase, something from each comedian to go with the pictures.

Sondheim Knows How to Book ‘Em


Some people begin collecting because they’ve coveted certain objects for as long as they can remember. Others collect as an investment. And, of course, there are poseurs who hire prestige dealers to buy them trendy art because they want to be viewed as taste mavens.

Harry Sondheim, a retired criminal prosecutor for the L.A. County D.A.’s office, started to collect Judaica for none of those reasons. He was traveling in Holland when he simply noticed an artifact that appealed to him: “They had a museum, Der Weg, which means the Weighing House. They had an artist named Bicart. I bought some postcards with depictions of Jewish ceremonies on them. You can’t buy those postcards any longer.”

Reflecting his legal training, Sondheim answers questions methodically. Even his decision to focus on rare books, as opposed to art, shows a judicious attitude.

“It’s pretty hard to falsify a book,” he said, adding, “they’re not as likely to be stolen. If you have a thief in the house, they’re more likely to steal a silver menorah.”

Maybe it matters, too, that Sondheim attended the University of Chicago in the era when that institution still featured the Great Books courses.

Sondheim will be speaking at the 39th California International Antiquarian Book Fair’s “Collecting Your Roots” panel on Sunday, Feb. 19.

He especially likes rare manuscripts that include illustrations or, as he says, “depictions” of Jewish ceremonies and customs.

Sondheim has never taken a vacation specifically to collect books, but has purchased manuscripts at synagogues, museums and bookstores around the world, including Germany, where he can trace his genealogy back to around 1760. His family fled Germany in 1938, several months before Kristallnacht. The tomes he favors are typically printed in German, their existence all the more remarkable because of the Nazis’ program of burning Jewish books.

The best deal he ever got was a work by Arthur Szyk, a Polish Jewish artist from the first half of the 20th century who specialized in political caricatures and miniature painting. Given Sondheim’s background in the law, it is not surprising that he bought the “Statut of Kalisz.” The book is Szyk’s interpretation of a 13th-century manuscript that has been called the “Jewish Magna Carta,” a decree by which a Polish king gave Jews civil rights. Szyk illustrated the manuscript while also relating the statute to some other events in Jewish history.

“One page shows different occupations a Jew might have had, weaving, baking, a cobbler,” Sondheim said. “I acquired that at a reasonable price, around $17,000. Someone else’s copy was recently auctioned off for $64,000.”

Sondheim does not use eBay though he’ll search through an auction house’s Web site, which he calls “the equivalent of having their catalog.”

Collecting, he says, is “a sort of continuum. There are pictures of chuppahs from hundreds of years ago, and you have chuppahs today. You live the present through the past.”

The 39th California International Antiquarian Book Fair will be held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, 2025 Avenue of the Stars, from Friday, Feb. 17 through Sunday, Feb. 19. Harry Sondheim will speak at the “Collecting Your Roots” panel, a free seminar, on Sunday at 2 p.m. For information, call (800) 454-6401.

 

Shoah-Era Opera an Allegory of Victory


When she was 11 years old, Ella Weisberger got her first starring role, playing the cat in a children’s opera called, "Brundibar."

But Weisberger didn’t perform in a grand concert hall; instead she sang in the barracks of Terezin, the "model" concentration camp that the Nazis set up in Czechoslovakia for artists and intellectuals.

"Brundibar" ended up being performed 55 official times in Terezin, and in countless other impromptu performances in the camp’s halls and barracks. A charming folktale where good triumphs over evil, this children’s opera became a symbol of resistance and hope for many of the 144,000 Jews interned in Terezin, most of whom were murdered before the end of the war.

Today, "Brundibar" is experiencing a revival of sorts. It is the title and story of a new children’s book written by Tony Kushner, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak (Hyperion Books for Children), and this weekend, the Jewish Community Foundation and the Dwight Stuart Youth Foundation sponsored Youth Opera Camp of Santa Monica College Conservatory will be performing the opera at the Miles Memorial Playhouse and Simon Wiesenthal Center.

"We have been taking the kids through a real journey understanding the social relevance of this piece," said Adam Phillipson, the special projects coordinator for Santa Monica College. "The theme of the opera is overcoming a bully, which is how we made it relevant for them, but we also wanted them to understand its historical relevance."

Hans Krasa composed the music of "Brundibar," and Adolf Hoffmeister wrote the lyrics in 1938 for a competition of the Ministry of Education and Culture in Czechoslovakia. According to some accounts, the impending war prevented the competition from taking place; others say that Krasa and Hoffmeister never got their prize because they were Jews. In 1939 when the Nazis invaded, Jews were prevented from participating in public activities. Krasa took his opera to a Jewish orphanage in Prague, where it had its first performance. In 1943, Krasa and the orphanage boys were shipped to Terezin, and his opera was smuggled into the camp in a suitcase. The opera was a favorite there. It was performed for a visiting Red Cross delegation in 1944, and a performance became part of the Nazi propaganda film, "The Fuhrer Presents the Jews With a City."

"Brundibar" is the story of two children who are trying to buy milk for their sick mother but have no money. They notice people giving coins to Brundibar (Czech for bumblebee), the mean old organ grinder. The children try their hand at singing, but nobody hears them over Brundibar’s racket. Out of frustration they start imitating Brundibar, who runs them out of the market. At night, a sparrow, cat and dog join the children to look after them, and advise them that strength lies in numbers. In the morning, a chorus of schoolchildren join them, and together, their voices are loud enough to drown out Brundibar. Villagers drop coins into their bucket, but then a jealous Brundibar runs away with it. The children chase him, get their bucket back and the opera ends with a song of victory.

"Music was part of the resistance against the Nazis," said Weisberger. "When we sang the finale of this little opera, Brundibar was like Hitler and [the message was] we will overcome him and we will win the war against him, and I believe the audience understood it. They would clap, and we would sing it again several times."

Now, 60 years later, the experience of "Brundibar" is still a bittersweet but happy one. It is both a reminder of prejudice and an escape from it. In the Sendak book, scattered among the brightly colored illustrations are Jews wearing the yellow star and even a Jewish cemetery. The opera camp took its 37 aspiring singers on a tour of the Museum of Tolerance and its Children of Terezin exhibit so they could better understand the historical context of the opera. Yet the specter of the Holocaust did not preoccupy the rehearsals of the opera itself.

"It should be playful," said director Eli Villaneuva to the singers during rehearsal, as they flexed their nimble bodies to look like the animals of the script. "You should feel like this is all pretty silly."

But the performers were aware of the significance of the opera. Eight of the 37 opera campers, who come from all over Los Angeles, are Jewish, and several of them had relatives who went through the Holocaust.

"I am continuing the legacy [of those who died] you might say," said Dana Edelman, 13, from El Segundo Middle School, whose great-great aunts and uncles were killed in the Holocaust. "It was really cool that ‘Brundibar’ had been performed by kids, and it was their way of being unified."

Weisberger said, "’Brundibar’ was our life."

"Brundibar, A Children’s Opera" will be performed Dec. 5 at noon and 7 p.m. at Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 434-3431; and on Dec. 7 at 1:30 p.m. at the Museum of Tolerance, 9876 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 772-2452.

Arafat,the Anti-Icon


Leaders of the world have called him irrelevant, and indeed he has been largely replaced in world affairs. But in an exhibit at Tel Aviv’s Dvir Gallery, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is as relevant as ever as the foil for a young art curator’s homage to Israeli culture.

Consisting of about 20 illustrations and photographs, "Guess Who Died" aspires to be a mirror of Israeli society and its relationship with the Palestinian leader who has served as the culture’s ultimate anti-icon for the last three decades.

In a digital photo montage titled, "Death Row," Arafat’s head has been crudely pasted onto the body of late rapper Tupac Shakur as he walks alongside Marion "Suge" Knight, founder of the hip-hop record label Death Row Records, surrounded by bodyguards. It’s the Palestinian Authority à la gangsta rappers.

The curator, 24-year-old writer and art critic Ory Dessau, calls the exhibition a post-traumatic shock reaction to the Palestinian uprising. Though in grappling with Israel’s view of personification of Palestinian nationalism, "Guess Who Died" includes pieces that date from the 1970s, when Arafat first burst into the national consciousness.

"My starting point is that Arafat is an Israeli cultural construct," he said. "I want to take the entire Israeli debate about Arafat, reproduce it and take ownership."

Dessau explained that the exhibit’s title refers to a "hierarchy" of death that’s part of the conflict. In both Israeli and Palestinian societies, the significance of a killing varies depending on whether the victim is a child civilian, a soldier, a settler or a potential suicide bomber.

"We’re in a situation where there’s no distinction between civil life and military life," he said. "This is our life, there’s no difference between the front line and the homefront."

A self-described Israeli leftist, Dessau supports a two-state solution. But he says that unlike other exhibitions in Israel that have been organized to criticize Israel’s military occupation or support for coexistence, his has no agenda. Instead he calls it "an objective reflection of the state of bloodbath" that comes with a sense of humor.

Adam Rabinovich, the Israeli artist who put Arafat’s head onto the body of the rapper, said the montage is meant as a humoristic parallel between the way Israelis look at Palestinians and racial tensions in the United States.

"To be Israeli and not deal with Arafat is impossible," Rabinovich said. "It just comes out."

A Children’s Book That’s Infectious


"I’m in awe of animals," Winnick says. "I think they’re amazing. They teach me about basic truths."

"Barn Sneeze," which chronicles the journey of a sneeze that affects poultry and porcine alike, is sure to prove contagious among tots as well. The book benefits from Winnick’s loose pastel-and-charcoal illustrations, which echo her all-time favorite work of children’s literature "Charlotte’s Web."

Winnick, the wife of philanthropist and Global Crossing CEO Gary Winnick, has been writing and drawing children’s books since her single days. She studied under revered illustrator Milton Glaser at the School of Visual Arts. Over the years, she has actively kept in touch with her inner writer by refreshing her skills through UCLA Extension classes. As creative people know, the ability to express one’s soul, not formal technical ability, is what separates artist from artisan.

"There are millions of people who draw better than me, and there are millions who write better than me," Winnick said, "but I have a strong imagination."

It was Winnick’s love of children and animals that kick-started the L.A. Zoo’s Children’s Zoo. She also created Winnick’s Winners, a $1 million endowed fund that rewards high school reading tutors, and she’s a big supporter of KOREH L.A., a Jewish Community Relations Committee literacy program that recruits volunteers to read books to public school pupils. When sports superstar Shawn Green announced his endorsement of KOREH L.A. at a Dodger Stadium press conference a few years ago, Winnick was also on hand, giving away copies of her books to kids.

"I am lucky enough to support things I believe in," she says, " and literacy is where it all begins."



Karen Winnick will read and sign copies of "Barn Sneeze" on June 1, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m., at Pages Books for Children and Young Adults, 18399 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, (818) 342-6657.