As the one and only major Jewish celebration centered on the home and not the synagogue, the Seder must walk a fine line: It has to be equally compelling for young and old alike. We see this tension at the Seder’s very outset, with the Four Questions, which frame the evening’s agenda in a form that is both easy enough for a child to grasp and vexing enough to engage the adult mind. The same holds true for the Seder’s concluding number, “Had Gadya,” a children’s song with enough allegorical meat on it to keep the mature mind whirring.
As an artist whose immediately recognizable images are at once primitive and childlike yet sophisticated and modern, who better than Seymour Chwast to capture the Seder’s duality? And with his new book, “Had Gadya: A Passover Song,” recently published by Roaring Book Press, he has done just that. Though by all appearances a children’s book, it can comfortably take its place alongside the 20th century’s most accomplished illustrations of the song.
“Had Gadya,” which is based on a German folk tune, unfolds in 10 stanzas. It begins with the story of a young goat bought by a father for two coins. A cat eats the goat; a dog bites the cat; a stick hits the dog; a fire burns the stick; water douses the fire; an ox drinks the water; a butcher slaughters the ox; the Angel of Death kills the butcher. In the concluding stanza, God appears and dispatches the Angel of Death. Everyone sings and claps, adding animal noises and other sound effects along the way. Yet since the song first appeared in the Haggada in 1590, Jewish commentators portrayed “Had Gadya” as more than a frivolous end to the Seder. Rather, they interpreted the song as an allegory about Jewish history: The goat represents the Jews, beset by generations of enemies, and only God brings salvation.
Jewish scribes in the 18th century created some of the earliest illustrations of “Had Gadya” as they resuscitated the lost art of manuscript illumination — texts written and illustrated by hand. In the Copenhagen Haggadah from 1739, Uri Pheibush Segal decorates each stanza with its own simple painting using a watercolorlike style. The pictures isolate each successive stanza and are free of action. The goat is simply a goat, standing at ease in a pasture, unaware of its impending fate. The Angel of Death appears as a skeleton, and God is portrayed as an arm reaching from a cloud, sword in hand. It is folk art that was intended, as Chaya Benjamin writes in her foreword to the facsimile edition of the Copenhagen Haggadah, to “charm the reader and… evoke an atmosphere that goes beyond the scenes depicted.”
The artist El Lissitzky used similar images to great effect in his “Had Gadya: The Only Kid,” published in a facsimile edition last year by J. Paul Getty Trust Publications. Lissitzky, a Russian Jew and communist, illustrated the song to bridge the gap between the faith of his ancestors and his political beliefs. When his lithographs first appeared in 1919, an all too brief flowering of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union was under way. Lissitzky’s illustrations, influenced by Jewish folk art and the Russian avant-garde, take the traditional images and give them a political twist, proselytizing for the Russian Revolution. Rather than simply portraying flaming sticks, Lissitzky also includes a burning synagogue, a reference to the pogroms the Jewish community suffered under the tsar. Lissitzky’s Angel of Death appears as a skeleton similar to the one in the Copenhagen Haggadah, with one difference: Death wears the tsar’s crown. In the last stanza, God again appears as an arm extending from the sky, but this time the arm is painted red — a reference to one of the first stamps issued by the Soviet government. Lissitzky ultimately failed to create a Jewish-communist hybrid, but his “Had Gadya” serves as a vivid reminder of a more optimistic time.
Sixty years later, Lissitzky’s illustrations had an unintended consequence when Frank Stella saw them on display in Tel Aviv and was inspired to create his own paintings based on “Had Gadya.” Where Lissitzky used recognizable figures and forms, Stella created abstract works full of geometric shapes, colorful splashes and swirls, combining standard painting, collage, and lithographic and silkscreen printing techniques. In the paintings, abstract figures stand in for the characters, and one must look closely to identify the corresponding stanza. But such identification is hopeless without the titles. In one instance, the goat is portrayed as a mass of yellow-and-brown squiggles. Likewise, an orange puzzle-piece-shaped figure represents the biting dog. In these works, Stella plucks the song “Had Gadya” from the past and places it firmly in the modern world.
In “Had Gadya: A Passover Song,” Chwast returns the song to the shtetl. His illustrations are bright and colorful, influenced by Ben Shahn, Saul Steinberg and Marc Chagall. In Chwast’s hands, the song is a life cycle rather than a progression toward religious or manmade utopia. Each painting — the originals will be on display at the JCC in Manhattan through May 2 — portrays daily life in the village: a goat being purchased, a stick being used for firewood, an ox drinking water. Even the Angel of Death, portrayed here as a fiendish ghost with fiery wings, waits outside while the butcher dies of natural causes. In the last drawing, Father returns home with another goat, starting the cycle anew. The same can be said of Chwast’s book, which brings “Had Gadya” back to its intended audience. It is, after all, a children’s song.
Benjamin Levisohn is a writer and stock trader in New York.