The walled city of Israeli artist Avner Moriah’s new illuminated Haggada looks less like a Middle Eastern capital and more like a medieval Tuscan town. The cover features Jerusalem’s Old City, hovering in space against a black background. Surrounding the cluster of towers and red-roofed houses is a sand-colored wall, delineating a graceful ark as it curves downward to meet the Earth. Moriah, who was born in Jerusalem in 1953 and lives and works there still, also keeps a studio in New York. He spoke with the Forward there this month.
“This is Jerusalem as imagined through the eyes of one of my favorite artists, the 15th-century Florentine painter Piero della Francesca,” Moriah said, in his small space crowded with large oil paintings and hundreds of watercolors. Like all Renaissance artists working in Florence, della Francesca imagined the Holy Land in a likeness familiar to his viewers: a landscape of rolling hills and small fortress towns. Moriah’s Haggada for the 21st century is a series of bound lithographies of scenes of the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago appear intertwined with vignettes of contemporary life in New York City and its environs. On the Haggada’s frontispiece, the daily commute between city and suburbs, broken up into 14 segments, encircles scenes depicting the exodus and the 14 parts of the Seder.
“The Haggada urges each of us to consider ourselves as if we personally participated in the exodus,” Moriah said. “I was inspired to paint this day in the life of a modern American client of mine who lives in Englewood, N.J.” The day, which begins in the interior of a suburban house, unfolds against the Manhattan skyline at dawn and ends in front of a TV set in the bedroom of the same house. Moriah himself spent 10 years living in the United States, having come here to study painting at Yale University, where he earned a master’s of fine arts degree. “These contemporary images force us to contemplate the degree of freedom we really enjoy in our own life,” he said.
Each page features a beautiful watercolor that is a piece of art in its
own right, rather than a mere illustration accompanying the text. Painted in vibrant shades of blue, green, ochre and orange, their willfully naïve imagery is mostly inspired by wall paintings from ancient Egypt and Babylon. The scenes of the exodus are populated by skeletal stick figures reminiscent of the modernist sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s frail, elongated bronzes. “Giacometti was inspired by Etruscan art,” Moriah explained. “I based my figurines on miniature sculptures from the bronze and iron ages, during which the 12 tribes settled in ancient Israel.”
Moriah is better known for his series of paintings on themes from Jewish history and for his landscapes, including his 1988 Shoah series, part of which is in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Moriah began his Haggada project while his wife, Andy Moriah, was being treated for leukemia in a Jerusalem hospital. “Other people around me were constantly reciting psalms,” the artist said. “I began to sketch.”
Moriah spent four months making hundreds of preparatory images. The first drawings, he said, were small and contained. As his wife began to recover, his watercolors grew more vibrant and expansive. “I felt what it was like to be on the threshold of the inferno and to find the strength to overcome my despair and make something creative out of my experience,” Moriah said. “That was my personal exodus.”
The result is a hefty volume digitally printed in a limited edition of 360 copies on archival-quality paper and hand-bound in leather, with calligraphy by Izzy Pludwinski and an introduction by Rabbi Shlomo Fox. They sell for $3,500 per copy. Individual plates are also for sale. (For more information, please contact the artist at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The Hagadda communicates a message that Moriah deems especially important at this moment for both Israelis and Americans: “It’s about finding your balance in the midst of conflict, and maintaining an ability to keep being human and creative.”