Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Illustrated Exodus

I’ve tracked down a version of the very traditional Haggadah I remember from my youth, first published by Shulsinger Brothers in 1950. The illustrations by Austrian-born artist Siegmund Forst, depict in realistic detail, scenes of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt and various other characters and stories from the Haggadah. When I was a kid, I would pore over these illustrations during the lengthy recitation of the text. I considered them very instructive and I was not bothered in the least by how sentimental they were. I was fascinated that they showed me how it really looked when Egyptian soldiers were swallowed by the Red Sea, and exactly what the Angel of Death looked like (a skeleton with wings and a scythe). It also served as a handy guide to stereotyping men by their appearance.

The Haggadah actually acknowledges that not all children are exactly the same. “The Four Sons” represent four types of children and outlines how to discuss the exodus from Egypt with each type.

Upper right, the wise son (looks a lot like Moses!); upper left, the wicked son; bottom right, the simple son: bottom left, the son who doesn’t even know how to ask a question.

Scenes of the Jews in Egypt: Above, building pyramids. Below, Pharaoh's daughter discovers Moses in his basket in the reeds.

This illustration goes with a “cumulative” type of folk song that’s been around for a few hundred years called Chad Gadya. It’s ostensibly a lively song for children about the fate of a boy’s goat, which his father bought for him. The song describes successive acts of violence that go all the way up the food chain from animals, to man, to the Angel of Death, to God.

Chad Gadya, however, is not merely a simple child’s song. There have been many interpretations of it. Here is what Elie Wiesel has to say about it.
And here we are, concluding the seder with Chad Gadya, a beautiful song, which is not just about a father who buys a goat for his child. It's a song about God's creatures destroying each other. It may be a puzzling way to end the joyous meal but one that is fraught with meaning.

The song of Chad Gadya reminds us that in Jewish history, all creatures, all animals, all events are connected. The goat and the cat, the fire and the water, the slaughterer and the redeemer, they are all part of the story.

And surely it has to be symbolic, for how can a cat eat a goat in the first place?

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