Picture books for grownups

Picture books for grownups

Rebecca Kaplan Boroson and Lois Goldrich

Many parents give their children picture books for Chanukah — but adults like picture books as well, only we call them "coffee-table books."

One beautiful book, to give or keep, is "Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World," by Benjamin Harshav (Rizzoli, ‘006, $75). It’s subtitled "The Nature of Chagall’s Art and Iconography," it is a cornucopia of the rich and fascinating and surprising and often puzzling images that leave the viewer, whether Jewish or gentile, breathless with delight and new awareness.

But the reader (as opposed to the viewer) of this sumptuous book should be warned: The text can be repetitive: We are told on page 11 about "Chagall’s native city, Vitebsk…." Then again, on page 19, we read again, "Chagall was born in Vitebsk." A sentence in that paragraph concludes, "in Vitebsk, where Chagall was born." Two pages later, we read that he was born "in a Yiddish-speaking suburb of Vitebsk…."

Nevertheless, there is a wealth of information here, about the Russia of Chagall’s time and about the world of his art.

Another warning: Chagall was famous, and beloved among Jews, for his scenes of the shtetl and images of Jewish life. "The Praying Jew," for example, painted in 19’3 in oil on canvas, has, with dark-haired and bearded worshipper, its tallit and tefillin, the power of an archetype. But readers may be surprised — and some may be dismayed — to see equally powerful Christian imagery in Chagall’s work.

Harshav writes, "Jesus was seen in secular Jewish culture as an historical figure, a Jew, attractive because like contemporary Jews he revolted against the religious establishment and its rituals, such as praying three times a day. Chagall saw him as a great poet."

Harshav goes on to write that "White Crucifixion," a 1938 oil on canvas, "included Jesus wearing a tallis to cover his genitalia while hanging crucified over the roads of Europe…. The suffering Jew (Jesus) is placed at the center of ‘White Crucifixion,’ and around him are references to Chagall’s own times."

This was probably painted after Kristallnacht, Harshav notes, adding that "on top left we see a group of Jews in religious attire closing their eyes or puzzling over the events…. On the top right we see a program in a German synagogue. Religious objects are being thrown out and the two tablets of law, the Star of David, and the images of lions over the entrance to the synagogue are on fire."

A suffering Jesus is central to a number of the works reprinted here: "Resurrection" (1937-5′, oil on canvas), "Resistance" (1937-48, oil on canvas), "The Martyr" (1940, oil on canvas), "Christ with Clock" (1956, gouache), and "Exodus" (195′-66, oil on linen canvas).

This would make a welcome present for the discerning art-lover, and for those who want to learn more about one of the finest artists of the ‘0th century.

Those who are looking for historical information and inspirational stories together with their photos might want to look at "Lighting the Way to Freedom: Treasured Hanukkah Menorahs of Early Israel" (Devora Publishing, ‘006, $30). Describing the book as a labor of love, the authors — "passionate collectors of menorahs" — highlight Israeli artists and artisans from the 1930s through 1970s. In covering the work produced over the four decades that began with the closing of the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem and ending with the Yom Kippur War, they set out to "honor the talented pioneer artists who crafted the menorahs … and memorialize the courageous generations who lit them."

Co-author Aaron Ha’Tell (who produced the book together with Yaniv Ben Or) says the two want people to be "wowed by the beauty of these menorahs — so we packed the book with them." Indeed, it has well over 500 images. He also points out, since Chanukah is about the struggle for freedom, that the book "tells stories of faith, courage, and hope in the pursuit of justice … from antiquity to modern times."

It begins by developing the theme of freedom and its victory over tyranny — light over darkness — and retelling the Chanukah story. This leads into the resurrection of the Jewish people and the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, highlighting the nation’s first ‘5 years. Chapters on the menorahs themselves include a history of menorah-making as well as specifics on their creation, including sketches and photos.

Also highlighted is the increasing role menorahs play in American culture, with a special look at how giving and lighting special menorahs have served as gestures of friendship between the United States and Israel. For example, in 1950, President Harry S. Truman, a proponent of the creation of the Jewish state, accepted a chanukiah from then Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

While the original plan was to produce a small book "of about 100 pretty pictures," says Ha’Tell, the authors soon realized that there were so many menorahs to feature, and the imagery on each had such rich additional meanings, that "they were not only religious artifacts but also … rich symbols of Jewish cultural and political continuity."

Writes Ha’Tell, "These menorahs — some still have old wax — are records of the times of our parents’ generation, of the personal hopes, dreams, joys, sorrow, self-concepts, and culture of the grown-ups of our childhoods, now elderly and slowly passing away."