If love can be measured by the gravity of the sins one is prepared to commit on its behalf, the Passover Haggadah is the best loved book of traditional Jewish artists and the rabbis. In no other case did Jewish painters break the religious ban on representing the human figure, as they did in the Passover Haggadah, which is peopled with countless images of mankind: and in no other case did the rabbis turn a blind eye to this transgression, as they chose to do when it occured in the pages of the illustrated Haggadah: and the Haggadah – unlike any other Jewish religious book – has always been illustrated.
This oversight can be related perhaps to the fact that the festival of Passover celebrates freedom, and this freedom may even present itself as the relaxation of some religious rules, just as the festival of Purim, which is also a celebration of happiness, encourages some religious relaxations, in connection, for example, with dressing-up and card-playing.
The painter or book designer who wishes to create a Passover Haggadah in 1975 knows full well that, while a traditional book must form a link in the long chain of tradition, it must also step aside from the tradition, for the sake of its own raison d’etre.
Facing such a challenge, Ya’akov Boussidan began work on the present volume five years ago. For the last three and a half years I have been witnessing, almost daily, its fascinating progress.
The first decision to be made was in the extensive field of Hebrew lettering, which has discarded and taken many shapes during the course of history.
Boussidan decided that the lettering of his Haggadah would be uncompromisingly traditional, and he discovered it – a combination of two traditions, Ashkenazi and Italian – in a standard book of lettering, thus establishing his affiliation as a link in the chain. He left the actual designing of the letters, in black and white, in the hands of a graphic artist, and when he had been furnished with a text, he set about paging and enlarging and placing and colouring it, as it appears here. It is not difficult to demonstrate how effectively he has succeeded in holding the balance between tradition and innovation. This book is the time-hallowed Haggadah HaggadahBoussidan decided that the lettering of his Haggadah would be uncompromisingly traditional, and he discovered it – in a combination of two traditions, Ashekenazi and Italian – in a standard book of lettering, thus establishing his affiliation, as a link in the chain. He left the actual designing of the letters, in black and white, in the hands of a graphic artist, and when he had been furnished with a text, he set about paging and enlarging an placing and colouring it, as it appears here. It is not difficult to demonstrate how effectively he has succeeded in holding the balance between tradition and innovation. this book is the time-hallowed Haggadah, which any Jew would recognise from his grandparents’ home, and yet, at the same time, an unfamiliar one.
From this point on, Boussidan felt free to construct a Haggadah with a personal stamp. He has done this not only in terms of the illustrations but also in the text itself, introducing a number of verses from the book of Genesis into the traditional text. The Passover Haggadah – as Boussidan sees it – is the narrative of the birth of the world: likewise, the “Covenant between the Pieces” (Genesis XV:17), in which the Exodus is alluded to for the first time in our annals.
The first etchings are related to the six days of creation, in which the likeness of people and landscapes and animals are captured, so to speak, in their primeval state. Death is the first death, as is the kid, the fish and the fowl. In the etching of the plague of darkness, the darkness is interpreted as an internal blindness, not external. The Jerusalem to which we promise to come “next year”, is the Jerusalem does not yet exist, though she is also the ancient, eternal Jerusalem.
In the idiom of his designs, Boussidan shows a complete disregard for the chronology of art history. It is apparent in every picture that it is a product of the latter part of the twentieth century, but no picture owes allegiance to any traditional artistic perception, defined in the complicated vocabulary of our times. Boussidan interprets freedom, which is the very essence of the Haggadah, as an inclusive freedom. It includes the freedom not to feel oneself bound to any viewpoints where others may have set limits. The evident homogeneity of these pages absorbs the force of its conviction from formalistic heterogeneity, and the bolt which fastens the pages together is the unique artistic personality of their creator.
I have been trying to use words to introduce Boussidan’s book but this Haggadah seems to exemplify most aptly the fact that a book need not depend on words. Likewise, contrasts need not have a common denominator. As tradition is not necessarily opposed to modernity, so also the artistic ‘I’ is capable of blending harmoniously with the historic ‘we’.