At the ritual Passover meal, or seder, many Jewish families will be reading an abbreviated story of the Jews' exodus from Egypt from wine-stained, center-stapled Haggadahs. A more select group will be reading the same slavery-to-freedom story from a leather-bound volume that features 48 brilliant-hued reproductions from an illuminated manuscript by Arthur Szyk — the Lodz-born art ist who became one of America's most influential political cartoonists during World War II.
Irvin Ungar, a rabbi turned antiquarian, is publishing 300 numbered reproductions of the Szyk Haggadah, available in two editions, priced at $8,500 and $15,000, respectively. This rerelease comes more than seven decades after the Haggadah was rejected by Eastern European publishers, apparently for its incorporation of Nazi caricatures: In Szyk's original, snakes had swastikas painted on their backs, and the "wicked son" of the Passover story wore Hitler's iconic mustache. "For Szyk, the story of Passover was taking place in his own day; it was something unfolding before his eyes," Mr. Ungar said. "He saw Hitler as Pharaoh, and the Nazis as the new Egyptians who had come to enslave, and ultimately annihilate, the Jewish people."
The London press that agreed to publish his book in 1940 did so on the condition that Szyk paint over much of the Nazi imagery.
Mr. Ungar said he has long been drawn to Szyk's Haggadah for its focus on Jewish heroism: In it, the multifaceted and intricately detailed images allude to David and Goliath, and depict Moses with a bodybuilder's physique. In 2004, Mr. Ungar — formerly a pulpit rabbi at a Reform synagogue in Queens — came to represent the owner of the original Szyk Haggadah artwork. His client agreed to lend him the book for the purpose of reproducing it, and the rare books dealer embarked on the project about two years ago. The process involved picking out top-quality materials from around the world — paper from a 500-year-old mill in Germany, fabric weaves from Japan, leather from a goat farm in Nigeria —and commissioning a professor at Chicago's Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, Byron Sherwin, to provide English-language translations and commentaries.
The $8,500 deluxe edition is covered in silk-rayon cloth, with a half-leather binding; the $15,000 premier edition features a full leather binding, and comes with a dozen Szyk prints. Both come in clamshell boxes, alongside a companion volume, featuring essays on Szyk's life and works. (Contributors include the chairman of the Department of Jewish and Comparative Folklore at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Shalom Sabar, and the former director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Tom Freudenheim.) The first copies of the reissued Szyk Haggadah went out Wednesday, and are scheduled to be delivered today, in advance of Passover, the eight-day holiday that begins tomorrow at sundown. Copies of both editions are still available for purchase.
A 74-year-old retired physician from Naples, Fla., Elliot Zaleznik, bought two deluxe and two premier editions, which he said he would be using at his family seders. Dr. Zaleznik, a longtime collector of Judaica, said Szyk's vivid artwork brings the Passover story to life. "I hope they will be fiercely enjoyed by my progeny," he said of the Haggadahs.
Szyk, who immigrated to America in 1940 and made a living as a political cartoonist, frequently parodied the Nazi regime during the war years. He aligned himself with the Bergson Group, a band of activist Zionists that lobbied the Roosevelt administration to do more to rescue Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe. Szyk's artwork accompanied advertisements that ran on behalf of the cause in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Bergson Group was widely unpopular with Jewish American leaders, whom the group accused of not putting enough pressure on the administration. At the time, Szyk argued for "action, not pity," and accused the Allied Forces of treating the mass murder of European Jews like pornography: "Nobody denies it, but you cannot discuss it in polite society."
A lecturer at University of California, Los Angeles who is writing a book about political art in America, Paul Von Blum, said the Szyk Haggadah provides a more activistic message than do other seder-table texts — and that is a good thing. "You can make tremendously contemporary applications of the story of escaping from tyranny and slavery, and that should apply to all oppressed people," he said, noting that Szyk was also an advocate for the civil rights of black Americans. "The Haggadah service should be political."
Mr. Von Blum said he treasures his first-edition copy of the Szyk Haggadah, but won't be using it at his family seder. "It's stunningly beautiful," he said. "You absolutely don't want to spill horseradish on it — much less a bottle of Manischewitz."