Artist calls Haggada a ‘book for our times’

Artist calls Haggada a ‘book for our times’

When Judaica artist and calligrapher David Moss was commissioned by a Florida couple to design a one-of-a-kind Haggada for Passover in 1980, it set him free to put his personal stamp on tradition.

He was especially keen to create a work in the spirit of an injunction from the Haggada itself: “In every generation, each person must regard himself or herself as if he or she had come out of Egypt.”

The Jerusalem-based Moss, a Dayton, Ohio, native who made aliya decades ago, spent the next three years working full-time on the project — half the time spent on research, half on design.

Embellished with gold leaf on parchment, lacy cut-outs, mirrors, moving parts, and hand-drawn illuminations, the Moss Haggadah has become perhaps the best-known illuminated Haggada of the past 50 years.

“This is the 3,326th annual Pesach celebration,” said Moss. “It is amazing that we have been telling our children [this story] for that amount of time.”

Moss spoke March 23 at the 29th annual Israel Segal Memorial Lecture at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, where he conducted workshops for schoolchildren before the program and for adults afterward.

According to Moss, the Passover Haggada is the most published book in the world, other than the Bible, with over 15,000 different editions.

In trying to give the Exodus story physical expression, Moss said, he looked for fresh ways to share its eternal message.

For example, its first page is a tree of life, dense with seeds, with a border containing the entire text of the Haggada in micrographic Hebrew letters.

“A seed is the beginning of a tree,” explained Moss. “A seed holds the whole tree in it magically, wonderfully…. Pesach is just such a moment in the way it is celebrated as a holiday. It holds so much potential for a new beginning.”

Pages depicting Jews as they looked through the centuries are interspersed with reflective foil, allowing the users literally to see themselves in the Jewish continuum.

“I did this with the illuminations and paper cuts and mirrors because I thought I was doing a one-of-a-kind book,” said Moss, also a renowned designer of ketubot, architecture, and pottery whose works are on display throughout the world. While the original Haggada commissioned by Richard and Beatrice Levy remains locked in a vault, facsimile editions have been printed and are available for sale. In 1987, the White House purchased a copy, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan and presented to Israeli President Chaim Herzog to mark the first state visit of an Israeli president to the United States.

As Moss walked through the audience displaying the sections of the Haggada, he drew “oohs” and “ahs.”

Moss said he called the book Back to the Middle Ages because it was hand-illustrated with a turkey quill. But, he added, “it is a book for our times.”

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