The haggadah has been in the spotlight this spring at Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA). Haggadah (הַגָּדָה) is Hebrew for “telling,” namely, the telling of the Exodus story at the Seder service during the Jewish festival of Pesach, or Passover. The term also signifies a book that contains the ritual guide to the Seder, along with scripture passages, commentary, prayers, and songs. For centuries the haggadah has been one of the most celebrated items of Jewish literature and art, and there are many examples of both handwritten and printed haggadot with intricate illustrations. In each generation artists continue the tradition of reinterpreting the haggadah for contemporary believers.
MOCRA has been exhibiting a contemporary haggadah by Israeli artist Archie Granot. Titled The Papercut Haggadah, it was commissioned by Sandra and Max Thurm of Suffern, New York. The Papercut Haggadah was handcrafted using the Jewish folk art tradition of papercutting. The result is a series of 55 pages in which Granot evokes the intense emotions attached with the Passover Seder by utilizing geometric and abstract shapes instead of the usual symbols.
Every word of Hebrew text in his haggadah is handcut, with each page standing as both an independent work of art and a single piece of a beautiful, thematically unified whole. Each page of his multi-layered paper pieces (some nearly an inch thick) tackles a certain aspect or song associated with the Seder, such as “Ma Nishtanah” (מה נשתנה, The Four Questions), or “Pesach, Matzah, Maror” (פֶּסַח, The Passover Offering; מצה, the Unleavened Bread; and מרור, the Bitter Herb), which incorporates shapes that evoke the traditional matzah.
Granot discusses his inspirations, creative process and papercutting techniques in an interview posted on the MOCRA blog. The exhibition has received some insightful coverage in the press, including an exhibition preview in The St. Louis Jewish Light, and a spotlight during Passover in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The Papercut Haggadah is a fine example of work by a contemporary visual artist who is in dialogue with the great faith traditions but who also brings contemporary concerns and modes of expression to bear on those traditions. In so doing, Granot shows the vitality both of the Jewish tradition and of contemporary artistic expressions of faith. The work has helped further MOCRA’s aim of being a center for interfaith understanding and dialogue. The Jewish community plays an important role in the social fabric of St. Louis, and our experience has been that The Papercut Haggadah has provided an opportunity for members of the local Jewish community to explore their own tradition, and at the same time opened a window into the celebration of Passover for people of other faith traditions.
MOCRA is also pleased to present a public lecture on the closing day of the exhibition. Stephen P. Durchslag holds what is considered to be the largest private collection of haggadot in the world, numbering some 4,500 volumes dating from 1485 to the present day. In a talk titled, “The Jewish Experience and the Haggadah,” he will draw on examples from his collection to show how the haggadah is a central element of the Jewish experience, a text that sustains both tradition and innovation, and is a vehicle for myriad expressions of the Jewish imagination. Learn more about the lecture here.