Alef Betty: Modern Hebrew Arts

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Ben Shahn Haggadah

Ben Shahn is best known for his social realist paintings in the 1930's and 40's, but he also produced some of the most exciting contemporary Judaica in the United States.

In the 1950's, he illustrated a book called The Alphabet of Creation, pictured above. (You can still buy a later edition of the book.) His lettering for the cover influenced my classic Hebrew alphabet poster (along with Lawrence Kushner's Book of Letters); it also became his signature. A stamp of the miniature alphabet appears in the corner of many of his works after 1960. You can see it in red on the lower right corner of this ketubah he designed, which is now in the permanent collection of the New York Jewish Museum:

In the 60's, he published Love and Joy About Letters, a book which features more of his hand lettering. His training in lithography and graphic design really shines through in his later works.

Interestingly, Shahn made many of the illustrations that would later appear in his Haggadah in the 1930's. His watercolors were finally published in the 60's, along with loads of gorgeous hand lettering and 10 drawings for the song Chad Gadya. His Haggadah is a personal volume, evoking his memories of Passover with his father.

Again, you can see his signature red chop on the lower right of the opening spread, below which he has the shehechiyanu:

Shahn's hand lettered Hebrew contrasts nicely with the clean English typography:

The Hebrew titling gets a healthy amount of breathing room:

The 2 languages are set helpfully on opposing pages:

Chad Gadya gets generous real estate at the end of the Haggadah – 5 spreads for a short song. Here's the first of them:

Shahn had so much lefty street cred that he was named checked by Woody Allen in Annie Hall (see the :45 mark). But his body of work is multi-dimensional, irreducible. He straddled commercial and fine art, and tackled a broad range of secular and religious subjects. It's always interesting to see what an artist with such breadth creates as personal work.

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