The Russian Jewish painter Eliezer Lissitzky was
a devout follower of the Communist movement, during a period when there was
no contradiction between revolutionary Communist activities and the growth and
spread of Jewish culture and art. In 1919, two years following the beginning
of the revolution, he painted a series of watercolors describing the story of
Had Gadya. Not part of a complete illuminated haggadah, the sequence
is intended to stand alone, carrying a message which transcends the message
of Passover. It is a show of support for the Bolshevik victory, conceived of
as the victory of the weak over the strong, the good over the bad, as the victory
of amended justice. The series exposes the tension in Lissitzky's own ideological
stance: his acknowledged rootedness in Judaism and his attraction to the new
and better world promised by the Communists.
The fascinating element in this sequence is the
symbolic language which the artist uses for expressing his ideas. This language
is based on the visual and verbal traditions of East European Jewry among which
he grew up, and this is the group to which he appeals in his work.
Lissitzky tries to persuade the Jewish public of
the justice of the Communist cause by using a traditional language, Yiddish,
characteristic Jewish symbols and values through the Had Gadya story. He proposes
to the Jews of Russia a religious-political message, in which the Revolution
is the fulfillment of Judgment Day and the redemption of the Jews.
We will observe and analyze three of the scenes
in Lissitzky's series. In Scene 5 in the Had Gadya story ("Then
came the fire and burnt the stick"), we see other objects apart
from the fire and the stick that are not mentioned in the song and which
are not found in traditional depictions of this scene.
These are the red fire-breathing rooster that consumes
the stick and the structure that dominates the left side of the picture. The
connection between the red rooster and the fire can be found in a phrase that
was common at the time and in the area that Lissitzky worked: the Yiddish phrase,
a royter henn, which means literally a red rooster, and refers to arson.
The identity of the structure in the left of the
picture is disclosed when compared to Issachar Ryback's painting from 1917,
The Old Synagogue.* The decorative windows
in the center of the structure, reminiscent of the accepted representation of
the Tablets of the Law, emphasize the identity of this structure as a synagogue.
Using the rooster and synagogue structure, Lissitzky ties in the burning mentioned
in the Had Gadya with the burning of the synagogues which was already
taking place in Eastern Europe. Had Gadya takes on allegorical meaning:
the immediate suffering of the Jews at the hands of the gentiles.
Scene 9 ("Then came Death and took the butcher")
depicts the shohet (butcher) and the Angel of Death according to the
traditional description, with a few exceptions. The shohet is lying on
the ground (and not on a bed, as in traditional depictions), and there is a
candle burning next to his head, following the ritual of East European Jewry
at that time.
Lissitzky chooses to depict the Angel of Death as a king,
as death was commonly conceived in non-Jewish European art. On his head
he wears a crown, made of a dome-shaped skullcap surrounded by three painted
shapes, rounded at the top and resembling the leaves around a budding
flower. This shape recalls Russian folklore depictions of the Czar's crown.
With this simple crown shape, Lissitzky creates an identity between the
Angel of Death and monarchism, the Russian monarchy in particular.
The political implications are made clear in the last
painting of the series. In Scene 10 ("And the Holy One, Blessed be
He, came and smote the Angel of Death"), we see the Angel of Death
with a crown on his head lying dead at the bottom of the painting. The
symbolism is clear: the Czarist regime is dead.
To emphasize the fact of death, Lissitzky writes in the
palm of the angel's hand the letters
(poh nitman) meaning "here lies", which appear on most
Jewish gravestones, and beneath that, "the Angel of Death."
The Angel of Death was smitten by God, represented here by the eye, as
well as another symbol of God the hand.
On one side of the painting we see an old bearded man
turning his head and hand to the sky, in an expression of amazement. On
the opposite side, we see a kid waving its front legs in the air. The
hand with the knife crosses between these two images, recalling traditional
artistic compositions of the "Binding of Isaac." Here, however, there
is a twist: instead of Isaac being under the knife, in Lissitzky's painting
it is the Angel of Death who is being killed by the hand of God. One should
not be mistaken in thinking that there is an identification between Isaac
and the Angel of Death; on the contrary: Isaac, and the kid, are saved
from the hand of Death because Death itself is killed. Lissitzky is, in
essence, proposing the final elimination of Death, the arrival of the
Day of Judgment on which the taking of innocent lives as sacrificial victims
Additional elements suggest the arrival of that day. The
rainbow that had appeared in Scene 2 returns only now, in Scene 10, after
the gruesome chain of events that began with the cat killing the kid.
The wrong has been righted: the rainbow, symbolic of God's covenant, returns
to the sky. To the left of the rainbow, a shofar reinforces the
messianic message that the Day of Judgment and Redemption has arrived.
The hand which appears between the old man and the kid
recalls the shape of the hand on one of the first series of stamps printed
in Russia after the 1918 Revolution. It is the hand of the Soviet people,
of the Revolution, uprooting slavery and oppression. Lissitzky is suggesting
that the hand of the Communist Revolution is propelled by the arm of divine
justice and redemption.
One final interesting point relates to the artist's signature.
Lissitzky paints his name in black, as he paints the word gadya
(kid), on the opening page. At the end of the series, he also signs his
name, but this time only with his initials,(aleph-ayin).
The shape of the letters reminds us of the Hebrew word for ram,(ayil).
The initials are found directly beneath the figure of the kid that symbolizes
the Jewish people in this series, and in Scene 10 it also symbolizes the
ram in the Binding of Isaac story. By writing his name underneath the
kid, Lissitzky identifies himself as a potential sacrificial victim, whose
life is saved thanks to Godly intervention identified as the arm of the
Recognizing the young Russian Jew raised traditionally and living
in a revolutionary age as his target audience, Lissitzky brilliantly
chooses Had Gadya as the medium of his message. Through the story
and characters of the Had Gadya, he offers the choice that he himself
made: to leave the old ways paved with victimization in favor of the new
redemptive path of the Revolution and Communism, a gift offered from heaven
* The likeness between them
is great; the wide-open arches on ground level, pairs of elongated
windows on the second level, and a round dome-like shape on
the top underneath the steeple-like roof. The resemblance is
not accidental. Ryback painted his painting a short time after
he return from a journey with Lissitzky in which they documented
synagogues, and this is one of the synagogues they visited.
Gadia" by Haia Friedberg, in Journal of Jewish Art, Vol.
12-13 (1986-87), published by the Center
for Jewish Art of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Haia Friedberg is an art historian specializing
in Modern Art. She teaches at the Art History Department of
the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and heads the Modern Art
Section of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem.
The Lissitzky images are own by the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern
Art, and are reproduced here with permission of the museum.
The images are not for distribution and may not be downloaded