When Edgar asked me to illustrate the text of The Bronfman Haggadah, which at that point he had been writing for several years, my first response was: “But I’m not an illustrator!”
“Good. I don’t want an illustrator. I want you to do it,” was his swift reply.
And so began a project that was the opportunity of a lifetime. An artist does not often get the chance to have complete and full creative freedom to do what they want with something that is so meaningful—both in a personal and spiritual sense.
Not once was there anyone looking over my shoulder trying to edit what I was doing. Certainly not Edgar or even Rizzoli, the publisher.
This project was a chance to actually branch out and use all of my creative juices. And it was a wonderful, wonderful thing to do at this point in my life as an artist. I’ve spent many years in my studio alone creating various bodies of work, so to finally have the opportunity to collaborate—with my husband no less—was a tremendous joy.
Looking back, Edgar’s request was truly a blessing in disguise. For an artist, the biggest challenges often yield work of a totally unforeseen—and remarkable—quality. I was continuously striving to present the material in the most stimulating ways possible. How would I keep adults interested? How do I encourage the children, who would be at the table for their first and tenth times alike, to open the Haggadah and to look forward to turning the page?
My new inhabitance of the mind of an illustrator was, as it turned out, something of a metamorphosis. It changed the way that I approached my art, the way I perceived the art world, and the way I presented my work.
One of the great pleasures of writing for me is researching historical events and details that help me understand and more fully realize the lived experience of my characters. The research I did for my second novel, Your Mouth is Lovely, for example, opened up a world to me—that of early 20th century life in the villages and prisons of the Russian Pale of Settlement—that I had previously only encountered filtered through the imaginations of the great fiction writers of that era. For my most recent novel, however, I decided not to do to any formal research. The Imposter Bride is set in the Jewish community of Montreal in the years immediately following the Second World War. It is told from the perspective of a young woman named Ruthie who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. I wanted to stay true to the knowledge Ruthie would have had at that time—the 1950’s and early 60’s—both within her own family and within the larger Jewish community, rather than superimpose onto her narrative the knowledge that we now have about the Holocaust. I wanted to convey what it was like to be a child—as I myself was—at a time when the truth of what had happened to many of the adults in the community was just slowly beginning to emerge.
In the years immediately following the war the details about what had happened in Europe were not widely discussed and taught as they are today. The refugees coming over from Europe faced a wide variety of reactions, including compassion, of course, but also aversion, a certain condescension and varying degrees of ignorance. What had happened during the Holocaust was not yet taught in schools, and was not written down in history books, nor did the adult survivors who lived among us expressly articulate what they had experienced. The truth of what happened in Europe was revealed to us slowly and often indirectly, through behaviors, the lingering fears and reactions that we witnessed, the tattooed numbers that we could see on the arms of some of our teachers and parents, and only the occasional verbal comment or description. It was Ruthie’s experience of that time that I wanted to convey and to do that I relied on my own memories of that era and those of my siblings, friends and cousins, rather than doing formal research about the facts of the time.
When I set out to create the illustrations for The Bronfman Haggadah, I knew I wanted it to be historically accurate. But I also wanted it to be imaginative, surprising, and distinct from all other Haggadot. Of course I knew there were many iconic ideas that needed to be expressed, but I didn’t want to make them so rote.
As an artist I was drawn to the symbolism in the Exodus story. Ultimately, my embrace of the Haggadah as metaphor is what allowed and contributed to the co-mingling of both historical accuracy and the flights of my imagination throughout the project.
Moses’s basket, an emblematic part of the Passover story, is a perfect example of the challenges I faced in terms of departing from the traditional, whilst still remaining loyal to the narrative, and of course, history.
The discovery of the basket in the Nile by the princess, where you see the princess looking down at it, is a scene depicted in endless Haggadot, and I knew I didn’t want to create that kind of an illustration. Instead, I was drawn in by the vastness of the Nile. So many people don’t realize just how enormous it is at some parts. I thought the most interesting way to work with this scene was to focus on the juxtaposition of this tiny little basket against this huge river.
In keeping with my dedication to historical accuracy, the majority of my illustrations are made up of patterns. When I started the Haggadah, and I began thinking about what imagery I would use, my first impulse was to go back to the source—what kind of imagery would the Jews have been exposed to at the time? I realized that it would’ve been mostly Egyptian art and artifacts, plus the influence of Greek and Roman cultures. I am also drawn to African textile patterns and used these in many of the paintings. Geometric patterns are widespread in all traditions, and they complemented my vision for a distinct Haggadah.
My overall goal was to create a Haggadah that was constantly surprising. I wanted the reader to feel that each page was different from the next, hopefully inspiring a sense of discovery and wonder but mostly to make our seder experience interesting.
The first step for me in writing fiction is deciding which of my characters is telling the story. I might sense an entire novel taking form inside of me but if I start writing from the wrong point of view I cannot find the story I want to tell. My most recent novel, The Imposter Bride, is a case in point. The first scene of the novel seemed to write itself. It describes a young woman named Lily arriving in Montreal immediately following the Second World War, having taken someone else’s identity to cross borders and gain entry to a new life in a new country. The first drafts of the early chapters told the story from Lily’s point of view but each time I tried to move beyond that first scene I hit a wall. A first person account of a Holocaust survivor’s life during and after the war simply did not feel like it was mine to tell, nor did it feel like I was gaining entry into the heart of the novel I felt within me. I kept writing and rewriting from Lily’s perspective for longer than I care to admit, aware that it wasn’t working but not pinpointing that the problem was one of perspective and point of view. Finally, one morning another voice came into my head. It was the voice of a six-year-old girl, the daughter of Lily, living in Montreal in the 1950’s. As I began to follow that voice the story opened to me. The details and story lines that had eluded me for so long poured out. It became a story of the intergenerational effects of trauma within a family and within the community in which I was raised.
The main challenge I faced when preparing a biography of Louis Marshall stemmed from the gap between the perceptual confidence that characterizes American Jewish life in the 21st century and the tensions and insecurities of Jewish life in the United States during the first decades of the 20th century. The trick, I believed, was to create an intelligible dialogue between these differing modes of thought and feeling. To recreate historical events uncritically, exactly as Marshall and his peers saw them, would draw contemporary readers into a morass of inhibition about being “too Jewish” that is foreign to them, whereas to overlook realities and attitudes that were indisputably part of Marshall’s American Jewish milieu would be condescending and, worse, injurious to empirical rules of historical scholarship.
American Jewish history is happily devoid of the angst that characterizes Jewish life on other continents and in other contexts. It is perfectly reasonable for contemporary readers to assess critically the self-defense labors of previous generations of American Jews, and conclude, in some instances, that past Jewish leaderships were overly defensive and inhibited, even in ways that could be paranoiac or self-defeating.
Yet this critical license to look at the past heroes of American Jewish life as high-strung, occasionally histrionic, figures can be taken much too far; and to my mind, at least, much of the finest recently published scholarship on American Jewish life in periods and context applicable to Marshall’s life, such as the Roaring Twenties, is flawed to some extent by researchers’ anachronistic projection of Jewish life in America in the late 20th century or early 21st century onto the American Jewish past. Scholars who focus on how Jews came to feel “at home” in America in a period like the 1920s tend to under-emphasize the extent to which anti-Semitism was a constant presence in the minds and real life circumstances of both well-established Jews, and struggling immigrant Jews. Continue reading