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.
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.