The members of Jewish Artists Collective Chicago write about our stories, struggles, experiences, and musings, and how they inspire us to create contemporary Jewish art.

Out of the Narrows: The Artists' Haggadah

A Haggadah created by Jewish Artists Collective Chicago

Art by Susan Dickman (editor, writer) Berit Engen (content curator, editor), and Carol Neiger (project director, designer), Dorit Jordan Dotan, Jonathan Franklin, Alan Hobscheid, Ellen Holtzblatt, Judith Joseph, Amy Reichert, Beth Shadur and Jane Weintraub.

The inception for a Haggadah to feature engaging, original artwork was the emergence of the plague of our time, COVID-19, which necessitated celebrating a socially distanced Passover. As we set out to envision the manuscript that eventually became Out of the Narrows: The Artists’ Haggadah, we knew only that we shared a common goal, the desire to create a text rich in meaning and beauty, one that would engage visually and thematically and evoke in-depth discussions at next year’s Seder.

Out of the Narrows

In the winter of 2019, we heard rumors about a contemporary plague, how a virus emerging from China began moving swiftly westward. Around Purim, it arrived on our shores full force, steamrolling communities, families, jobs, and businesses. Schools closed, shelter-in-place orders were issued, and masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves became precious commodities. And while the virus affected everyone, it tore through communities of color with breathtaking devastation, compounding the issues of social injustice the nation was already struggling with: family separations at the border, racism, police violence in the streets, extremist stirrings, and the doomsday clock of global warming inching ever forward. What a narrow and constricting place the world began to feel like.

By the time Passover arrived in mid-April, the virus was in full force, so we commemorated our defining narrative COVID-19-style, and in the manner we are told the Israelites themselves did: each family alone, under the darkness of turmoil and threat. But if the Israelites performed their first acts of liberation and deliverance in darkness, behind doors swabbed with lamb’s blood to throw off the Angel of Death, 2020 Jews in America and Europe lived politically and socially liberated lifestyles. Sheltering in place, we were still free to prepare more than the requisite unleavened bread as we sat down to our Seder tables. We could light candles and fill the Seder plate, prepare holiday foods, enact the fifteen steps. True, the pandemic disrupted the celebratory atmosphere: beloved faces in pixilated form popping up on screens could not replace the embraces we craved, the warmth of crowding a table to observe the holiday together. But like generations before us, we enacted the Seder regardless, opening our Haggadot and following instructions to wash and to break, to bless and to praise, to recite and to sing. We dipped twice and made Hillel Sandwiches, counted drops of wine to account for ten terrible plagues, asked questions and responded, and discussed freedom, slavery, and redemption. In effect, we told the story anyway, because that is what Passover demands of us: to tell the story to our children. And because everything about the Passover Seder is connected to a memory, enacting the Seder becomes a memory feast.

As a Jewish arts collective, we are accustomed to creating work based on Jewish themes and texts. In other years, we read the Passover story with our families; but in the period of COVID we began to view it through an artist’s lens.

The Haggadah text requires us to ask questions. But the year that the world was undone by a virus, we asked even more. What does it mean to celebrate Passover in a pandemic? As artists, our job is to witness, comment, and create. How does art help make sense of the Passover story? How do its elements reflect on the plagues of disease, death, and injustice that still exist? How do we praise God when the world is broken and millions continue to suffer?

But what is more diametrically opposed to the celebration of freedom and redemption—the becoming of who we are—than living in lockdown, figurative lamb’s blood smearing the doors of the quarantined? What does Passover commemorate, if not raising voices to claim a collective identity and right to exist, even while wearing masks that obscure voices and identities? What is a celebration of freedom and redemption, if not a way to call attention to the injustices that have allowed some communities to flourish while others are suppressed, exercising the right to speak out against discrimination, poor leadership, violence, overreaching law enforcement, and the destruction of our one and only planet Earth?

COVID-19 was the trigger that made us pause and recognize the singularity of this moment, the freedoms we take for granted. We wondered how we would live differently once the pandemic passed, and thought about the lessons we would carry with us. We considered how the experience of Passover during COVID would color the way we hand down the story to our children and grandchildren. Still, why create a Haggadah of art as commentary? As a Jewish arts collective, we are accustomed to creating work based on Jewish themes and texts. In other years, we read the Passover story with our families; but in the period of COVID we began to view it through an artist’s lens. Creating art is an aggadic response, a way to tell the story using metaphor and ritual to address the themes of oppression and liberation, wandering and dispersion, slavery and Exodus, of topics as ancient and contemporary as racism and anti-Semitism, civil disobedience, freedom, and identity. We responded visually to the text to make sense of this new way of living, envisioning not just opening the book but entering its many layers and facets. Midrash means investigation, searching out. Our visual midrash is a way to draw new meaning from and renew the story. Passover concludes with the Israelites fleeing Egypt into the desert as the walls of the Red Sea close around the Egyptian army, drowning horse and rider, all. Although the Israelites have made it out alive, the story doesn’t sound all that promising. Ahead are decades of struggle and wandering. And yet, the text ends in deliverance and light, with the singing of Hallel, the Songs of Praise. Its poetry tells of a redeeming God who, hearing the Israelites calling out ‘from the narrow spaces,’ answers ‘from the expansive place,’ transforming the suffering of the Israelites and providing hope for the future.

The Artists’ Haggadah seeks to visually illuminate the meaning of Passover’s slavery-to-liberation narrative within the transformative properties of art. We hope our feast of artistic expression adds to your enjoyment of the festival and gives you more to think about.

--Susan Dickman

Every member of JACC participated in the Haggadah project. Here is a taste of what is inside.

Ageusia Anosmia, by Carol Neiger

Shattered Pieces, by Beth Shadur

“Jacobs’s Pillow” Mizrach , by Jane Weintraub

Glass Half Full, by Judith Joseph

From the Narrow Place, by Ellen Holtzblatt

Dayenu!, by Berit Engen

Chair Dreams Floating in Ancient Times,  by Dorit Jordan Dotan

Journey, by Susan Dickman

Miriam's Cup III, by Amy Reichert

Kos Revii, by Alan Hobscheid

Wanderers, by Jonathan Franklin