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.

Creating Our Haggadah: The Art of the Book
Artwork and text by Carol Neiger

As the earliest colorful crocuses were peeking out of the soil in March of 2020, a deadly virus was also blooming. The first “stay at home” orders were issued. We didn’t know then how long our isolation would last (as of this writing it is almost 2 years) and how many it would kill (so far over 5.5 million). What we did know is that there was a strange irony to the season. When we tell the Passover story, we recite the plagues God created to save us. Now we were experiencing a plague that upended our lives and restricted our freedom. It is hard to believe this is the third time we are sitting down at the seder without our traditional family and friends gathering. For many it will be the third annual ZOOM seder.

It was early spring, during Passover, that I painted Dahlia Delirium. I had been painting dahlias as symbols of the life cycle—observing both the beauty of new life and decay. Dahlia Delirium was different. It was my emotional response to the lack of control we have over nature. It was while creating this painting, combined with my sorrow that we could not gather to celebrate Passover, that the idea of the artists' Haggadah emerged.

I love the holiday of Pesach. Growing up on the West Side of Cleveland, we had a small but close Jewish community. Every year we kashered our home, and following Jewish ritual and holiday traditions, prepared the food, and invited relatives and friends for a wonderful celebration. My five sisters and I helped my mother clean and prepare, but the most vivid memory is of my youngest sister Donna. She had Down Syndrome. She could only speak a handful of words but could belt out Dayenu like no one else. She died in 1991, shortly after the family celebrated what would be our last Passover all together. So, Passover was already deeply imbued with memories for me when 2020's coronavirus restrictions fell into place and it became obvious that we would not share this holiday in our traditional ways.

For myriad reasons, this Passover was unlike any other Passover we have experienced in our lifetimes. I thought: why not create a Haggadah that frames our retelling with contemporary events and uses art as aggadah? According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “Aggadah investigates and interprets the meaning, values, and ideas of Judaism.” I am honored to be a member of the Jewish Artists Collective Chicago. My fellow artists of JACC inspire me every day, so I thought we should create Haggadah together, with our art as commentary. After all, it is Hiddur Mitzvah (“the beautification of a mitzvah”) that glorifies or beautifies the observances and celebrations within Jewish tradition, in particular, Shabbat and the holidays. When I introduced the idea to JACC, our committee was formed with the goal of creating our Haggadah to follow this mitzvah, with thoughtfulness and with our interpretations of the Haggadah as artists.

Defining our concept

We formed a committee of three complimentary talents. Berit Engen, with her love of and knowledge of the Passover liturgy and Seder, curated the content. Susan Dickman, a writer, wrote a more contemporary version of the English prayers and Maggid. And since I am also a graphic designer, I planned the project and designed the Haggadah.

Our initial step was to develop our concept. With over 3,000 Haggadot out there in the world, we needed to define why our Haggadah was different than all other Haggadot. We knew that in our lifetime, and those of many generations before us, we had never experienced Passover in the way we did this year. The confluence of our own modern plague with Passover and its infamous plagues made us think about the story in a way that felt suddenly relevant to what we were experiencing. COVID-19 was the trigger. As a group of contemporary Jewish artists, we felt there are current themes we could express in our art which correlated with the Passover story. With the pandemic we were now experiencing life differently. As we met to discuss the concept, we talked about how the lack of freedom we were experiencing at this time parallels the Passover story. We asked ourselves how the Passover story speaks to us today? What can we take from this experience to teach our own children and grandchildren that will impact how they act and what they do? And then we started looking through our own Haggadah collections. We wanted to fill a gap—develop a Haggadah that fulfilled the tradition of the Seder but was different and reflective of a group of modern Jewish artists who create art about contemporary issues.

We did not simply want to make an illustrated Haggadah. There are already plenty of beautiful illustrated Haggadot. Instead, we thought about using art as Aggadah. Aggadah investigates and interprets the meaning, the values, and the ideas which underlie the specific distinctions which govern religious life. 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.

Berit created a grid with themes that aligned with the order and layers of meaning of the Seder. We brought this concept to JACC and once we were all in agreement, the project management began. Detailed schedules were developed with the forecast that the project would be completed in February. This left us just enough time to get the word out so people would have it in time for Passover.

Any large project requires a detailed production schedule and ongoing planning and project management. We had a deadline—to conceptualize, design, create, publish, and market our Haggadah all within less than 8 months. This was an ambitious schedule, especially because we could only work on this project outside of our everyday full-time jobs. This gantt schedule/timeline calendar guided our progress along with ongoing and multiple assignment lists. Keeping everyone accountable for timeline commitments required mutual respect and vigilance throughout the project.

The history of book design and printing goes back to the first Bibles pulled sheet by sheet off Johannes Gutenberg’s presses in Mainz, Germany in the late fifteenth century. The first books were attempts to replicate the handwritten books of the time, which varied widely. There are historic book construction traditions that have developed over time that have stood the test of time. I wanted to respect the traditional and formal architectural blueprint of book design for our Haggadah. As this mini-pagination demonstrates, our original intention was to create the book with traditional Hebrew construction — binding on the right, but we ran into multiple issues in the self-publishing world which unfortunately prohibited us from doing this.

My early pagination combined many (but not all) of the formal elements of book design; cover, half title, frontispiece, title page, copyright page, dedication, preface, introduction, body, acknowledgements, and one of my favorite elements—the Colophon—A brief summary at the end of a book which highlights the typography, identifying the typeface by name along with a brief history. We also, reviewed many Haggadot and decided we wanted to include a page about Welcoming Passover (which included preparing for the holiday, (including the traditional “Getting Rid of Chametz”) and Preparing for the Seder (which includes “Setting the Seder Table” and a brief introduction to the Haggadah).

Envisioning the design elements

As I began to manage the process and design the Haggadah, Berit Engen was working on the organization and curation of the content. Using the 14 steps of the Seder as a guide, I decided to create both major headings and a tabbing system that would make it easy for everyone to follow the order of the Seder whether they wanted to read along with the leader or at their own pace. I envisioned a user-focused clean design with lots of white space and a grid that would highlight both Hebrew and English text helped to make the Haggadah easy to use.

Developing the page layout and color palette

First design draft storyboards

Once of my observations from reviewing various Haggadot was that most felt very cluttered. It was my objective to design a Haggadah with simplicity and ample white space. In Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot, we read that Passover is a collage of liturgy and prayers, customs, and traditions and that it has some core elements that have existed forever and ever but also new commentary which is added every year. Since our commentary was going to be presented through art, the grid and layout needed to work to highlight the art without diminishing the important text. A tabbing system was designed so that readers could easily find their place in the Seder—just in case they found themselves wandering through the pages. A relatively complex underlying grid was crucial to the seemingly simple page layout, allowing for major headings, subheadings, instructions, narrative text, Hebrew and English prayer, transliterations, artwork, captions, commentary, and artists' statements. The color palette was derived from the seder plates filled with the ceremonial foods so that it had meaning as well as method. The color range provided both a bright color (from the orange on the Seder plate) for subheads, subtle rule treatments and captions and wine color for major headings. Muted greys and tans helped balance the colors in order to keep the focus on the artwork and text. 

Preliminary layouts of Out of the Narrows, exploring the balance of Hebrew and English typography

Typography—balancing English with Hebrew

As a designer, I have respect and love for typography, so I spent a lot of time determining a hierarchy of typography that would aid in readability. In our Haggadah, there are 13 levels of content which needed to be designated with selection of the appropriate size and font treatment. Finding an appropriate Hebrew font that worked well with English was also a challenge. I wanted a Hebrew font with a contemporary design which balanced well with the English font in terms of size, weight and overall density. I created prototypes with over twenty different combinations, finally settling on the combination of the David Libre type family, which is a free and open-source version of the classic David Hebrew typeface, designed by Ismar David. The English text for this Haggadah is typeset in Cardo and Scala Sans. Cardo is an Old-Style serif typeface designed by David J. Perry. Perry released the first version of Cardo in 2002 with the purpose of creating a free typeface for “classicists, biblical scholars, medievalists, and linguists.” The design is an interpretation of the work of Aldus Manutius, a Renaissance printer. Cardo is a large Unicode font specifically designed for the needs of classicists, Biblical scholars, medievalists, and linguists. Its large character set supports many modern languages as well as those needed by scholars. Cardo also contains features that are required for high-quality typography such as ligatures, Old-Style numerals, true small capitals and a variety of punctuation and space characters. Scala Sans font was selected for instructions, artist and margin notes, songs, and front and back matter. Scala Sans was created by Dutch designer Martin Majoor in the early 1990s. It was designed for the Vredenberg Music Center, a concert hall in Utrecht in the designer's native Netherlands.

The final Haggadah pages showing hierarchy of typography, balancing Hebrew with English, and the tabbing system on the page margins.

Pacing with the Four Cups of Wine

Since I am always trying to find when the four cups of wine occur during the seder, I became curious about why we had four cups of wine and found many different interpretations. The Jerusalem Talmud discusses several opinions of our Sages as to the significance of the four cups. According to one opinion, the four cups correspond to four different terms or expressions in the Torah regarding four stages of G-d’s redeeming the Jewish People from Egyptian bondage:

1. “I am G-d, I ‘brought you out’ [hotzeiti] from the burdens of Egypt” (even if we had remained slaves, but the burden would have been removed, we would have raised a cup of gratitude to G-d);
2. “I will deliver you [ga’alti] from their slavery” (we drink another cup because He completely nullified our servitude);
3. “I will redeem you [paditi] with an outstretched arm and with great judgments” (because He crushed our wicked pursuers so they could no longer afflict us, we drink the third cup);
4. “I will take you [lakachti] unto Me for a people and I will be your G-d” (we raise the fourth cup in honor of the greatest aspect of the redemption – His drawing us near to become His people).

(From left to right) First Cup of wine “I will Bring You Out” by Ellen Holtzblatt, Second Cup of Wine by Judith Joseph, Third Cup of Wine “I Will Redeem You” by Carol Neiger, Fourth Cup of wine by Alan Hobscheid

In order to emphasize this discovery, I decided to highlight the four cups by asking four of the JACC artists to create art interpreting each cup using a woodblock print. This was both unifying design element and collaborative effort which resulted in these primarily black and white woodblock prints marking the place and drawing attention to these symbolic cups of wine.

Fitting art to text and pacing

Our next challenge was the pacing of the book. We invited the artists of JACC to submit up to 7 pieces of art. Some of the art directly related to the symbols of the Seder while other art was related to the themes layered in the Passover story. I created the initial layout was Hebrew and English text without the images. Once the artists from the Jewish Artists Collective Chicago submitted their artwork according to the order of the Seder in our Haggadah, we cut and pasted a rough draft of our initial layout. We laid the entire book out snaking it throughout my design office since there was no table big enough to accommodate the 144 page document. Thus began our first narrow snaking path!

(First image) Berit Engen working out the pagination of the 144 Haggadah. (Second image) Susan Dickman and Berit juxtaposing artwork to text.

Collaboration, project management in a volunteer setting, and getting unstuck

The three of us learned a great deal during this process. First, a volunteer project of this magnitude takes a lot of patience and respect for each other. We all have full time jobs and art practices and we all have families and other commitments. The bottom line was not one of us could create this Haggadah alone. And we could not create it without the participation of the JACC artists. We did not always agree on every decision. We spent long hours debating how certain elements should be presented and even if certain passages should be eliminated. Some traditional elements like the description of the Four Children, and Sh’fokh Chamatkha (Pour Out Your Wrath) actually left us at a stalemate that caused weeks of delay. We worked through these decisions together by respecting each other’s opinions and finding compromise. Also, just as parents sometimes struggle to find the right name for their baby, we did not have the name of our Haggadah until near the very end. We wanted something from the liturgy. A name that had meaning on many levels—both related to the story and connected to the deeper themes of Passover. The Talmud teaches that Passover is not only about the Israelites’ redemption from Egypt, the narrow place, but references future redemptions as well. Egypt is called Mitzrayim in Hebrew. It is derived from m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits” (mi, “from,” tzar, “narrow” or “tight”). When God took us out of Mitzrayim, He took us out of a place of constriction, prejudice, and narrow-mindedness. During this pandemic we find ourselves in this narrow place and we all experience our own narrow places, in myriad ways. Passover and our art provide each of us with the opportunity to move out of our narrow spaces.

Revisions, revisions, revisions, and still… life is imperfect

The first version that combined text and art was completed on December 13, 2020. Between December and February there were 74 rounds of revisions. Berit and Susan reviewed 52 proofs. Two rabbis, one cantor, and two additional volunteer editors also reviewed it. We finished the last edit and published our First Impression on February 11, 2021. Out of the Narrows was well received and reviewed by Jonathan Fass in the Jewish Book Council, Yvette Alt Miller in JUF News, and Shelley S. Herbert in The Times of Israel, and also enjoyed by many families in their Seders of 2021. We made three more major rounds of revisions ten months later which resulted in our First Edition, Second Impression, which was published in December 2021. Most readers will not notice the difference between these versions. No major content was changed, and no new artwork was added. Although after more than 40 years in the design field I am no novice to publication design, more than ever before this project helped me fully understand what "The devil is in the details" truly means. It means, whatever one does, it should be done meticulously. It felt like we would never get through that long narrow path of the creation of this Haggadah, but having spent the time to do it carefully, from inception of the idea to the collaboration with Susan Dickman, Berit Engen, and the members of the Jewish Artists Collective Chicago, it was well worth it and we are proud of Out of the Narrows: The Artists' Haggadah A Visual Midrash and hope others will find new meaning in it as they use it each year.

For information about how to order click here: Out of the Narrows: The Artists' Haggadah