Yiddish Illustrations: "From Chagall to Diego Rivera"

A Personal Top Ten by David Mazower

Some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century left a remarkable legacy of little-known but sumptuous Yiddish illustrated books. David Mazower, the Center’s bibliographer and editorial director, recently revealed his personal top ten in his talk, “From Chagall to Diego Rivera,” which he presented at the Yiddish Book Center's spring Community Open House on April 29.

Each week, we'll reveal one of David's top ten Yiddish illustrated books from his talk, beginning with number ten and working down to number one.

The following images were taken from David Mazower's April 29 talk “From Chagall to Diego Rivera,” which he presented at the Yiddish Book Center's Spring Community Open House.

Number 10

Uriel Birnbaum (1894–1956) / Illustrations for Jose Rabinovich: Konventizshes (Tenements) / Buenos Aires: Farlag nayvelt, 1928

Jose (Yosef) Rabinovich was a 24-year-old Polish-Jewish immigrant to Buenos Aires when he published Konventizshes (Tenements) in 1928. A slim, pocket-sized book of poems, it explores the mix of alienation and wonderment that so many new immigrants felt on encountering a country so different from their homeland. The artist Uriel Birnbaum was a prolific illustrator of both Yiddish and German language books. His cover image addresses the importance of sunlight to poor Buenos Aires tenement residents whose dwellings were often shrouded in a twilight gloom. Inside, Birnbaum’s wonderful illustrations capture the gritty reality and nostalgic flashbacks of immigrant life in a country Rabinovich termed a land fun zun un shand—a country of sun and shame.

Konventizshes (Tenements)

Number 9

Arthur Kolnik (1890–1972) Illustrations for Eliezer Shteynbarg Mesholim (Fables) vol 1 Czernowitz: Komitet af aroystsugebn eliezer shteynbarg’s shriftn, 1932

And

Mayselekh (Little Stories) vol 2 Czernowitz: Komitet af aroystsugebn eliezer shteynbarg’s shriftn, 1936

For me, this is one of the great artist/writer partnerships. It also takes us to one of the storied regional centres of European Yiddish—the town of Czernowitz, today Cernivtsi in western Ukraine. Yiddish culture flourished in Czernowitz between the two world wars, and this book represents the peak of its creativity. Kolnik was a master print-maker, Shtaynbarg a renowned writer of elegant crystalline fables. Both were central figures in Czernowitz’s vibrant Jewish cultural life. The full range of Kolnik’s artistry is on display in these two volumes, from full-page expressionist woodcuts to playful decorative scenes wrapped around individual letters. Kolnik went on to collaborate with other great Yiddish writers including Itzik Manger and Avrom Sutzkever.

Mayselekh (Little Stories) Vol. 2
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Kolnik's illustrations to Peretz's A gilgul fun a nigun (Transmigration of a Melody) / Paris (1948)

Number 8

Marc Chagall (1887–1985) Illustrations for Abraham Liessin: Lider un poemes (Songs and Poems), 3 volumes / New York: Forwards Association, 1938

Chagall was a central figure in the heady years of European Yiddish modernism in the 1910s and 20s. In 1925 his autobiography, My Life, appeared in Yiddish in the New York monthly Di Tsukunft (The Future)—a socialist journal spanning literature, politics and popular knowledge. The publication cemented a friendship between Chagall and the journal’s editor, Abraham (Avrom) Liessin, a Talmudic prodigy turned labor activist and orator. Liessin was also a celebrated poet, and his collected poems appeared in three volumes in 1938, weeks after his sudden death. The 34 full-page illustrations by Chagall are among the artist’s most lyrical and nostalgic work in the book arts. Exquisitely detailed, but softer in tone than his earlier avant-garde graphics, they rank among his finest illustrations.

Abraham Liessin: Lider un poemes 
(Songs and Poems), 3 volumes (above) with some of the Chagall illustrations (below)
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Number 7

Todros Geller (1889–1949) and other Chicago artists / Illustrations for Antologye Mitvest-Mayrev, 1932–1933 (The Midwest—West anthology, 1932–1933) Chicago: farlag Tseshinski, 1933

Yiddish writers and artists in Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles adopted their new hometowns with a passionate intensity and this anthology glows with their fervor. Over twenty poets and five artists join forces in its pages in a proud celebration of American Yiddish regionalism. Skyscrapers, nature, urban poverty, domesticity, Jewish peddlers, Chinese laundry men, and black Americans—the poems cover all these and more. But the anthology is prized above all for its artwork by Todros Geller (1889–1949) and Mitchell Siporin (1910–1976)—two leading Chicago printmakers. Siporin’s stunning red and black title-page captures the themes of the book in a masterly blend of images and typography. Geller riffs on the same theme on the next page, which lists all the book’s contributors. It’s like a Chicago artists’ version of a Harlem piano contest—a friendly rivalry which pushes both men to the summit of their artistry.

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Illustrations by Todros Geller (left) and Mitchell Siporin (center and right)

An Interview with David Mazower

Following his talk, David sat down with Lisa Newman, the Yiddish Book Center's director of communications, to answer a few questions about the books and artists he chose and the process of narrowing down his selections.

Lisa Newman: When you set out to choose your top ten, did you already have that list in your head or did you have some back and forth “conversations” with yourself as you whittled it down? Which I’m certain you did—whittle it down, that is.

David Mazower: It was a tough, brutal, survival-of-the-fittest process! I had dozens of books that I wanted to include, so I knew I had to set myself some rules. I decided to focus on books rather than art albums, to reflect a wide geographic spread, and to choose only books in our collection. That helped a bit, but it was still painful to exclude so many wonderful artists. And about a third of my choices are books I came across in the time I’ve been working here.

LN: I think it’s safe to say that most readers assume an illustrated book is a children’s book, but not so for many of these Yiddish titles. Any thoughts as to why illustration was so prevalent in Yiddish works?

DM: One reason is that there’s definitely a shared affinity between Jewish artists and Yiddish writers in different cities at different times. Avant-garde groups like Di Yunge in New York, Yung Yidish in Lodz, the Yung Vilne group, the Kultur-Lige in Eastern Europe, even Peretz’s circle in Warsaw—all of them saw art and literature as equally important, almost inseparable. Writers and artists sat at the same café tables and knew and respected each other’s work. But even more than that, remarkable numbers of creative figures in the Yiddish-speaking world were talented in both areas—artist-writers like Chagall, Yonia Fain, and Saul Raskin, or writer-artists like Moyshe Leyb Halpern, Sutzkever, and Celia Dropkin.

LN: A few (or one in particular) of your favorite artist/writer collaborations?

DM: That’s an almost impossible choice. Artur Kolnik’s wood-cuts for Eliezer Shtaynbarg’s two books of fables are one of my favorites—a high point of Yiddish modernism in interwar Czernowitz. But my all-time favorite has to be the set of full-page color illustrations produced by Szymon Ber Kratka for the edition of Peretz’s plays published in Warsaw in 1910. It’s remarkable for so many reasons. Kratka was an unknown sculptor/artist just out of art school, whereas Peretz was about 60 and at the height of his fame. But somehow Peretz sensed that Kratka could produce the perfect visual counterpart to his own unique blend of mysticism, modernism, and Jewish tradition. Not so much illustrations as visual analogies, Kratka’s work fused synagogue iconography with Biblical motifs, art nouveau influences, and Oriental and Jewish textile design. The great memoirist Y.Y. Trunk called Kratka a “luminous artistic personality.” He took Warsaw by storm from 1910 to 1915, then he moved to Russia and became just another socialist realist artist in the USSR. 

LN: Is there one amazing rare book that you’ve found in our collection by chance?

DM: There is! It’s a glorious but almost totally unknown book called Himlen in opgrunt (Heavens in the Abyss). This is Lodz, 1921—high expressionism, and a world in ruins after the 1914–18 war. Somehow, in these desperate times, a group of Yiddish poets and young women artists produced three exquisite hand-printed limited-edition art books. I stumbled across Himlen in opgrunt in our vault and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The illustrations dance and flicker on the page in jewel-like colors, looking as modern today as they did in 1921.

LN: Who were the illustrators?

DM: The three artists—Ester Carp, Dina Matus, and Ida Broyner—were all part of the Yung Yidish group in Lodz. Actually, there were several other women artists in the group at the same time, but the best-known figures were all men: artists like Jankl Adler, Henryk Berlewi, Marek Szwarc, and the Bohemian playwright/poet/artist Moyshe Broderzon. Perhaps that dynamic made the women bond more closely together. Also, the women members of the group seem to have been exceptionally multi-talented, branching out from painting and illustration to theater and costume design, jewelry, batik, and ceramics. Sadly, almost all of their work from the 1920s and 30s is lost. But these three extraordinary books have survived, and each one is a masterpiece. 

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