“If I touch the letters, I think and I hope that people will be touched by them.”
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of haggadot — books containing the Exodus story and the service for the Passover meal, the seder — have been published over the last two millennia, each in its own way expressing the culture of every country where Jews have lived, the point of view of every stream of Judaism, and every political, artistic and social bent (in recent decades: feminist, for children, GLBT, for those with only half an hour to spare, etc.).
This haggadah is so different that it’s gotten full-page ads in the Jewish press and The New York Times. Mostly because it’s the result of a collaboration between well-known, iconoclastic, young talents. And also because as soon as you pick it up, you realize that it is, indeed, different. It’s a different size — much bigger and heftier than the usual paperback designed to fit on a salad plate at the table — and has a way different look. On its pages dance Hebrew letters of all shapes and sizes and ilks, which you probably can’t read unless you’re a rabbi or a Hebrew scholar or a very, very learned lay person. And there is English text that goes the usual way and that is laid out in different directions so you have to turn the book to the right or the left to read it.
The project was conceived by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, best known for Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the post-9-11 novel that was made into a movie nominated for the 2011 Academy Award for best picture. The translation of the traditional Hebrew text is by Nathan Englander, author of the short-story collections For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and most recently What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. And the design is by Oded Ezer, whose experimental typography has brought him international acclaim; his work is in museum permanent collections and has garnered top awards in type design and poster competitions in Japan, Russia, China, Taiwan, England, and the USA (New York Type Directors Club).
Three minutes into the interview, I told Ezer that I wished I wasn’t writing his answers down, but that instead we were making a video to be posted so that you, the visitor to Imprint, could experience him for yourself.
No, he said.
“Could you record a short video of yourself speaking on Photo Booth?” I asked.
No again. “My English is not so good.”
“Your English is perfect.” I pulled out my camera to take a picture of the screen so at least you’d get a taste of his personality. He covered his face.
So, here is the interview, as written down, more or less:
ES: Who first came up with the idea of The New American Haggadah? How did it all get started?
OE: Jonathan Safran Foer had the idea before he met me. He called me, saying, ‘I’m in Israel and would like to meet you.’ He sat here on our old couch and I showed him my monograph, Typographer’s Guide to the Galaxy. He said, ‘This is amazing.’ He told me he wanted the haggadah to be typographic only, without any illustration or image. He wanted a time line of Hebrew history and typography from 1500 BCE to 2011. And he wanted separate commentary pages that would evoke the interlocking blocks of type on Talmud pages.
For the overall design I had an idea: I would come up with a way of writing Hebrew letters for each spread that would be taken from the lettering done in the years on the time line. Jonathan asked whether so many ways of writing Hebrew were in existence. I said, ‘I can do a thousand ways of writing Hebrew.’ At the same time, I was thinking, This is a miracle of design. I’ve been wanting to do a haggadah for a long time.
When I first opened the book, I started trying to figure out the meaning of each piece of type. Was this one supposed to be blood, or that one narrowness or escape to freedom?
None of those things. I didn’t want to illustrate the text. That was my biggest fear. I wanted to have freedom from that. I spent a lot of time thinking about ways to use my knowledge and research to find the exact style of lettering or type that was common in each era.
First of all, I wanted to make my hands dirty, not start on the computer. For that, I needed to find a new place to work that, in order to concentrate, would be really quiet. I didn’t want to work here. It’s not wise to be too messy at home. But I didn’t want a fancy studio. I found a machsan, what you call a tool shed, in a back yard of a friend’s house.
There, I worked for a year, changing my technique for each spread. I used everything I could get my hands on: ink, wax from Chanukah candles, plasticene, cut paper, spray paint, the torch you use for crème brulée, the pastels from my little boy’s set of colors.
Can we look at some specific examples? The blue type, on page 56-57 is stretched and looks like it is floating. The text says, And the Lord lifted us out of Egypt. Not by the hands of an Angel of Man, and not by the hands of an Angel Alight, and not by the hands of a messenger Angel, but rather it was done by the Holy One, Blessed is He; done by his Glorious Self—and by Himself…
This type reminds me of angels in the sky. Not your intent?
In the time line it says: ‘1575: In his family’s Majorca workshop in Ferrara, Italy, Isaac Azulai puts the finishing touches on a seder plate by painting the words, ‘A woman of valor is a friend to her husband’ in the center.’ Did your lettering style come from that plate?
Yes. The plate is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. I hand-lettered the type, photographed it with a macro lens, which gives it the depth of field, printed it on my ink-jet printer, very low-tech. And added blue with my son’s color.
Can we segue here into the translation? I am surprised that an ‘American’ haggadah in 2012 would use only male-centric names for God, who in this book is ‘He,’ ‘Lord’ and ‘King.’ The trend here, as you know, is to eliminate gendered language from prayer books and bibles. This will be controversial.
It is Nathan’s translation. Not my decision.
OK. Let’s not go there. People can read about that issue in lots of other places. At what point did the computer come in?
After I made each piece I photographed them with the macro lens. Then uploaded the images to the computer to manipulate the colors a little bit. But all the effects were all done by hand or in the camera with multiple exposures.
What kind of a mock-up did you show the publisher?
I made just one spread showing how I will use the Hebrew text and how I will use the English text. Do you understand how the page numbers are done?
I was trying to figure them out. Is it the number of pages from the front and from the back?
What is the main question people ask during the seder?
When do we eat?
Yes, the faded-out number is the number of pages until…
The Hillel sandwich.
You got it.
What typeface is the Hebrew set in? Is it one of your designs and available for sale?
Yes, it’s Beit Hillel, available on Ezer Family Type Foundry, where my typefaces are sold.
I think even though this book is called an American Haggadah, most Americans will not be able to read the Hebrew text. The way it is set is very tight, stylized, with words set in larger sizes for emphasis in a way they won’t understand. There is no transliteration and few headings, so it’s hard to find where you are in the service, to find your favorite songs. My honest opinion is this is mostly a book for Israeli Americans and American Israelis.
We assumed that Americans don’t read the Hebrew anyway; they only read the English. I was quite free with the Hebrew type treatment and made the English very simple.
I respectfully disagree. This is the one event during the year when American Jews, even with a rusty bar- or bat-mitzvah education, will try their best to read Hebrew. Let’s talk about the English text. Why make people turn the book to the left to read the time line (which is at the top of every spread) and to the right to read the commentaries (which conclude every section)?
It’s really three books within one book. I wanted people to turn their attention completely to the time line and then completely to the commentaries.
What about the size of the book? It looks more like a coffee table book than a seder table book.
Maybe, but you can still hold it with one hand, so it is possible to use it at the table while holding a glass of wine.
I will add here that my husband is a rabbinical student, and he told me that a professor in his school has been talking about leading the first part of the seder, the reading and discussion before the meal, in the living room. The more I think about it, the more I like that concept: a living-room seder with big books and big ideas.
Tell me more about your techniques. Pages 6 – 7, “Beginning the telling…”:
From Song of the Sea, 1250 BCE — what looks like WAP is ‘Kadesh’ as written in ancient Hebrew. I wrote it with water on paper, then added one drop of ink, which spread so beautifully.
Pages 14-15, Yahatz, breaking the middle matzah:
516 BCE, exiles returned from Babylon to a new Temple—a plastic bag crushed up for a stonelike look.
Pages 26-27, which looks like spider webs, the story from Josephus c. 75 about Jews scattered:
This was from type carved on gravestones at the time. I used pencil on paper with yellow highlighter.
Pages 54-55, And the Lord lifted us out of Egypt in the mighty hand…
It came from Hebrew letters from North Africa at about that time. I printed the letters on a piece of paper and squeezed it so it looks kind of like waves.
Waves squeezed and put in motion by a mighty hand? It’s tempting to try to read more meaning into it than you say you intended. Let’s move to the modern age, 1934, when things were getting very bad for the Jews, pages 102-103:
A very dramatic spread. I cut the words ‘Eliahu Hanavi’ out of paper to and put 8 shots together in the computer for a dramatic flow.
1959, pages 122-123, Nirzah, Next Year in Jerusalem:
The word ‘Yerushalayim’ is written in glass, some new, some very old glass. Why glass? It is an interesting material that gives an interesting effect.
Here is what I really want people to know: If I touch the letters I think and I hope that people will be touched by them. I’m a secular Jew and I know this story almost by heart because I’ve heard it every year since I was born, 39 years ago. If we designers are involved with what we do, it’s likely that our audiences will get involved with it too. For years I have been claiming that the real question about typography is not ‘how does it look?’ but ‘how does it behave?’
So if it is about fire or a flame, it should not look like a flame, but make you feel hot.
Ah! What is going on with the book? Have you been invited to come to the U.S. to speak about it?
Everybody should invite me! I’ve only been to New York twice, in 2008 when my piece, Typosperma, was in the “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition at MoMA, and a few months ago for a meeting with the whole team on the book. After a year of working together via Skype and e-mail it was extremely productive to meet everyone and to close things with such a professional face-to-face meeting.
Have you gotten requests for new projects?
Only from a guy in Brazil who is having me design a tattoo.
You don’t want me to write that, do you?
Why not, it will be a great tattoo. Listen, the book is only out two weeks and it is already a hit. It is the number-one seller in the holiday category on Amazon.
Kol ha-kavod! (an Israeli expression which mean, literally, ‘all the honor to you’ or more commonly, ‘way to go!’
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