The Daily Heller: Collaging Whimsy Into Ancient Judaic Rites and Customs

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As the temperature between Palestinians and Israelis tragically gets hotter, and we sadly witness tumult that is rapidly engulfing this already-tense region, it may seem insensitive of The Daily Heller to feature a book like the one presented here. But it is also necessary to separate current violence from historical ritual. These hostilities must not negate the legacy of Judiac culture that is invested with the wit and humor of its age.

Mark Podwal, the foremost contemporary illustrator and resuscitator of Judaic historical texts, myths and stories, has taken new liberties with past rites in his latest book, A Collage of Customs: Iconic Jewish Woodcuts Revised for the Twenty-First Century, where he engages in subtle comic interpretations of images from a 16th-century Sefer Minhagim (Book of Customs). These Minhagim were among the most popular Jewish books in Europe throughout the 18th century. In concise and easily understandable language, the text explained how to observe rituals and customs in the proper fashion. But wait!

"To update and introduce new layers of meaning to these centuries-old images," Podwal writes, "I’ve created a series of 26 collages. A giant electric light bulb, a microwave and a hairdryer are among the modern-day objects juxtaposed with the 16th-century depictions of Jewish customs. A comically large hamantasch (a triangular cookie eaten on the festival of Purim) collaged as Amalek’s hat pictures the ancient enemy of the Jewish people as the ancestor of the defeated villain of the biblical Book of Esther. A thought bubble inserted into a wedding illustration expresses the tradition that even at times of joy, Jews still recall the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem."

I call Podwal the Max Ernst of Judaic vintage visual narrative. Podwal (an M.D. during the day who transforms into a pictorial storyteller by night) injects his work with surrealist aesthetic and coy bite by reimagining vintage illumination. This feat is done in somewhat the same way that Ernst conjured in his infamous "collage novels," including Une Semaine de Bonté, where he surgically manipulated and transformed gloomy Victorian engravings into absurdist graphic tableau. While Ernst leaned toward eroticism and mystery, Podwal brings humor and whimsy to religious rituals, objects and practices. At the same time, in this book he delivers nuanced commentary on Jewish customs and history, both with his art and the accompanying contemporary text.

Podwal is the "doodler on the roof." A master at capturing and commenting on the sacred and profane. A wit and scholar whose work appeals to the faithful and the secular. For some reason this book reminds me of my grandfather, who oft quoted this Yiddishism:

Di velt iz a groyse un s'iz zikh nito vu ahintsuton.

(The world is huge and there's nowhere to turn.)