The Arty Semite

Under the Influence of Golems

By Helene Wecker

Earlier this week, Helene Wecker wrote about writing a novel in two cultures and dorkdom. Enter to win a copy of her debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, here. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Here’s a confession: I haven’t read that many golem stories. Or at least, as many as someone who’s written a book called “The Golem and the Jinni” probably should’ve. I haven’t read Cynthia Ozick’s “The Puttermesser Papers,” or Marge Piercy’s “He, She and It” I haven’t cracked Thane Rosenbaum’s “The Golems of Gotham,” or the more golem-centered volumes of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

When I started writing “The Golem and the Jinni,” I was really, really unsure of myself. I was embarking on what I knew was my first real book, and it was like all newborn things, delicate and easily disturbed. Something warned me that if I filled my head with the golem stories of other, far more talented writers, I would crowd my own barely-formed golem right out of my brain, or unintentionally mash it into a different image.

Over the years, that intimidation became an almost superstitious avoidance. Maybe now that the book is finished, I can finally crack “The Puttermesser Papers” without worrying that Ozick’s golem will feel more real to me than my own. But in any case, here are a few golem stories that I do know, and that added their own particular flavors to my book, whether I meant them to or not.

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Writing a Novel in Two Cultures

By Helene Wecker

Earlier this week, Helene Wecker wrote about dorkdom and writing while Jewish. Enter to win a copy of her debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, here. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Yesterday I wrote that my novel, “The Golem and the Jinni,” is “pretty darn Jewish.” In truth, that’s only half the story. There are two cultures in my novel, set in New York at the turn of the 20th century: the Jews of the Lower East Side, and the Syrian immigrants who lived in what’s now New York’s Financial district.

When I started writing this book, I was incredibly daunted at the idea of writing about a culture that wasn’t my own. At a guess, I know slightly more about Syrian culture than your average American Jew: my husband is Arab American, so I married into the knowledge, as it were. But it’s one thing to know the foods and the holidays and the etiquette, and to learn how to say salaam aleikum and shukran and insh’allah when the cousins visit. It’s quite another to create fictional characters who belong to that culture, hopefully true to life and free of generalizations. I really, really didn’t want anyone to read my book and cringe, like a British person watching Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

And as soon as I started to research, it became all too clear just how little I knew. The residents of “Little Syria,” as it was called, weren’t Muslim but Christian, mostly Maronite Catholic and Eastern Orthodox from what’s now Lebanon. I’d always been flummoxed by the various and subtle differences between Christianities, and now I felt even more daunted. I tried to plug my ignorance with books and informational websites, and often ended up more confused than when I started. I went so far as to order a back issue of a Catholic magazine that had an article I wanted to read. Before long they’d given my name to every Catholic mailing list in America. One charity even mailed me a rosary. I still have it, hidden in the back of my sock drawer, as though from God’s prying eyes. How the hell do you throw out a rosary?

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The Most Jewish Thing I Do

By Helene Wecker

Enter to win a copy of Helene Wecker’s debut novel “The Golem and the Jinni” here. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


When I started looking through the extensive and awe-inspiring Visiting Scribe archives, one theme kept popping out at me: the perennial question, “What Does It Mean to Be a Jewish Writer?” I decided I’d use my space here to offer my own take, but as I thought about it, the question kept shifting into something else. Not what does it mean to be a Jewish writer, but why am I a Jewish writer?

Because I am, undeniably. True, I’ve only written one book so far, “The Golem and the Jinni,” but it’s pretty darn Jewish. My one other published piece, a short story called “Divestment,” is about a German Jewish woman in the last years of her life. When I think about possible future projects — novels, short stories, maybe a screenplay? — inevitably it contains some element of Judaism, either at its center or cree ping in around the edges.

This surprises me more than you might think. I don’t live what anyone would call a visibly Jewish life. On Friday nights you’ll find me on the couch, eating takeout and watching Doctor Who. My weekly dose of group spirituality comes on Sundays, when I drive 45 minutes to a Buddhist meditation center. My husband is a nice young Arab-American man I met in college. (Bashert!) There’s no Mogen David around my neck, and no mezuzaha at the door, though we do have a lovely silver menorah and an antique page from the Quran. My toddler daughter has only one Jewish-themed board book on her groaning shelf, titled “Let’s Nosh!” — and, let’s face it, that sums up a lot of my religious expression right there.

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Author Blog: Almost Jewish

By Allison Amend

Earlier this week, Allison Amend wrote about the Jewish connection to art. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


So why would a nice Jewish girl not write nice Jewish fiction? My last book, “Stations West,” was about Jewish immigrants in 19th-century Oklahoma. It was very “Jewish.” It was so Jewish it was nominated for the Sami Rohr Prize (but not so Jewish that it won). One would expect that my next book would be even more “Jewish.” Yet, on the outside it perhaps doesn’t appear to be.

The book jacket calls my new novel “A Nearly Perfect Copy” “a smart and affecting novel of family and forgery set amidst the rarefied international art world. Elm Howells has a loving family and a distinguished career at an elite Manhattan auction house. But after a tragic loss throws her into an emotional crisis, she pursues a reckless course of action that jeopardizes her personal and professional success. Meanwhile, talented artist Gabriel Connois wearies of remaining at the margins of the capricious Parisian art scene, and, desperate for recognition, he embarks on a scheme that threatens his burgeoning reputation. As these narratives converge, with disastrous consequences, A Nearly Perfect Copy boldly challenges our presumptions about originality and authenticity, loss and replacement, and the perilous pursuit of perfection.”

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The Jewish Connection to Art

By Allison Amend

Allison Amend’s most recent novel, “A Nearly Perfect Copy,” is now available. Allison was a finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her novel “Stations West.” Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


People ask me how much research I had to do on art forgery for my new book “A Nearly Perfect Copy.” The answer is: a lot. Some of it was even necessary. Some of it was just procrastination.

To that end, I wandered into the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in Paris on one hot day, more in search of a bathroom than in search of wisdom. But, reader I found both (and if you’ve been to Paris, you know how valuable a quality public bathroom is).

The exhibits were what you’d expect (Sephardic artifacts, Vichy government deportation narratives, synagogue records, suitcases — Jewish museums always have a lot of suitcases…), but the true gem here is the library. It’s small but comprehensive, and the librarian was exceedingly helpful when I asked for information

I’m not sure I found anything I couldn’t have found in other English language archives, but this pleasant air conditioned afternoon in a quiet and free study space made me think of two things.

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Author Blog: What Is the Story?

By Jennifer Gilmore

Earlier this week, Jennifer Gilmore wrote about the overlap between her personal concerns and writerly concerns. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


“The Mothers” is the first book I’ve written that does not primarily consist of Jewish characters. It’s a little weird that with my first book — where there are pretty much only Jews, even in the department stores and hotels, at the theater and the market — I had no idea I was writing an American Jewish novel. I was just telling this family’s extensive story. I was writing an American story.

This book is also an American story. But similarly, I had no idea that this book was dealing with “cross cultural issues,” which is what some reviewers and readers have reported. I wrote a book chronicling a couple’s struggle to have children. But what I didn’t realize is that, because they are from different backgrounds — the wife, Jesse, is Jewish, the husband, Ramon, is first generation Italian and Spanish — they handle their highs and lows of their experience differently. Though her family has not been particularly observant, Jesse’s memories and her experiences are distinctly Jewish, in addition to being particularly American. She has memories of Passovers with her family, as well as growing up with her sister in suburban Virginia. She remembers the ’70s when her mother working was an unusual situation. Her mother was one of the few women she knew who held a job.

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Author Blog: Lost Stories

By Jennifer Gilmore

Jennifer Gilmore’s newest novel, “The Mothers,” is now available. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


“The Mothers” is my third novel but it’s the first novel I’ve written that tracks so closely with my own life. I had to make a leap as a novelist to write in the first person, to examine a single woman’s inner life, as opposed to the bigger sweep of the multi-generational novels, “Golden Country” and “Something Red,” that were written with an eye toward history and the way it affects families.

This book is all about families really, or about a couple who wants to make one desperately. If my other books deal with what happens to families over time, this character — Jesse Weintraub — is most concerned about time stopping. About the story, as it were, ending with her.

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Author Blog: Beyond Words

By Boaz Yakin

Earlier, Boaz Yakin wrote about empathy and conflict. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


In New York City, in our Upper West Side apartment, my little brother and I watched my father act out the events and characters of his youth in British Mandate Palestine. He was a pantomime by trade and a teacher of physical acting, and when he told a story he didn’t just relate it with words— he performed it with every muscle in his face, with every physical gesture in his vast repertoire. And even then, though I thrilled and laughed at his exploits, I suspected that perhaps there was something exaggerated, slightly of the grotesque, in his portrayals of the multifarious denizens of that remote, ancient city; a city on the one hand so tiny and provincial, on the other so vast and timeless and redolent of eternity. A city against whose harsh, stony face the human dramas enacted by my father stood out in sharp, colorful relief, like a commedia dell’arte performance. Tragic, hilarious, and surely daubed with a huge dollop of fancy.

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Author Blog: Empathy and Conflict

By Boaz Yakin

Boaz Yakin’s most recent graphic novel, “Jerusalem: A Family Portrait,” illustrated by Nick Bertozzi, will be published later this month. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


It seems to me that it’s hard for a feeling, empathetic person to know where to place himself in the midst of conflict. Since most people possess some degree of feeling and empathy, in order to live with themselves they don’t necessarily divorce themselves from these senses as they make decisions as to how and where to direct them. These decisions are determined by a host of factors — different in each individual and situation.

The bravest among us, of whom there are few, courageously allow their empathetic sense to extend outward in a manner that generously encompasses a wide variety of people, perspectives and feelings that might be in violent, seemingly intractable opposition to one another — and even more courageously allow their practical behavior and decisions to be strongly influenced by that understanding.

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The Nuts and Bolts of Writing

By Jessica Soffer

Earlier this week, Jessica Soffer wrote about learning to breathe and a precious treat from the Passover seder plate. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Quite recently, someone asked me about my “process.” This someone wasn’t asking about the creative parts — the meandering through the dark, schlepping a bag full of puzzle pieces and seeking out the elusive slots where they might fit — but quite literally about what I do during my waking hours, which hours those might be, and when and if I stop for snacks. She was asking about the nuts and bolts.

What I wanted to say is that I know nothing (and that of course I stop for snacks). I’m just winging it. I’m still waiting to be found out. Still, I wrote 336 pages that will be printed and bound and on (some) shelves in just a few weeks, which is something one teensy bit better than nothing.

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Author Blog: Learning to Breathe

By Jessica Soffer

Earlier this week, Jessica Soffer wrote about a precious treat from the Passover seder plate. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


I needed something. Everyone was dying. Or at least a lot of people were dying and it felt like everyone might, including me, die at the drop of a hat. I was having panic attacks on the subway. I was avoiding elevators and scaffolding and spinach and caffeine and planes and hospitals and graveyards.

I couldn’t breathe.

My parents are not religious. Someone told me to try yoga.

I was a gymnast for the great majority of my childhood. Yoga came easily. I breezed through the ranks.

I ended up in an Ashtanga class in Amagansett and had no idea what I was in for.

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Author Blog: Precious Haroset

By Jessica Soffer

Jessica Soffer’s debut novel, “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots,” will be published on April 16. Win a signed copy here. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


I am bored to death, dying of starvation and on the brink of losing my mind at Passover dinner at my father’s sister’s house on Long Island. I’m 4, maybe 5. My mother has refilled my grape juice many more than four times but it’s not cutting it. She has a look on her face like she would have made a PB&J if she’d known what she was in for — what we were both in for — but she didn’t. There are many more relatives visiting from Israel than usual, which means, apparently, that there is no goofing around and no snacking. Who knew? We didn’t. I will die of starvation, I think to myself. They will find me in a puddle of grape juice with the yarmulke I’ve demanded to wear over my face, dead.

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Rabbi Gafni's Revenge

By Yuval Elizur

Earlier this week, Yuval Elizur examined religious political power in Israel and January’s elections and Lawrence Malkin discussed the tension between tradition and modernity in contemporary Judaism and its consequences. Today, Yuval Elizur reveals Rabbi Moshe Gafni’s powerful hand. Elizur and Malkin are the co-authors of the recently published “The War Within: Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Threat to Democracy and the Nation.” Their blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Of all the representatives of the religious parties in Israel’s Knesset, none have been more powerful or outspoken than Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who served as Chairman of the Finance Committee in the last parliament. In this key fiscal position, the rabbi was a master at diverting funds to haredi causes, especially yeshiva subsidies to the separate school system devoted mainly to teaching and debating the Torah—the religious academies that some secular Jews have angrily characterized as Jewish madrassas.

Now that secular representatives are in the ascendant following January’s national elections, Gafni has turned angrily on Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing his former political ally of betrayal. But in order to form a coalition Netanyahu needs the votes of two new parties, one the tribune of religious nationalists and the other of secular Israelis. Both refuse to serve in any government that includes ultras like Rabbi Gafni, largely because his supporters demand continued exemption from military service.

In the snake pit of Israeli politics, it could be payback time for Bibi for abandoning his ultra-Orthodox supporters in order to stay in power as prime minister, and this could have international repercussions far beyond the local problems of the yeshivot. The rabbi has warned that Netanyahu will soon “be sorry” for deceiving him and the other representatives of the ultras by “shamefully” leaving them out of power.

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A Novel About Early Childhood

By Austin Ratner

Earlier this week, Sami Rohr Prize winner Austin Ratner discussed the land of the living versus the land of “The Princess Bride.” His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Some academics have observed that young Jewish writers do not mine their personal lives for material in the same way that Jewish writers did a generation ago. In my own case, this is and isn’t true. My first novel, “The Jump Artist,” was based on someone else’s life and took place in lands and days disparate from my own. My second novel, “In the Land of the Living,” which is being released by Little Brown this week, draws on my own personal experiences and on events in the history of my own family. It’s first and foremost about loss at a tender age, and finding your way out from under the pall of grief, back to the land of the living, and to all that makes life worth living. (Why am I not on Oprah’s book list?)

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Follow the Talmud or a Jewish Sharia?

By Lawrence Malkin

Earlier this week, Yuval Elizur examined religious political power in Israel and January’s elections. Today, Lawrence Malkin discusses the tension between tradition and modernity in contemporary Judaism and its consequences. Elizur and Malkin are the co-authors of the recently published “The War Within: Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Threat to Democracy and the Nation.” Their blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


No American Jew could have experienced a more inspiring introduction to Israel that I did upon arriving in darkness aboard the first plane from London after the start of the Six-Day War. Within hours I was in Jerusalem watching the Battle for the Old City from the terrace of the King David Hotel. In the morning we drove a rented Volkswagen along the tank tracks to avoid mines and soon came upon soldiers celebrating their historic conquest by praying at the Western Wall. Never observant, I joined in prayers with this elite brigade of Jewish paratroopers, recruited mainly from secular kibbutzim. Their tribune was no less than Israel’s chief rabbi blowing the shofar — a ram’s horn blast that stirred Jewish souls around the world.

I remained for several weeks to report on the problems facing the victorious nation, most notably the unforeseen conquest of the West Bank from Jordan. It was during that assignment that I first met and befriended Yuval Elizur, then the Jerusalem correspondent of The Washington Post and now the co-author of our book, “The War Within.” I endured the baleful stares in the Mea Shearim, a dozen blocks set aside for ultra-Orthodox, then a tourist curiosity because it was widely believed that this anachronistic sect would wither away in modern Israel. How wrong we were. Years later, they have become a powerful minority determined to set the tone for society in the Holy City, and the leaders of American Jewry have tread carefully to avoid antagonizing them.

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My Name Is Inigo Montoya

By Austin Ratner

Austin Ratner won the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for his first novel, “The Jump Artist.” His new novel, “In the Land of the Living,” is now available. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Remember Mandy Patinkin’s character Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride”? When Montoya was a child, the story goes, the six-fingered man killed his father. He also slashed Montoya’s face, leaving him with scars on both cheeks. Montoya spends the rest of his life training to exact vengeance on his father’s killer. He practices not only his swordsmanship but just what he’ll say when he finally finds and confronts the six-fingered man: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

The main character in my second novel “In the Land of the Living” is a boy like that, a boy with a dead father, a boy bent on recompense and committed to its pursuit for as long as it takes. His problem is that there is no six-fingered man to kill.

Instead, he attempts to resurrect his father in a manner of speaking — by hewing to certain superhuman ideals in order to safeguard his father’s legacy from the oblivion of the grave. He will brook no failure in his career or his personal life and strives to excel everybody at everything (with the exception of phys ed). Anyone and everyone who gets in his way is the six-fingered man.

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Religious Political Power in Israel Comes to a Halt

By Yuval Elizur

Yuval Elizur and Lawrence Malkin are the co-authors of the new book “The War Within: Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Threat to Democracy and the Nation.” Today, Yuval Elizur takes a look at religious political power in Israel and January’s elections. Their blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


For many years the political power of Israel’s Orthodox minority spread as if it would never reach a limit. While their number of seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, remained small in relation to their power and also remarkably stable, the Orthodox rabbis and their political representatives influenced government policy by offering to vote as a bloc to sustain any ruling coalition. There was a price, of course: exemption from military service and subsidies for strict religious education and the welfare of the yeshiva students. These and their other favorite projects expanded after each election campaign. No wonder that an increasing number of Israeli intellectuals, including a noted sociology professor at Hebrew University, warned that Israel might soon become a theocratic state not unlike Iran.

But finally came a pushback in the decades-long battle between State and Synagogue. The results of this January’s elections proved that a good part of the political strength of the Orthodox may have been a myth. It finally may be receding toward a reality more representative of Israeli society, which is predominantly secular in practice although committed to Judaism as a religion.

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Why I Put a Map in 'The Bronfman Haggadah'

By Jan Aronson

Earlier this week, artist Jan Aronson wrote about how she became an illustrator and her illustrations for “The Bronfman Haggadah.” Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Many people have asked why I included a biblical map in “The Bronfman Haggadah.” Well, for starters, I love maps and I guess I assume that other people love them as well.

As a kid, I spent a lot of time poring over maps. Growing up in New Orleans, maps helped me figure out where I was in relation to the world. I wanted to know, for instance, where I was in relation to Europe. Where was Paris?

I also loved the colors of maps, as maps are very beautiful. Indeed, I think they are beautiful for a reason: so that we may enjoy and admire them as we investigate the world and place ourselves within a certain universe.

For that reason, I thought it would be useful and important to be able to turn to a page in the Haggadah and see the part of the world that we’re talking about. I also realized that I’d never seen a map in a Haggadah—and I have looked at countless illustrated Haggadot. And so, I decided that a map would indeed be a very interesting, unique, and informative detail.

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Author Blog: The Best Place on Earth

By Nancy Richler

Earlier this week, Nancy Richler discussed the perspective of her novel “The Imposter Bride” and why she decided to forgo research. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


A few weeks ago I was asked to provide a blurb for an about-to-be-published collection of short stories, “The Best Place on Earth,” by a young Israeli born writer named Ayelet Tsabari. Set against a backdrop of war, conflict and the army service, with underlying themes of displacement, the quest for “home,” love and loss, the stories in this collection pulse with raw energy as they unfurl along the fault lines within Israeli society. The author stretches herself to write from a broad variety of perspectives, and while not every story works perfectly she captures the particular intensity, urgency and ambivalence of the young Israelis she depicts, and there is a compelling urgency to each of the stories and to the collection as a whole that reflects the multifaceted society she brings to life.

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How I Became an Illustrator

By Jan Aronson

Earlier this week, artist Jan Aronson wrote about her illustrations for “The Bronfman Haggadah.” Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


When Edgar Bronfman asked me to illustrate the text of “The Bronfman Haggadah,” which at that point he had been writing for several years, my first response was: “But I’m not an illustrator!”

“Good. I don’t want an illustrator. I want you to do it,” was his swift reply.

And so began a project that was the opportunity of a lifetime. An artist does not often get the chance to have complete and full creative freedom to do what they want with something that is so meaningful — both in a personal and spiritual sense.

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