Illustrating Shabes: A Listicle

Elizabeth Shulman


Jews have been illus­trat­ing their sacred texts for cen­turies, a tra­di­tion based on the rab­binic prin­ci­ple of hid­dur mitz­vah (beau­ti­fy­ing mitzvot). Medieval Jews expand­ed this prac­tice of embell­ish­ment to sec­u­lar texts, not only because of tra­di­tion but also because they had dis­cov­ered oth­er ben­e­fits of illus­trat­ed texts. In one influ­en­tial exam­ple, Meshal Ha-Kad­moni, a book of Jew­ish ani­mal fables writ­ten by Yitzhak Ben Shlo­mo Ibn Shat­u­lah in the late thir­teenth cen­tu­ry, the author explains his inclu­sion of illus­tra­tions: And in order that my Meshal ha-Kad­moni should please the chil­dren too and be loved by them, and that they should eager­ly read my sto­ries, I have adorned them with beau­ti­ful pic­tures and illustrations.”1 What­ev­er their rea­sons may be, since the time that print­ing large num­bers of books became pos­si­ble, many Jew­ish authors and pub­lish­ers all over the world have doc­u­ment­ed their appre­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish art by includ­ing it in their pub­li­ca­tions, even though doing so could be cost­ly or time consuming.

Shabes has long been a source of inspi­ra­tion for Jew­ish artists and writ­ers, and its many lit­er­ary and visu­al depic­tions pair beau­ti­ful­ly with the tra­di­tion of read­ing and study­ing on the sab­bath. Shabes tra­di­tions are fre­quent­ly depict­ed in Yid­dish books, but in many cas­es the illus­tra­tions cho­sen for pub­li­ca­tion were cre­at­ed in a dif­fer­ent time and place. The exam­ples below were cho­sen because the illus­tra­tions were cre­at­ed specif­i­cal­ly for the lit­er­ary works they were paired with.

His­tor­i­cal exam­ples of lit­er­a­ture and art inspired by Shabes can also shed light on the expe­ri­ences and tra­di­tions of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties. Each of these poems about Shabes from the ear­ly and mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry were writ­ten by immi­grants from East­ern Europe and pub­lished in the Unit­ed States. I chose these exam­ples because they give us a win­dow into the tra­di­tions of the places the authors came from and also pro­vide con­text about how these cus­toms were pre­sent­ed when they were pub­lished for an audi­ence of Jew­ish immi­grants as well as Jews born in the Unit­ed States. As each of these poems describes a unique Shabes expe­ri­ence, each of the illus­tra­tions pro­vides a depic­tion of a dif­fer­ent rit­u­al or ele­ment: the syn­a­gogue, study, can­dle light­ing, prayers, hos­pi­tal­i­ty, mourn­ing, and joy­ous danc­ing are all rep­re­sent­ed here.

Tools for learn­ing about illus­trat­ed Yid­dish books:

The Noah Cot­sen Library of Yid­dish Children’s Literature2 has a list of their titles (in Eng­lish) that gives a brief syn­op­sis of each book, describes what read­ing lev­el the book is appro­pri­ate for, and often indi­cates if the book has illus­tra­tions, some­times list­ing the name of the artist. This list con­tains only children’s books, how­ev­er, many of the artists who were pro­lif­ic illus­tra­tors of Yid­dish children’s books (some exam­ples: Note Kozlovsky, Zuni Maud, Yosel Cut­ler, Aaron Good­el­man, Bentsye Mekhtom, Sar­ra Shor, Joseph Tchaikov, Issachar Ber Ryback) also illus­trat­ed oth­er types of texts (adult fic­tion and non­fic­tion, text­books, etc.). This list is par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful if you want to use Yid­dish children’s books to build lit­er­a­cy skills.

The Yid­dish Book Center’s Full-Text Search (OCR) tool3 makes it easy to search for spe­cif­ic authors, artists, and pub­lish­ers (in Yid­dish). This is also a good way to search for top­ics of inter­est, which is how I usu­al­ly stum­ble upon illus­tra­tions that I wouldn’t have found oth­er­wise because many Yid­dish books sim­ply don’t include any infor­ma­tion about the illus­tra­tions and the artists who made them. Even with the incred­i­ble tools that we have, to a large extent it is still true that, if you want to find depic­tions of spe­cif­ic sub­jects in Yid­dish books, you are going to have to read a lot of Yid­dish books about that subject.

The Yid­dish Book Center’s basic Eng­lish search function4 is also help­ful if you want some­thing less com­plex than the OCR tool. Using this tool to search for the names of authors and pub­lish­ers works quite well, and often the name of the author and/​or pub­lish­ing house will be linked to their oth­er works. Artists, how­ev­er, unless they were also authors, are rarely includ­ed in the main list­ing for a book unless they were par­tic­u­lar­ly well known.

1. Boris Aronson 1 1 Boris Aronson (1898-1980) was the son of a rabbi, born in Kiev and trained in art from a young age and became an apprentice of Aleksandra Ekster who was part of the Russian Constructivist school. He was a founding member of the Jewish socialist Kultur Lige in Kiev. Aronson moved to the Lower East Side in 1923 and began designing sets and costumes for Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre and ARTEF Arbeter Teater Farband (Workers’ Theater Association). He had a lifelong career as a theater designer on Broadway and won six Tony Awards for Scenic Design. illustrations for the Henry Rosenblatt 2 2 Henry Rosenblatt (1878-1956) was born Rishoshe, Podolia and studied with a village teacher before moving to the U.S. in 1892, eventually settling in Los Angeles. He worked briefly in a sweatshop before attending a school for public school teachers. His first published poems appeared in Forverts in 1900. He was part of a group of young poets known as “Di Yidishe Yugend” (Jewish Youth). poem “Shabbat Erev,” published in Leyenbikher far Idisher Shul by Israel Steinbaum in New York in 1924. 3 3 The poem describes inviting a poor, lonely, pious Jew to Shabes dinner. The guest remembers his love for his family and sheds a tear into his wine before falling asleep to dream about them.

These Boris Aronson illustrations depict the inside of a synagogue on shabbat. The more detailed of the two drawings shows a man holding a Torah scroll standing in front of a mizrach which is decorated with deer, flowers, and a lamp stand. The other illustration shows a group of men standing in front of a Torah ark beneath a large chandelier.

In his long career, Boris Aronson was most known for his modernist and avant garde art. These two drawings are more directly inspired by traditional Ashkenazi synagogue art and design.

2. Todros Geller 4 4 Todros Geller was born in Vinnytsia and studied art in Odessa. In 1906 he moved to Montreal and in 1918 he moved to Chicago where he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was an influential part of the Chicago Jewish Left and an active antifascist for the rest of his life and taught many prominent Jewish artists. During the 1930s he was employed by the WPA and was commissioned to travel to the southwest and depict Native Americans. In 1940 he began working at the South Side Community Art Center along with many other Chicago artists. He passed away in Chicago in 1949. illustrations for Alte Vegn by Selig Heller 5 5 Selig Heller (1894-1970) was born in Volpa and moved to the United States in 1906 at age twelve. He studied literature at Ohio State University and later settled in Chicago and began publishing poetry and literary criticism in Yiddish. His writings appeared in Feder, Di Velt, Yiddisher Arbeter Velt, Der Tog, Zukunft, Fraye Arbeter Shtime, Kurier and Gezelten., published in Chicago in 1926. 6 6 These illustrations accompany a series of Selig Heller poems about the sabbath: “Shabbat,” “Freytag tzu Nakhts” (Friday Nights), “Shabbat in Der Friah” (Shabbat in the morning), and “Shabbat tzu Nakhts” (Saturday Nights). In these poems, Selig Heller describes traditions for each portion of Shabes, including Friday evening cholent, waking up the children on Saturday morning, and going for a stroll on a Saturday afternoon. The illustrations depict Jews reading books, another Shabes tradition described in Selig Heller’s poetry.

3. Saul Raskin 7 7 Saul Raskin (1878-1966) was born in Prymorsk and studied lithography in Odessa. He moved to New York in about 1905 and began writing and creating cartoons for Freie Arbeiter Stimme, Die Zukunft, Dos Naye Lebn, and Forverts. He believed that art education should not be limited to wealthy Jews and gave lectures and museum tours for the Arbeter Ring. After 1917 he became a Zionist and traveled to Israel several times in the 1920s and 1930s. illustration for Bebzik 8 8https://www.yiddishbookcenter.... by Henry Rosenblatt 9 9 Henry Rosenblatt (1878-1956) was born Rishoshe, Podolia and studied with a village teacher before moving to the U.S. in 1892, eventually settling in Los Angeles. He worked briefly in a sweatshop before attending a school for public school teachers. His first published poems appeared in Forverts in 1900. He was part of a group of young poets known as “Di Yidishe Yugend” (Jewish Youth). , a series of rhymed stories published in New York in 1940 about a young boy who is born in the shtetl. This illustration is for a poem called “Vayse Oygn” (“White Eyes”) about a shabbat evening where Bebzik’s father invites a guest who is an old blind man who was the last person left in the synagogue. Bebzik’s mother and grandmother worry that he will be frightened by their guest, but instead he is delighted, and the old man smiles and sings a song.

4. Illustration for a Nachum Yud 10 10 Nachum Yud (Yerusalimchik) (1888-1966) was born in Mogilev, Belarus and began writing in Russian. He began focusing on Yiddish after moving to Warsaw and his first Yiddish poems were published in 1913. He moved to the U.S. in 1916 and contributed to many publications, becoming a member of the editorial staff of Forverts. He became known for his fables and poems that were especially beloved by children. poem “Freytik tsu Nakht” (“Friday Night”). He describes his father leaving for shul while his mother lights candles, prays for her family. This illustration was published in 1954 by the New York Arbert Ring in Dos Lebedike Vort Leyenbukh far dem Dritn Lernyor by S. Yefroikin. 11 11 This illustration was made by P. Sharon.

5. Illustration by Chane Segal-Zakuta (Anette Zakuta) 12 12 Chane Segal-Zakuta (Annette Zakuta) was born in Montreal in 1929 and was the daughter of Jacob Isaac Segal (Y.Y. Segal). In a 2016 interview with Yiddish Book Center, Segal-Zakuta explains that her parents spoke Yiddish at home but did not encourage their children to learn it, which she later regretted. She became interested in art at a young age. These illustrations for Lider Far Yidishe Kinder were made and published several years after Y.Y. Segal’s sudden death in 1954. Segal-Zakuta passed away in Montreal in 2020. , the daughter of Jacob Isaac Segal 13 13 Jacob Isaac Segal / Y.Y. Segal (1896-1954) was born in Solobkovits, Podolia to a scholarly family. His father, who was a scribe and a cantor, died when Segal was very young. Segal grew up very poor but had a traditional Jewish education. His family moved to Volhynia and it was there that he was very impacted by a traumatic event when he was 13 years old. Someone at the marketplace accused him of stealing from the pocket of a gentile and Segal was almost beaten to death by police. In 1911 he moved to Montreal, Canada where he worked as a tailor and a teacher and also began writing Yiddish poetry. He went on to publish many volumes of poetry. , in Lider far Yidishe Kinder, a collection of his work published by the New York Arbeter Ring in 1961, several years after he had passed away. 14 14https://www.yiddishbookcenter.... This illustration appears with a poem about the days of the week who spend all week chasing after one another until they all head home on Saturday.

Shulman, Elizabeth. “Illustrating Shabes: A Listicle.” In geveb, March 2023:
Shulman, Elizabeth. “Illustrating Shabes: A Listicle.” In geveb (March 2023): Accessed Jun 22, 2024.


Elizabeth Shulman

Elizabeth Shulman is an artist and an independent researcher of Judaica and Jewish art history.