Visu­al Arts

A Col­lage of Customs

  • Review
By – September 27, 2021

Through­out his career, Mark Pod­w­al has cre­ative­ly engaged with Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture, pro­duc­ing visu­al art with both tra­di­tion­al and indi­vid­ual per­spec­tives. In his lat­est col­lec­tion, A Col­lage of Cus­toms, Pod­w­al ren­o­vates the once-pop­u­lar Sifrei Min­hag­im (Books of Cus­toms), illus­trat­ed guides to Jew­ish obser­vance that were con­sid­ered essen­tial in pro­vid­ing prac­ti­cal guid­ance from the six­teenth to the eigh­teenth cen­turies. One of the most fre­quent­ly con­sult­ed, and beau­ti­ful, of these guides was the 1593 Yid­dish trans­la­tion of Rab­bi Isaac Tyrnau’s orig­i­nal Hebrew text. Pod­w­al has adapt­ed this clas­sic work for a con­tem­po­rary audi­ence, explain­ing select­ed cus­toms asso­ci­at­ed with twen­ty-six dif­fer­ent hol­i­days or rit­u­als, and enhanc­ing the orig­i­nal wood­cuts with new ele­ments. This glimpse into the past offers infor­ma­tion on prac­tices both arcane and prac­ti­cal, along with pic­tures that depict both lov­ing and humor­ous scenes from Europe’s Jew­ish past.

In his infor­ma­tive intro­duc­tion, essen­tial for under­stand­ing his project, Pod­w­al quotes a promise on the 1593 edition’s title page: Much nicer than pre­vi­ous ver­sions. Every­one will enjoy read­ing it! Laws explained well, so you will learn to live like a good per­son.” Even the detailed blurbs of A Col­lage of Cus­toms from renowned authors and schol­ars can­not improve on this six­teenth-cen­tu­ry self-pro­mo­tion. Read­ers will become acqauint­ed with Jew­ish prac­tices past and present, from wed­ding canopies to search­ing for chametz before Passover to get­ting a Lag Ba’Omer hair­cut. Pod­w­al con­veys both rev­er­ence and humor in both the text and pic­tures. His bar­ber has the mod­ern advan­tage of using a blow dry­er when styling the hair of a Jew who has refrained from enter­ing his shop for the pre­vi­ous thir­ty-three days. Giv­en the time-con­sum­ing process for prepar­ing matzah, the microwave pic­tured in Podwal’s bak­ery is a wel­come pos­si­bil­i­ty. There is noth­ing sly about these visu­al jokes; they are gen­tle com­ments on the ways in which reli­gious prac­tices have evolved through the cen­turies. Oth­er pic­tures add nat­ur­al exten­sions to com­po­nents implic­it in tra­di­tion, such as the Jerusalem sky­line imag­ined over the chup­pah by the wed­ding party.

The for­mat of the book itself is com­pact; with­in the small size and six­ty-eight-page length, Pod­w­al has care­ful­ly curat­ed his dis­cus­sion of rit­u­al. Some selec­tions cov­er well-known cus­toms, but oth­ers will be new to read­ers. Many may not have con­sid­ered dif­fer­ences between Ashke­naz­ic and Sephardic instruc­tions for how left-hand­ed peo­ple should bless the lulav and etrog. The pop­u­lar form for a chanuki­ah (Hanukkah lamp) resem­bling the meno­rah in the Jerusalem Tem­ple dates only from the six­teenth cen­tu­ry; pri­or to that time, tra­di­tion­al sources strong­ly dis­cour­aged using any object resem­bling ones used in that sacred space. Pod­w­al uses under­state­ment and brevi­ty to com­ment on chang­ing times. He also includes many mod­ern prac­tices respond­ing to the his­toric mar­gin­al­iza­tion of women, such as hon­or­ing the ush­pi­zot, dis­tin­guished women, as well as the male ush­pizin sym­bol­i­cal­ly wel­comed to the sukkah.

A col­lage implies a spa­tial arrange­ment of mate­ri­als on a sur­face. In A Col­lage of Cus­toms, Pod­w­al has broad­ened that def­i­n­i­tion, adding a tem­po­ral ele­ment as well. Read­ing about Jew­ish obser­vance past and present, and view­ing the orig­i­nal wood­cut along­side the new one, a coher­ent image emerges of con­tin­u­ous vari­ety while main­tain­ing fideli­ty to tradition.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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