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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.