6: Illustration, the Angel of Death from El Lissitzky’s "Khad gadyo," 1919.
Yenta Mash’s “A Seder in the Taiga” references the singing of “Khad gadyo,” an Aramaic-language cumulative song traditionally sung toward the end of the Passover seder. In the song, a small goat is pursued by predators, culminating in the Angel of Death. Those unfamiliar with the song can find lyrics here, and can listen to versions of the song in many Jewish languages here.
The avant-garde artist El Lissitzky (1890-1941) made illustrations of the traditional Passover song “Khad gadyo” early in his career, when he immersed himself in the Jewish cultural renaissance that flourished in Russia from roughly 1912 to the early 1920s. This illustration depicts the final verse of the song, when the Angel of Death arrives to slay the butcher who killed the ox that drank the water that extinguished the fire that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat, an ultimate end to a grisly tale.
Suggested Activity: Although the song “Khad gadyo” has been interpreted in many ways, one common interpretation is allegorical—comparing the goat to the Jewish people, the father who bought the goat to God, and the other characters to nations who conquered Israel, ending with God coming and liberating the Jewish people from its persecutors. In “A Seder in the Taiga,” Mash uses the narrative “Khad gadyo” to offer criticism against God for intervening only after the Angel of Death has brought the story to the ultimate destruction. God comes to liberate, but only after the destruction has been too great for such salvation to be any consolation.
Ask your students to examine the illustration and discuss what they see. How is Lissitzky representing and interpreting “Khad gadyo” and specifically the Angel of Death? Does Lissitzky’s visual interpretation match the way Mash interprets the song in her story?
Source: El Lissitzky, Had Gadya: The Only Kid (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2004), n.p. © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.