Thursday, March 29, 2012

Wicked: 20th Century Lessons from the Art of the Wicked Child

Otto Geismar, Germany 1927

Of the four children of the Haggadah, the Rasha, the Wicked one, stands out. His siblings are all described through intellectual categories: Wise, Simple, Doesn’t know to ask. The Wicked child alone is stamped with an ethical category. It is perhaps not incidental that the Wicked one also gets the most sympathy from modern readers. A liberal education is loath to label someone as wicked simply for questioning. Is the Haggadah making an important argument for the limits on questioning, or is it perhaps not the content of the question but rather the tone, the body language, and the stereotype already constructed in the parent’s head, which sways the interpretation in a certain way?
This is where the Art of the Four Children is the best commentary. The illustrator is forced to fill in the gaps, informing us not only of body language, but also of historical setting and ideological backdrop. But before art, let’s turn to the text, using (mostly) Nathan Englander’s new translation:

רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר?
"מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם?"
לָכֶם - וְלֹא לוֹ.
וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר.
וְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִנָּיו וֶאֱמֹר לוֹ:
"בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יי לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם."
לִי - וְלֹא לוֹ. אִילּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.
The Wicked One, what does he say?
“What does this type of practice mean to you?”
‘To you’, and not to him.
And by divorcing himself from the community, he denies the very essence. Moreover, you must blunt the bite of his words, by telling him:
“For this purpose the Lord labored on my behalf by taking me out of Egypt”
For me, and not for him.
Had he been there, he would stand undelivered.

Dick Codor's Marx Bros 4Sons
What is the wickedness of this child? The Haggadah editorializes: ‘To you’ and not to ‘him’ - the Wicked child sees no part for himself in the practices or values of his parents. He is questioning the premise of solidarity with family/people and this – says the Haggadah – is the sharpest of bites. The parent scorns his Wicked child: You would not have been liberated! The response echoes a midrash which claims that only 20% of the Israelites left Egypt during the Exodus. The other 80%, of little faith (in Moses and his God? in the idea of a better place?), decided to stay and become rank-and-file Egyptians. This child would have stayed with that majority, claims the Haggadah, not with the crazy matzah-eating fugitive slaves.
Reading this text in light of the Jewish-European 20th Century, though, forces one to revisit the role of the Rasha, for the 20th century was the century of “Wicked” Children, who left the Egypt of their parents. As Yuri Slezkine writes, there were not two , but three great Jewish migrations in the twentieth century from the Pale of Settlement, each one a rebellious liberation movement that was based on a “patricide” of the traditional Jewish home: Nationalism (the Zionist migration to Palestine), Liberalism (the Capitalist/Professionalist migration to America), and Communism (the Political Socialist migration to Moscow). Each migration had its own ideology, its own vision of a Promised Land, its own theory of how to liberate Jewish existence from being "strangers in Egypt": The Universalistic Socialist Promised Land of early Communism, in which Jews flourished; the Capitalist vision of nontribal statehood, a “nation of strangers held together by a common celebration of separateness (individualism) and rootlessness (immigration).” And the Zionist "indigenous land" where strangers could turn into natives.

Artistic renderings of the Four Children throughout that century constantly wrestle with these three promised lands, at time portraying the new Zionist/Capitalist/Communist Jew as Wise or Wicked according to the views of the illustrator:

In early American Haggadot, the wicked child was the “assimilated American”, who leaves the paths of his parents in favor of a path of prosperity and acceptance by the wider community. The ways of old are relevant “To you, and not to him”. This seemingly one-sided story is told by one of the earliest American haggadot, published in 1879 in Chicago:

Chicago Haggadah, 1879
The Wicked child, his body arrogantly deflecting away from the table, is dressed in modern clothes, smoking (as any civilized gentleman would do), and pontificating, waving his hand dismissively at his traditional parents.
But this illustration is far from embracing of the Wise child and deeply ambivalent about his parents, who seem frozen in time next to their dynamic “Americaner” son. The wise son is dressed like his parents, but is lost to the world, engrossed in his book. Most significantly, the two younger siblings are eyeing their younger brother enviously, imitating the way he waves his hand about. One can only imagine how many families in the Mid-West and on the East coast, saw this scene unfold at their own seder tables. The reader is left with a question whether the sympathies of the artist lay with the glassy eyed father or with the flamboyant son.

Lola, Leon David Israel, 1920

30 years later, in the Lower East Side, the scene has changed significantly. From the proud German Jewish Americans of industrial Chicago, we turn to the shmutzy alleys of the Eastern European immigrants of Spring Street.  In a Haggadah from 1920 illustrated by Yiddish cartoonist Lola the wicked child is a boxer. This is a tribute both to the golden days of Jewish boxing (like Battling Levinsky, lightweight champion of the world 1916-1920), and to Max Nordau’s 1900 call for a Muscular Judaism. Our buff boxer seems willing to take on his dorky brother (who by now has no problem dressing like a modern American, but is still engrossed in his book). Again, one wonders if the Jewish boxer is the villain or the hero.

Siegmund Forst, USA 1959
The presence of Jewish Communism is also well attested in haggadot. Communist Haggadot abounded in the 30’s and 40’s, including my favorite modern re-working of the Avadim Hayeenu, “We Were Slaves” Haggadah passage:
We were slaves to Capital, until the October Revolution [of 1917] "redeemed us with a strong hand" from the land of slavery. If it weren't for the October Revolution, then we and our children and our children's children would still be slaves to Capital. Today the revolution is only here, next year = a world revolution. (The Red Haggadah, 1927)
For Moscow’s Jewish intelligentsia, and for many American Jews, being a communist was being the wise child, liberated not only from Capital but also from Ethnicity. Yet many American Haggadahs of the 50’s and 60’s save the Wicked child’s place to the communist cousin. In one portrayal, the Wicked child is a  “flaming commie,” threatening to set fire to the world. In another, he the is spitting image of Leon Trotsky, holding an enormous ax poised at splitting through the Ten Commandments (meanwhile the assimilated American Jew has been demoted to the Simple child, in his flannel shirt and racing results).

Tzvi Livni, Tel Aviv 1955
Finally, we come to the third, and smallest, Jewish European exodus of the early 20th century: Zionism. In Zionist renderings of the four children, like the one by Tzvi Livni here from 1952, the muscular Jew is the Wise one, holding a (closed) book, wearing a Zionist youth movement shirt, ready for action. The Wicked child is the financier-speculator in the shirt and tie, dollar bills creeping out of his shirt (Israeli prime ministers only started wearing ties in the 1990’s, a sure sign of the decline of ideological Israel…). This Wicked child points at the work of Zionist inhabitation of the land, and says: “What is this avodah, this practice, to you?” The religious Jew is not missing, though. Usually given primacy of place as the Wise child, for Secular Zionists the ultra-orthodox are the “child who does not know how to ask.”
But many Secular Zionists took pride in being the Wicked child of the Haggadah. A rebellious secular movement, Zionism incorporated the criticism of the wicked child: “What does this old Jewish practice, which leaves you emasculated in your decrepit eastern European exile, mean to you?”
The 1927 Shomer HaTza’ir anthem captures this spirit exactly:

The Song of the Son
David Shimoni, 1927 Anthem of the Shomer HaTzair

Do not listen son, to the morality of your father
And to the teachings of your mother pay no heed
For father’s morals are “line on line”
And mother’s Torah is “Slowly, slowly”
But the Spring storm says but one:
Listen, man, to the song of the son!

To the song of the son, and the great-grand-son,
Which comes from beyond a deep fog…
And break out a new path, leaving the
Way which the father took,
For why shall you sin towards the generation,
A future full of illumination?

On a cold night, a night of Adar,
Whilst the mother sleeps, the father is down,
Will you hear, the song of the wind abounds,
The song of the son, a song of joy and battle?
On a cold night, a night of Adar,
Hearken, how the spring sings…

The original Hebrew text of the anthem above was copied in the font usually reserved for Torah scrolls, and was carried in the pockets of movement members like a religious amulet. Secular Zionists sought to replace the tradition, to rewrite the holy Scriptures, replacing the tunes of traditionalism with the song of rebellion.

At the end of the day, these three Jewish liberation movements, which might have been classified as “Wicked” in their times, force us to re-evaluate our relationship to rebelliousness in Modern Jewry.
For me, as a parent, a Zionist and a Jew, the lesson of the Zionist child rings in my ear: that rebellion should not be interpreted as betrayal, and that we must be very humble in our assumptions about what is right for the next generation. At least one, if not two of the 20th century rebellious Jewish liberation movements succeeded in creating a vibrant Jewish culture and eventually a better world for all. We must seek out the rebellious questions of the next generation, cultivate them, all the while supporting that they, like those rebellious Zionists of old, continue to use the language and stories of their inheritance as they march into a new spring.

Pesach Sameach!

p.s. I can’t resist one more 4 children, the 21st century rendition of the illustrator of my own Haggadah, A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices, Michel Kichka. For a comprehensive essay  on the art of the Four Children.
Michel Kichka, Israel 2006

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Tzav / Pesach 2012 | Text and the City