The Hasidic Seder Plate is an Objet de Fantasie

I’ll post more later from Batsheva Goldman-Ida’s Hasidic Art and Kabbalah, but I want to share these three pictures in particular for the Passover holiday. In part, I’m choosing these three photographs because they are themselves rather remarkable. The photographs by Shlomo Dov Yudovin (1892–1954) were taken as part of the famous An-Sky ethnographic expedition to Volhynia and Podolia between 1912-1914. Goldman-Ida informs us that the three photographs are now in two separate collections: one in the Yudovin collection in the Isidore and Anne Falk Information Center for Jewish Art and Life of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, the other two in the collection of the Center “Petersburg Judaica” at the European University of St. Petersburg (Hasidic Art and Kabbalah, p.157).

Hasidism has an object quality to it that looks like these fantastic things. The photographs by Yudovin are well-lit in their frozen sharpness while the plates convey the sense of bright and metallic forms of animal life. This form of Jewish spirituality is not abstract. Its animality is critical. The utter weirdness of the elaborate arrangement caught in the photographic emanation is both naturalistic and supra-naturalistic. The brittle figures float off the surface of the plates. They are transformed in the natural order of supernatural things, in the supernatural order of natural things. As per Goldman-Ida, these old Hasidic seder plates belong to a romantic and eclectic nineteenth century tradition of “magnificent tableware.” Like the religion of Hasidism, the old Hasidic seder plate is itself what she identifies as an objet de fantaisie. The tableware were in fashion in Russia from 1840 onward and known as “galanterie.”

I want to speculate that the origin and character of these seder plates tell us something about the religious fantasy life of Hasidism, a tradition traced by Goldman-Ida back to Mannerism in sixteenth-century Italy, “The eclecticism of the early decades of the nineteenth century … was swept by revival after revival. Classicism sustained a long popularity; the Rococo was reborn; the Renaissance and the Baroque appear incongruously side by side. A designer would often select a style from this wide choice for its associations…. One important characteristic prevailed: plates in the Rococo, Renaissance, Gothic, Chinoiserie, and Baroque styles all evince a passion for extravagant ornament” (pp.160-1).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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