Moss Musings


If you’re new to our newsletter, I’d like to extend a warm welcome. If you’ve been with us from the start, welcome back. We’re so glad you’re enjoying these musings.—David Moss

2/1/18—Origins of the Moss Haggadah: It Happened In Verona

Many of you have asked me over the years about the origins of the Moss Haggadah you enjoy using every Pesach. Well, gather round and I’ll tell you a story.

My original Haggadah was commissioned by Beatrice and Richard Levy from Florida in the early ’80s. It was entirely handmade and executed on parchment. A dream project to work on. Once I delivered the original, I assumed that was the end of it. But there was to be much more.

We’ve been celebrating the 30th year since the first publication of the Facsimile edition. How did that come about? Vivid memories take me back to the moment when Neil and Sharon Norry first saw the photographs I had of the original. We were in their hotel room in Jerusalem. Neil immediately said: “It’s unacceptable that there is only one original of this book sequestered in a safe. It must be reproduced and shared. We’re going to do that.”

My response—remembering all my hand-applied gold leaf, the many papercuts, attached mirrors, micrographic writing, turning cup and more—was that it was impossible to reproduce this work faithfully. But Neil was someone who wouldn’t accept the word impossible. He responded, “Somewhere you will find someone who can do this to your standards. Start looking.”

So our young family traded apartments with a family from Nice for a summer and I spent the weekdays taking the photographs off to Italy, France, Switzerland, and Austria in search of the perfect printer. I’d return each Friday for Shabbat and spend the weekend with my family. When I stepped into the offices of Mondadori, one of the major art book printers in Verona, they looked at what I had and immediately said: “This is for Mardersteig.”

I knew that name: the finest letterpress printer/hand press book publisher/typographer/book designer of the twentieth century—Giovanni Mardersteig. I said: “Isn’t he dead?” They laughed and said, “Well, yes, but his son Martino continues his work.”

They scrawled a Verona address on a sheet of paper and I walked down the hill, following my street map, to the Via Marsala.  I arrived at a vast 17th or 18th-century villa, passed through the gardens, and knocked on the door. I didn’t realize I had arrived at the Mardersteig home until Mrs. Mardersteig greeted me. I tried my best to explain what I was looking for. She spoke virtually no English and my Italian was almost nonexistent. Somehow she conveyed that I should walk down the street a couple of doors to the workshop. There I was greeted warmly by Martino, whose English was fortunately perfect. He looked at the photographs of the pages I had brought. He said simply: “I can do this.” I looked at examples of the books he had produced for the finest art publishers throughout the world and responded: “You can do this.”  He offered to make a sample to back up his statement. He perfectly reproduced the large-format “Search for Leaven,” a challenging page filled with gold that required perfect registration.

Neil Norry had hoped for someplace closer to home than Verona, Italy. He lived in Rochester, New York, perhaps the graphic arts capital of the United States, and felt certain the project could be done there. Neil convened a meeting with the top experts from Kodak, Xerox, and the finest local experts in the graphic arts. I arrived at the meeting and pulled out my Mardersteig sample, printed in about thirteen colors on a single color press with rich hot stamped gold leaf. When I passed it around the table, the looks on all faces were of astonishment. All immediately agreed that nothing with that level of perfection could be done in America and told us clearly that if we could get that kind of printing we should grab it.

The next powwow was in Verona, to define and negotiate the project. I carefully explained all the difficulties in producing a perfect facsimile of this complicated handmade book, all the special techniques that would be required. Martino patiently took notes and was unflustered. He did seem somewhat surprised when Neil said he’d want all 550 exemplars bound in full gold-stamped calf leather. Usually bindings were done in batches as books sold. I imagined Martino visualizing 550 poor calves running for their lives all over Italy. The facsimile was carefully defined down to all its details. An acceptable price was agreed on.

I then hesitatingly added one more thing that felt essential to me. “This book is really not just about the art. For me, each page is a story. Each page is its own little world built up by my years of research, my seeking the perfect creative expression of a fresh idea into a design, and the dedicated crafting of that design into the final page. The owner of this book must be able to know that story to fully enter the world of this Haggadah. I propose I write an article for each page of the book about exactly what the art is conveying. There should be a second volume of my notes, as large as the facsimile itself, printed both in English and Hebrew, with a slipcase to contain the two volumes.” Martino made some more notes. He asked to be excused while he consulted with his craftspeople. He came back to the room and said:

“This second text volume can, of course, be printed with our fine offset facilities. But I’m thinking that if I told you what it would cost to produce this volume by letterpress printing (the finest method of text printing in which the inked text is actually impressed into the paper by raised metal type) you would balk. So this will be my gift to this project.”

Thus Bet Alpha Editions was founded and we got to work. It took a year and a half to complete the printing and binding. I was constantly going back and forth between Jerusalem and Verona to supervise the work. The Norrys, Mardersteigs, and Mosses became life-long friends.

The paper-cut pages had to be printed in Verona, sent to Santa Rosa (the only place doing high-quality laser cutting at the time), and sent back to Italy for binding.  The 550 calves were rounded up. The eighteen little mirrors, the leather seal, the turning cup (engineered by my friend Paul Feinstein) were added by hand to each book. The book was finished. Martino flew in for the warm and beautiful opening exhibit initiated by Erica and Luddy Jesselson at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York. We had somehow managed to produce a virtually perfect replica of the original. I was told that the former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstein, called it the “tour de force of printing of the twentieth century.” It’s entered the collections of the rare book rooms of The New York Public Library, The Getty Museum, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the British Library, and the Canadian National Library. President Reagan presented a copy as his gift of State to Israeli president Chaim Herzog. But most importantly, it and the two other versions that followed, the Moss Haggadah trade edition and the Moss Haggadah deluxe edition, have become part of the Seder for hundreds of families annually, celebrating  humanity’s most ancient continually performed ritual and encouraging new generations of children to look, to admire, to wonder, to ask and be answered. I’m very blessed.

12/1/17—Behind the Scenes Glimpses

A wonderfully meaningful Ketubah for my granddaughter, Hallel

Almost 40 years ago, I started the contemporary revival of the old, lost tradition of creating custom-designed Ketubot of beauty and meaning for individual couples. I’ve now even done a few third-generation Ketubot—yes, Ketubot for the grandchildren of my earliest customers. Oh, did someone ask what a Ketubah is? It’s a Jewish marriage contract. One of my personally most significant Ketubot was my wife Rosalyn’s. I was also privileged to create Ketubot for all four of our children.

And now I’ve just had the wonderful honor of writing and designing a Ketubah for our granddaughter, Hallel. Three generations. I can hardly believe it. I read it at their remarkable wedding and a number of guests commented that for the first time they understood the text. This was simply because I could phrase it perfectly since it’s probably the only text I know by heart!

See Love Letters, a collection of custom Ketubot I’ve designed over the years and the story behind each one.

My Doors Are Open

Next time you’re in Jerusalem, please visit my studio in Chutzot HaYotzer, the artists’ lane behind the King David Hotel.

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