Frank Stella: Had Gadya Opens at Heller Museum in New York

September 19, 2023

Two people looking at Frank Stella art at the opening night of the exhibit

Faculty, students, alumni, art world aficionados, and community leaders gathered on September 7th for the opening of Frank Stella: Had Gadya at HUC-JIR’s Dr. Bernard Heller Museum in New York. They celebrated the work of one of America’s leading painters, sculptors, and printmakers, whose creativity was sparked by the traditional Passover meal song describing how a small goat creates a chain reaction that extends to heaven.

President Andrew Rehfeld expressed special appreciation to Elissa Oshinsky, lender of the Had Gadya suite, and her husband William Oshinsky, President of Temple Har Shalom in Park City, UT, for supporting the presentation of these extraordinary works at HUC-JIR’s three stateside campuses in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and New York.

Rehfeld stated, “The Heller Museum is the cultural extension of our mission, by exploring Jewish heritage, values, and practice through a contemporary lens, welcoming the diversity and inclusion of artists of all backgrounds, and illuminating important themes relevant to our society today. It offers opportunities for community outreach, public education, and fostering understanding and allyship across religious, ethnic, racial, and other boundaries.”

Art collector Elissa Oshinsky recalled the invitation by Dr. Joshua Holo, Vice President for Academic Resources, and Cathee Weiss, z”l, former Senior Director for Development, Western Region, to bring these works to HUC-JIR for a national tour. “It’s been wonderful to see Stella’s art bring the larger community onto HUC-JIR’s campuses for an exciting and meaningful art experience.”

Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Heller Museum Director and curator of the exhibition with Anne Hromodka at the Skirball Campus in Los Angeles and Abby Schwartz at the Skirball Museum at the Cincinnati campus, explained the significance of Jewish themes in Stella’s oeuvre. She described how Stella was inspired by his discovery at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1981 of Russian-Jewish avant-garde artist El Lissitzky’s 1919 Had Gadya, expressing liberation from tsarist oppression after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Produced over two years (1982-84), Stella conveys the successive conflicts between the goat, cat, dog, stick, fire, water, ox, butcher, Angel of Death, and God through vivid color and the dynamic repetition, collision, intersection, and movement of cylinders, cones, grills, waves, graffiti-like scrawls, and motion-filled forms. He employs a complex process of lithography, linoleum block printing, silkscreen, and rubber relief with collage and hand-coloring.

Rosensaft noted, “Whether this song is interpreted as a parable about the nations that persecuted the Jewish people throughout history, building upon the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God’s ultimate triumph over Death, or a metaphor for how an injury to one becomes an injury to all, the poetry of Had Gadya offered Stella, a Catholic, the opportunity to express a universal, aspirational message of justice and hope.”

The evening culminated in a stirring cantorial ensemble performance offering three musical interpretations of the lyrics of Had Gadya, dating back to a 14th-century Provence prayer book and first appearing in print in the Prague Haggadah of 1590. Drawn from the senior thesis and recital of Cantor Ella Gladstone Martin ’23, the music ranged from Israeli Chava Alberstein’s impassioned call to end the violence in Israel and J. Offenbach’s 1838 choral composition as cantor of Cologne, to the joyful, syncopated Yiddish jazz of Cantor Moishe Oysher. Cantor Gladstone Martin of The Community Synagogue, Port Washington, Long Island, was accompanied by Cantor Jill Abramson, Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music; Joyce Rosenzweig, Professor of Practice in Jewish Music and Performance, DFSSM; and DFSSM students Lauren Blasband-Roth ’25, Justin Callis ’25, Sierra Fox ’25, Emily Lezin ’27, Kevin McKenzie ’24, Beth Reinstein ’25.

Rabbi David Adelson, Dean of the New York Campus, concluded the program, saying “This program reflects the impact of our faculty, students, and the over 4,000 active alumni of HUC-JIR who are building communities and renewing our tradition with new understandings of our ancient texts, history, and culture that are meaningful today.”

The Heller Museum, located at One West Fourth Street in New York City, offers free admission and free guided tours by appointment on Mondays-Thursdays, 9:00 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. Contact 212-824-2218 or