Frank Stella’s “Had Gadya”


Skirball Museum, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati
March 23 – July 2, 2021
Abby Schwartz, Curatorial Consultant
Sheri Besso, Collections Manager and Preparator
Presented at the Skirball Museum with the generous support of Elissa Oshinsky, The Dr. Stanley J. and Judy Lucas Fund
of the Cincinnati Skirball Museum Activities Fund, and Ronnie and John Shore.
Dr. Bernard Heller Museum, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York
September 7, 2023 – March 1, 2024
Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Director
Dr. Laura Kruger, Curator Emerita
Eleanor Berman, Museum Communications
Ellen Rosenbush, Curatorial Assistant, Catalog Design
Presented at the Dr. Bernard Heller Museum by the Irma L. and Abram S. Croll Center for Jewish Learning and Culture
with the generous support of Elissa Oshinsky and George, z”l, and Mildred Weissman, z”l
© 2023 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion


Illustrations after El Lissitzky
Series of 12 prints; Lithography, etching, screen printing, woodcut, & linocuts; Ed. 47/60, 1984.
Collection of Elissa Oshinsky
©2023 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Illustrated book, 10 color lithographs and cover page, flyleaf; 28 cm x 26 cm.
Edition of 75, published by Kultur Lige, Kiev.
From the Library of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
© 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frank Stella, Had Gadya: Front Cover, 42 ⅛” X 33 ⅞”
Frank Stella, Had Gadya: Back Cover, 60 ¼” x 53 ₁⁄⁶”



Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Director, Dr. Bernard Heller Museum, New York
Abby Schwartz, Curatorial Consultant, Skirball Museum, Cincinnati
Anne Hromodka Greenwald, Curator, Los Angeles
One might not immediately associate Frank Stella (b. 1936), the American painter, sculptor, and printmaker noted for
his work in the areas of minimalism and post-painterly abstraction, with a cumulative, lyrical poem that concludes
the traditional Seder, or festive meal, on the Jewish holiday of Passover. Had Gadya (One Little Goat) first appeared in
print in a 1590 Haggadah (Jewish text setting forth the order of the Passover seder) published in Prague.
Had Gadya describes a chain of events of events evoking conflict culminating in divine intervention. Just as each of
the ten verses of the song builds on the one before it, Stella’s 12 Had Gadya prints build on the original 1919 series of
11 prints illustrating Had Gadya by Russian-Jewish avant-garde artist Eliezer (El) Lissitzky, which Stella encountered
at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1981.
Lissitzky, who began his career illustrating Yiddish children’s books, created a print for each stanza of the celebrated
song and the title page, based on preliminary watercolors, and a highly abstract flyleaf. Produced after four years of
studying Jewish folk culture, including documenting 200 painted, wooden synagogues of Ukraine, his Had Gadya
was published by the secular Yiddish Kultur Lige in Kiev, which promoted the flourishing of Jewish culture after the
defeat of Tsarist oppression.
Lissitzky’s prints are infused with Yiddish typography,
ethnographic shtetl imagery, architectural elements,
and the Russian Suprematist abstraction of his Proun
paintings, reflecting the work of his contemporaries,
Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. Stella was
profoundly inspired by Lissitzky’s simplistic, minimalist
narrative, spatial experimentation, and abstraction
through which he symbolically expressed the victory
of freedom over persecution as a consequence of the
Russian Revolution of 1917. It was one of the first
Russian avant-garde works to be condemned and
destroyed during the Stalin regime and only a few
copies survive.
Lissitzky’s works spurred Stella to develop his own
language of narrative abstraction in sequential works,
each one building upon the imagery and structure
of its predecessor. Each stanza is conveyed by the
juxtaposition of architectonic elements, painterly
gestural drawing, vivid color, and motion-filled
Eliezer (El) Lissitzky, Had Gadya: Title Page,
The boy and goat’s intersecting faces
symbolically align their identities under
a rainbow denoting God’s presence.

forms projecting beyond boundaries. Stella employs a complex combination of printmaking techniques –
lithography, linoleum block, silkscreen, and rubber relief with collage elements and hand-coloring.
Stella’s forms are not literal depictions, but their narrative essence is transmitted through the dramatic,
dynamic repetition, collision, intersection, and aggressive movement through space of cylinders, cones,
grills, waves, and graffiti-like scrawls. These works also display the influences of the three-dimensional
drawings in a 19th-century treatise on stonecutting given to him by art dealer John Kasmin, Fernand Leger’s
mechanical elements paintings, and the expressive movement of Caravaggio’s paintings, which he studied as
an artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1982-83.
Stella explained his interest in abstract minimalism and archetypal storytelling:
“Abstraction didn’t have to be limited to…rectilinear geometry or even a simple curve geometry. It
could have a geometry that had a narrative impact. In other words, you could tell a story with the
shapes….It wouldn’t be a literal story, but the shapes and the interaction of the shapes and colors
would give you a narrative sense.”
Taking two years to complete during 1982-1984, the prints were published by Waddington Graphics,
London, in 1984. After completing the edition, Stella created between two and nine variants of each of
the twelve Had Gadya illustrations. Stella’s Had Gadya represents a significant moment in his artistic
development, leading to further explorations of narrative subjects in his abstract work.
Had Gadya is not the first Jewish theme to be found in Stella’s art. Influenced by the Nazi propaganda
newsreels of his World War II childhood, his 1958-59 black pinstripe minimalist paintings were given
Holocaust-era titles – Arbeit Macht Frei (Auschwitz’s infamous signage), Reichstag (burned by the Nazis
in 1933), and Die Fahne Hoch (the Nazi party anthem), and in 1960 The Final Solution, whose cruciform
image evoked both the symbol of victimization and the truncated core of the swastika – images that he
repeated in prints created in 1967. In 1970, while undergoing a lengthy hospitalization, he began a three-year
process of producing drawings and over 130 three-dimensional mixed media paintings inspired by a book
of 40 photographs of 17th-19th-century Polish wooden synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust, given to
him by architect Richard Meier. These works, incorporating interlocking wooden elements alluding to the
synagogue craftsmen’s carpentry, were titled after their annihilated communities, thus commemorating, in
Stella’s words, “the obliteration of a culture.”
In his Had Gadya series, the abstracted narrative of successive episodes of strife, ultimately concluding with
redemption, offered Stella, a Catholic, the opportunity to express a universal, aspirational message of justice
in the face of destructive forces in the world. His Had Gadya series exerts a forceful impact, inspiring the
viewer to experience the power of good prevailing over evil, with hope to be found in the indestructible
human spirit.


Had Gadya is one of the earliest recorded songs for children. While its original purpose may simply have
been to engage sleepy children at the end of the long Passover seder, its bold theology builds upon the
Prophet Isaiah’s vision of God’s ultimate triumph over Death. The earliest known version of Had Gadya dates
to a 14th-century Provence prayer book. The expulsion of the Jews from France brought the song to Eastern
Europe. It appears in Aramaic and medieval Yiddish in a manuscript page attached to the Prague Haggadah
of 1526 and first appears in print in the Prague Haggadah of 1590.
Rabbis and scholars, historians, and ethnomusicologists have all debated the mysterious lyrics of a liturgical
poem about one little goat, which catalyzes a chain reaction whose ripples extend to heaven.

Some view Had Gadya as a political parable about the nations that rose against the Jewish people throughout history.
Others see a metaphoric reminder of our essential interconnectedness. An injury to one becomes, with time, an
injury to all.
Rabbi Neil Gillman, z”l, the author of Death of Death, posits that Had Gadya is a folk midrash on Isaiah’s prophetic
declaration on the day of redemption: “God will destroy death forever and wipe away the tears from all faces.” (Isaiah
25:8) On Passover, the holiday of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery, it is fitting to imagine God’s ultimate triumph
even over the personified force of death itself.


What can we glean from Stella’s vibrant, abstract renderings of this surprisingly profound Passover song? Why revisit
this series now? One answer emerges from a modern, poetic midrash offered by novelists Jonathan Safran Foer and
Nathan Englander in their collaborative project, The New American Haggadah. They imagine a group of students
staying up all night immersed in the intricacies of the Passover Seder, the festive meal during which the Haggadah
account of redemption from slavery is read. As dawn breaks, they discover their rabbi in tears and crying out: “But
what about the goat? Who speaks for the one who suffers?”
Suffering is all around us right now. After years of the pandemic, we have suffered losses, great and small – from
milestones delayed and families kept apart, to grief for millions of friends, relatives, and neighbors struck down by
this modern plague. Like the snowballing tragedy of Had Gadya, these past years have been compounded by floods
and fires, political upheaval, wars and refugees seeking safe haven, racist violence, and increasing antisemitism.
Had Gadya calls our attention to suffering, but it also offers a radical vision of hope. Death does not win in the end.
The Angel of Death does not carry the day and, in fact, is destroyed forever. All is not lost. As Rabbi Richard Levy, z”l,
taught his students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the root of creation is the transformation of
the primordial chaos, tohu va’vohu, into beautiful cosmos. Had Gadya beckons us to imagine a better future.


Frank Stella (b. 1936) grew up in Massachusetts. The first paintbrush he held in his hand was when he assisted his
house painter father. As a college student, he befriended studio artists while studying history at Princeton. He moved
to New York City in 1958 to pursue his art.
Stella was only 23 when his “Black Paintings” were included in a 1959 group show at the Museum of Modern Art
(MoMA). Combining house paint and house painting brushes with exposed canvas, Stella drew on his personal
experience to emphasize the surface depth with an emphasis on stark minimalism. With Abstract Expressionism still
dominating the art world, Stella’s early works were some of the first to begin the Minimalist movement of the 1960s,
establishing him as the pioneer he remains to this day.
By the end of the 1960s, Stella moved from flat surfaces to constructions of felt, paper, and wood. By 1970, when he
was 33, Stella became the youngest artist to have a retrospective exhibition at MoMA. In the early 1970s, inspired
by the architecture of the Polish wooden synagogues destroyed by the Nazis, his work evolved from his iconic
linear paintings to irregularly shaped canvases. He went on to create his Had Gadya series, exploring non-figurative
language used for narrative purposes and employing multiple printmaking techniques. Since 2010, he has created
computer-generated star-shaped sculptures, with his monumental Jasper’s Split Star (2017) recently installed at the
World Trade Center in 2021. He is still working in his New York studio.

One small goat papa bought for two zuzim
52¼” x 51¼”

Color keys match the Yiddish text in the
architectural frame with their images, while
God’s rainbow appears above the shtetl setting.

A hungry cat ate up the goat
45 ¼” x 52 ⅜”

God’s watchful eye appears above
the red cat that ate the goat amid
abstracted space.

Then came a dog and bit the cat
45 ¼” x 52 ⅜”

The dog’s jagged teeth that ate the cat are
echoed by the hills framing the scene.

Then came a stick and beat the dog
53 ½” x 52 ¾”

A shtetl figure flees the violent
red stick beating the dog.

Then came a fire and burnt the stick
53 ½” x 52 ¾”

The red rooster (a Yiddish phrase for
arson) personifies the fire that burns
the stick and threatens the shtetl and its
synagogue, symbolizing the pogroms of
the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Then water came and quenched the fire
53 ⅞” x 51 ⅝”

A Leviathan-scaled fish spouts a
wave of water to quench the fire,
while a water-carrier watches.

Then came an ox and drank the water
53 ⅞” x 52 ⅜”

A circular eye in the abstracted hillside
watches the ox drinking the water.

The butcher came and slew the ox
56 ⅞” x 53 ₁⁄⁶”

The butcher tests his sharp blade as he
prepares to slaughter the ox.

Then came death and took the butcher
58 ⅝” x 47 ¼”

The sworded angel of death wears the tsar’s crown and the
butcher is laid out beneath a lit candle, traditionally set
out for the deceased, under a black archway in which the
Yiddish inscription now appears in white.

And the Holy One, blessed be He, came
and smote the Angel of Death
50 ¾” x 41 ⅛”

The goat and boy look up in wonder as God’s eye and the Soviet
stamp-inspired hand with sword hover over the skeletal crowned
angel of death, flanked by the Hebrew initials for Lissitzky (on left)
and “here lies” on the right.


Had Gadya, Had Gadya, that father bought for two zuzim, Had Gadya, Had Gadya
The came a cat and ate the goat, that father bought for two zuzim, Had Gadya, Had Gadya
Then came a dog and bit the cat, that ate the goat, that father bought for two zuzim, Had Gadya, Had
Then came a stick and beat the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the goat, that father bought for two zuzim,
Had Gadya, Had Gadya
Then came the fire and burnt the stick, that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the goat, that father
bought for two zuzim, Had Gadya, Had Gadya
Then came the water and quenched the fire, that burnt the stick, that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that
ate the goat, that father bought for two zuzim, Had Gadya, Had Gadya
Then came the ox and drank the water, that quenched the fire, that burnt the stick, that beat the dog,
that bit the cat, that ate the goat, that father bought for two zuzim, Had Gadya, Had Gadya
Then came the butcher and slaughtered the ox, that drank the water, that quenched the fire, that burnt
the stick, that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the goat, that father bought for two zuzim, Had
Gadya, Had Gadya
Then came the Angel of Death and killed the butcher, that slaughtered the ox, that drank the water, that
quenched the fire, that burnt the stick, that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the goat, that father
bought for two zuzim, Had Gadya, Had Gadya
Then came the Holy One, Blessed be He and slew the Angel of Death, that killed the butcher, that
slaughtered the ox, that drank the water, that quenched the fire, that burnt the stick, that beat the dog,
that bit the cat, that ate the goat, that father bought for two zuzim, Had Gadya, Had Gadya.

Lissitzky’s inventive typography is seen in the ten Yiddish verses, each
connected by the tumbling repetition of the refrain das tsigele (the goat) in the
margins and joined around a circle at the bottom.

The interior dust jacket’s geometric abstraction exemplifies Lissitzky’s Proun (the Russian acronym for
Project for the Affirmation of the New) works, merging Suprematist forms and Constructivist architecture,
and evokes the forward stride of Soviet poster imagery, with the Hebrew inscription of God’s name on the
top left denoting God’s presence, the Hebrew first and last letters of Lissitzky’s name on the top right, and
the Kultur Lige publisher in Yiddish in the lower circle.