For those who believe couplings can be bashert, it would seem that New York artist and illustrator Mark Podwal was predestined to depict Prague’s Jewish relics in his ethereal drawings and paintings. The city captivated him as a teenager growing up in Queens in the 1950s, from the moment he stumbled upon a photo of the statue of Rabbi Judah Loew that adorns Prague’s City Hall. Numerous legends swirl around the 16th-century rabbi, known as the Maharal, none more famous than how he created a golem of clay to protect Prague’s Jewish citizens by inscribing the Hebrew word emet (truth) on its forehead but then destroyed it by scratching off the first letter, to read met (dead), halting its violent rampage.
When Podwal collaborated with Elie Wiesel on a book about the golem in 1983, his fascination with the city grew, but Communist rule made it inaccessible. It wasn’t until 1996 that he paid his first visit, in advance of “Jewish Dreams,” an exhibition at the local Jewish museum featuring 61 fantastical works he created in loving tribute to the city’s rich Jewish history and folklore. He has since returned more than a dozen times and now has a designated seat in the Altneuschul, or Old-New Synagogue, where the Maharal presided, and the current chief rabbi fondly refers to him as “one of the locals.”
Jewish imagery has dominated Podwal’s ink, pencil, gouache, acrylic, and watercolor works on paper, and he has done numerous Judaic commissions, from an Aubusson tapestry for Temple Emanu-El in New York to a Passover seder plate that is a best-seller in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift shop. But Prague is central to his art.
This love affair with the city will be in full bloom come April 6, when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishes Podwal’s 12th children’s book, Built by Angels, which recounts various legends surrounding the Altneuschul—the oldest still-operational synagogue in the world—the same day that New York’s PBS affiliate is broadcasting House of Life, a film Podwal wrote and produced (in collaboration with award-winning classical music documentarian Allan Miller) on the storied history of the cemetery that sits behind it. Despite the inherent distinctions between the two genres, both works meld architecture and metaphysics, history and legend, into moving portraits of the Jewish experience that are elegiac but ultimately triumphant.
As its title suggests, Built by Angels attributes the creation of the Old-New Synagogue to celestial agents, who constructed it with stones from the Temple in Jerusalem. The angels decreed that the stones were to be returned when the Temple was restored. (One explanation for the Alteneuschul’s name attributes its roots to the Hebrew al tenai, or “on condition.”) Distinguished by its complex subject and Podwal’s skilled, magical tableaux, it is hardly a typical children’s book, and yet it still skirts the city’s darkest chapters. We are told that “whenever flames threatened,” the beating wings of white doves “blew out the blaze,” without mention that pogroms were as great a threat as natural disaster. Similarly, a reference to the golem who is “still locked in the attic” and “must not be disturbed” overlooks that he was activated to defend against anti-Semitic attacks. Rather, it finishes with the hopeful prayer still emanating from the synagogue: “Next year in Jerusalem!”
House of Life is similarly redemptive, highlighting the conservators who piece together tombstone fragments so epitaphs can be legible once more. It is at its most powerful when resurrecting ancestral ghosts among the 100,000 that some estimate are buried in layers beneath the surface. After a guide points out the oldest of the 12,000 tombstones, belonging to Avigdor Kara, one of the few survivors of the infamous 1389 pogrom, the film’s narrator reads an excerpt from the elegy he wrote at the time that is still recited in the Altneuschul every Yom Kippur. Fact and fable often collide, as in a reenactment of the Maharal’s meeting with Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II on the Charles Bridge in 1583 in order to convince him to repeal an anti-Jewish edict. As legend has it, when mud and stones were thrown at the Maharal by the mob, they turned into flowers.
It is just this sort of “history”—tradition as delivered through fanciful tales—that seems to appeal most to Podwal. This, more than a simple love of Prague, is what ties the film to his broader body of work, an oeuvre rich in both kabbalistic symbolism—from the hamsah, an upturned palm meant to ward off the evil eye, to diagrams on the levels of God’s divinity—and surreal elements: flying Hebrew letters, books growing from trees, fruit forming constellations.
This embrace of Jewish mysticism is somewhat surprising given Podwal’s secular upbringing, not to mention his formal training as a physician. After a religious awakening of sorts at a Jewish summer camp, he attended Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed, though he never became observant. Still, he takes delight in his heritage and sees the Zohar, the principal text of the kabbalists, as a great source of visual inspiration.
At NYU Medical School, Podwal was drawn to dermatology because it was also a visual specialty and would leave time for his drawing. During his internship, in 1971, he published his first book, The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, which is made up of political drawings inspired by the upheaval of the 1960s. That brought him to the attention of The New York Times, which, in 1972, ran the first of what would be his many contributions, an illustration based on the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. The leap to children’s books in the 1990s marked a shift from black and white to color, though he has continued to make ink drawings for nonfiction books like Harold Bloom’s Fallen Angelsand his own Doctored Drawings, both from 2007.
While Podwal has achieved recognition as a fine and graphic artist, he still maintains his successful Upper East Side medical practice, which has caused Cynthia Ozick to marvel at his ability to be “scientist and dreamer both.” This double life not only imbues him with a unique sensibility, but affords the financial freedom to ignore the advice a prominent, well-meaning curator gave him as his artistic career was taking off to “get out of his Jewish rut.” We, in turn, can accompany Podwal on his mystic journey. For as his repeat-collaborator-turned-friend, Elie Wiesel, astutely observed in the catalogue for “Jewish Dreams,” with his strange but familiar storytelling, Podwal stirs “recollections which without your being aware are part of your collective memory.”
Jeannie Rosenfeld, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes about fine and decorative art.