Graphic and sometimes surreal, artist Ilene Winn-Lederer's illuminated Torah brings the Hebrew Bible to life. 

click to enlarge Unorthodox: Ilene Winn-Lederer envisions the lessons of Parashah Re'eh in contemporary terms.
  • Unorthodox: Ilene Winn-Lederer envisions the lessons of Parashah Re'eh in contemporary terms.

To the Hebrew school dropout, Ilene Winn-Lederer's Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary seems vaguely familiar. The bad Jew studies the illustrations with the odd sensation of having read these tales before, on a Sunday morning in the distant past. Yes, that must be Joseph in that fancy jacket, and his jealous brothers must really think it is amazing as they ravage the Technicolor outerwear. But were his brothers really the kind of four-headed beast more associated with Greco-Roman lore? 

Infusing pop culture and historic events that transpired in the millennia since the Torah was written, the Squirrel Hill-based illustrator depicts selected verses with surrealist imagery and anthropomorphism. Using a pen, a computer and a bit of Hieronymus Bosch, Winn-Lederer's book vividly depicts the Hebrew Bible, creating a child-friendly work that instills the lessons of the original text.

It's also designed to keep kids off bad art.

"I felt that with the exception of a few known personalities, Jewish art, especially in children's books, was just hideous," says Winn-Lederer, 62, interviewed in a living room adorned with framed copies of her spiritual illustrations. "Our children deserve better than what's out there. So I thought, 'Maybe there's something I can do about this.'"

Lacking a formal Hebrew education in her youth, Winn-Lederer began studying Judaism at age 18, just before she enrolled in the now-defunct Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. She has been an active illustrator ever since. Her drawings have been published internationally in children's books and Judaica, and even decorate a banner hanging over the swimming pool at Pittsburgh's Jewish Community Center.

Since her arrival here more than 30 years ago, she and her husband have raised two sons in the Conservative Judaism tradition. Their commitment to the faith is a primary motivation for creating the book.

In 1988, Winn-Lederer illustrated the invitations to her son's bar mitzvah. She created a tri-fold card that incorporated themes from his readings along with calligraphic text. She laughed off early suggestions that she illustrate the Torah. But after years of illustrating authors' words, Winn-Lederer finally decided to create a book illuminating the biblical passages that had the most profound visual effect.

Citing influences from Rembrandt to Moebius, Winn-Lederer blends ballpoint pen strokes and computer-generated blocks of solid color. It's a method she calls "tra-digital -- a hybrid of traditional drawing and digital media." 

Her Torah illustrations often weave in contemporary styles and characters, like the Goth chick with facial piercings and purple Bettie Page bangs noshing on a scorpion kabob. Winn-Lederer says the girl, along with her tattooed boyfriend on the adjoining page, illustrates the lessons of Parashah Re'eh about individual holiness in regards to body modification and food choices. In the background, a Holocaust victim leads a lamb on a leash, suggesting that one cannot disguise the Jewish spirit, even with dermal needlepoint or crustacean diets.

The book, published by Pomegranate, also includes extensive artist's notes on the Torah verses.

With its vibrant depictions of brutal biblical passages, like Dinah kneeling in the blood of her vanquished rapists, Between Heaven & Earth is a fascinating introduction for Torah neophytes, and a welcome reminder for lapsed Jews.

"I wanted to do this book because when I went to shul, I was bored to death," Winn-Lederer says. "I didn't understand, couldn't fathom the language, I just didn't get it. And so I said, 'I want to come up with something that would help me learn.'"



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