Master of Hebrew calligraphy Michel Schwartz, who was cherished for his big heart as much as for his creative art, passed away at the age of 85. His work adorned the walls and tables of Israeli presidents and prime ministers, but for Schwartz, whose biggest projects included illustrating promotional and educational materials on behalf of the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, the greatest honor was to ignite another Jew’s interest in Judaism.
“He was a warm, wonderful farbrente yid,” said Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman, using a Yiddish expression to characterize Schwartz’s fiery love for Judaism. “He understood the beauty of Judaism and was able to express [it] through his art.”
Born in Catskill, N.Y., in 1926, Schwartz’s artistic talent was recognized early on.
“I cannot clearly remember the first time I was given, or used, a pencil or crayon,” he wrote in his autobiography, “It probably goes back to when I was two or three years old. I also remember my older sister advising me to copy ‘Dick Tracy’ from the Sunday comic pages of the Daily News, so that I would learn how to draw faces and figures of people.”
At the age of 13, he enrolled in the New York School of Art and Design alongside his studies at the Chabad-Lubavitch school in Brooklyn.
It was at the yeshiva that Schwartz was commissioned to compose his first work of art for Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Chabad-Lubavitch’s educational arm, in 1941. The newly-arrived son-in-law of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory – the future Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory – looked to Schwartz to work on new initiatives and Jewish educational art.
As the Sixth Rebbe’s appointed director of the educational arm, the future Rebbe’s responsibilities included publishing a monthly magazine of Jewish content in both Yiddish and English. His work with Schwartz left an indelible impression on the young artist, whose respect for Lubavitch teachings was expressed in his art throughout his career.
“Perhaps the most profound influence on my career as an artist, and I never fail to acknowledge this most reverently, was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” Schwartz wrote. “Not only did the Rebbe encourage my work; he gave me much valuable guidance, and instruction in Jewish law as it pertains to visual graphics.”
The future Rebbe and Schwartz collaborated on a comic feature that appeared in each magazine, which the Rebbe envisioned as one way to reach young American Jewish kids. At one point, he told Schwartz that “it should look like Ripley,” referring to the work of cartoonist and entrepreneur Robert Ripley, while on another occasion, he said that the feature should have the look of the Dick Tracy series.
Schwartz would later illustrate books and comic newsletters for the Jewish Release Time program in which public school children in New York would spend an hour learning about Judaism off of their school grounds.
Once he graduated from art school, Schwartz became a well-known graphic designer, working for such marquee names as Coca-Cola, Ford Motors, Johnson & Johnson, and Avon. In a 1970 feature, Fortune magazine called the artist “a visionary of unobstructed and unparalleled foresight.”
After retiring from his commercial advertising company, Schwartz continued to design art and logos for several Chabad-Lubavitch organizations. Inspired by working with Hebrew letters, he devoted much more of his time to Jewish art. He created his own, unique alphabet of Hebrew letters which he coined Calli-Graphic Judaica. He used modern, colorful letters to depict writings from Jewish texts in an artistically contemporary way, never seen before or since.
His style was in keeping with advice an art teacher once gave him.
“Michel, if you ever decide to become a fine artist, regardless of the subject matter, develop something unique, something that will immediately be recognizable, so that people will say, ‘That’s a Michel!’ ” Schwartz recalled his teacher telling him.
Responding to his art, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin extolled the virtues of the Hebrew letters in his correspondence with Schwartz.
“The letters of our alphabet,” Begin wrote, “molded generations of our people. What sacrifices even the poorest among us made so that their children should learn the alphabet and achieve distinction in their education!
“Your beautiful work depicting the Alef Bet and celebrating it is, in fact, a call for Jewish knowledge,” Begin continued, “Jewish education and Jewish heritage that will be passed on from generation to generation.”