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.”

“Otiyot Machkimot,” a title indicating that “letters produce wisdom.”
Otiyot Machkimot,” a title indicating that “letters produce wisdom.”

Hebrew Letters

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.”

Schwartz used his art as a medium for transmitting Jewish traditions at the express request of the Rebbe, who wrote to him in a letter: “You should have growing [success] in utilizing your talents in the fullest measure, not only as a source of ample [livelihood], but also as a vehicle to promote” Judaism, Jewish teachings and Jewish observance.

Schwartz embraced the concept wholeheartedly.

“It is my view that artistic expression is the most important form of communication given by G‑d to mankind,” wrote the artist. “Jewish art in particular was a special gift He gave to our people and was meant to be a visual presence in our daily lives. It was meant to convey Jewish thoughts and commandments, as well as aid in the understanding and appreciation of the essence of Jewish culture, heritage and religious lifestyle.”

Schwartz’ repertoire spanned the gamut of media, and he created out of his unique Hebrew letters not just paintings, but sculptures, jewelry and Jewish ritual items.

“The letters were not the traditional letters. [They had] almost a flowery aspect to them,” said Joseph Fisch, a retired judge and former inspector general of New York, who commissioned Schwartz to create several ritual items, including a prayer shawl. “It was beautiful because of the shape he used. They look like flowery design, but only when you look closely, do you realize that they are words.”

One of the last works Schwartz worked on at the request of the Rebbe was a painting of what the world would look like when the redeemer known as the Moshiach would arrive. The piece, hanging today in the Jewish Children’s Museum in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, took him three years. He used some 300,000 letters to depict the scene.

“He made the Hebrew letters live,” said Foxman. “The words to him were very precious.”

Michel Schwartz was a successful advertising designer who worked for such top brands as Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson.
Michel Schwartz was a successful advertising designer who worked for such top brands as Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson.

A Huge Heart

Those who knew Schwartz noted that the beauty found in his art was also a key feature of his personality.

“He was an extremely good-hearted person,” said Rabbi Shalom Ber Baumgarten of the Jewish Children’s Museum, headquarters of the international Chabad-Lubavitch organization for youth Tzivos Hashem. “He would give his shirt for anybody who needed it.”

“He was always upbeat,” added Foxman. “He always saw the best [in others], and his optimism would always cheer you up. It was good to be with him. His joy and optimism were infectious.”

His son Lenny Schwartz remarked that to his father, “the word ‘impossible’ was not in the dictionary.”

“There was never an obstacle too great or a problem too confounding that would keep [my father] from pursuing his latest dream,” said the son. “It was his indefatigable attitude that made him who he was: Celebrate your successes and learn from your failures, but move on because life is short and there’s much to do.”

Schwartz considered his work on behalf of Tzivos Hashem, creating the organization’s classic logo, to be among his top accomplishments.

“The Tzivos Hashem emblem,” he wrote, “is the single most reproduced Jewish organizational symbol in history. Estimates run into the hundreds of millions over the years.

“When I consider the strides and accomplishments of this organization, my heart swells with pride, and I feel honored that I was called upon to become involved when the Rebbe first initiated his new idea of Tzivos Hashem.”

“He was always there to help us,” said Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson, executive director of Tzivos Hashem. “He was always available to us, opening his home to us and our initiatives at the spare of a moment.”

“He was inspiration to all who knew him,” echoed Fisch, “because he felt passionately about Judaism and [managed] to preserve Jewish traditions through his beautiful artwork.”