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Critic's notebook: Put yourself in the story of Passover by exploring text of Haggadah

By Edward Rothstein

New York Times News Service

Published: Sunday, April 17 2011 6:17 p.m. MDT

Though only read once or twice a year, it is has probably had more wine spilled on it than any other book ever published. Over the centuries, it has been paraphrased, abridged, translated, transliterated and transformed. It has been sung, chanted, illustrated and supplanted. And in 5,000 or so editions since the invention of the printing press, it has invoked ancient Egypt, Eldridge Cleaver, third-century rabbis, the invention of the sandwich, sixth-century Palestinian poetry, the Holocaust, the ancient Greek symposium, unleavened bread, homosexuality, temple sacrifices, bitter herbs, the civil rights movement and children's counting songs.

As Jews begin the celebration of Passover on Monday with the ceremonial Seder meal — and according to a recent survey, 79 percent of U.S. Jews observe this occasion — the Aramaic and Hebrew text known as the Haggadah will be their guide.

It was compiled not for communal worship but for the home, and despite its variants, its basic structure has remained relatively unchanged since the 13th century. Using Talmudic excerpts, biblical citations, songs, liturgical prayers and folk material, it commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

It began to coalesce in the centuries following the destruction of Jerusalem's temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, becoming a freestanding book in perhaps the 13th century. In recent decades, the Haggadah has also been used as a mold into which celebrants have inserted their own tales of liberation, generalizing Passover's preoccupations and giving the book almost as much metaphorical reach as the Exodus itself.

The Haggadah, though, is so peculiar a text that it may be both less than is usually thought and also much more. Strangeness is part of its power. To make any sense of it, one must first see just how strange it really is.

Consider a Haggadah manuscript from 1478 on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through June 26. Known as the Washington Haggadah, it is the first of a series of loans of medieval illuminated Jewish manuscripts by the Library of Congress. Signed by the scribe Joel ben Simeon, who worked in Italy and Germany, it is open to a single set of pages, which will be turned at the beginning of each month. Harvard University Press has published a facsimile along with a fine introduction (and translation) by David Stern and a survey of ben Simeon's use of imagery by Katrin Kogman-Appel.

In addition, Abrams has just published a version of the Haggadah with 20th-century illustrations by the Polish artist Arthur Szyk, who created it in the mid-1930s, in the shadow of Nazism.

Let's begin with ben Simeon's. Before printing, such manuscripts were commissioned by wealthy families. Here the patron is unnamed and the illustrations sparse, but the effect is remarkable. The images in vivid tempera and gold on parchment have a seemingly naive charm, as if they recorded the scribe's personal associations with the text. We don't see elaborate historical illustrations or ceremonial displays. Most images, set in the margins, are informal domestic scenes: a servant using bellows on a fire, a man pouring goblets of wine.

These are not calculated to inspire devotion. The page now open at the Met shows two finely dressed women working over a pan of broth; one, holding a cup of it aloft with a look of fear and disgust, hesitantly offers it to a man slowly turning a spit on which a rack of lamb is cooking over an open hearth. But he has no need of broth. He is drinking from a full goblet of bright red wine; he already seems a little dazed, his eyes half-closed. He is a vagabond, his green robe is in tatters and two goiters protrude from his neck: "an iconographic sign of deprivation," Kogman-Appel explains.

The Haggadah includes a statement, "Let anyone who is hungry come and eat," and it is considered an obligation to feed the poor and invite all to join in a Seder. Clearly something like that is happening here. But the artist is not idealizing the gesture. Without diminishing the text or the act of charity, he is insisting on the difficulty of both.

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