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

The illustration is placed on a page where a well-known Seder song, "Dayenu," appears. (It translates as "It would have been sufficient.") But the animal on the spit is clearly meant to illustrate the Paschal lamb, one of the Seder's three central symbols. That subject isn't reached until the last line of the next page. Is this a deliberate misplacement Or is the illustration doubling as commentary on the song's subject of sufficient assistance

The illustrations of other central symbols are even more unsettling. Adjacent to a paragraph explaining the importance of matzo, ben Simeon shows a grim yellow chimp, shaking a tambourine that appears to be ... a matzo!

Since these illustrations accompany rabbinical commentary, their invocations of the grotesque seem almost mischievous. But it happens repeatedly, as if the scribe were using his illustrative marginalia to show us something not about the text, but about the world within which its rituals are practiced. This is how we live, it seems to say, the context for our celebrations and aspirations.

The Met, probably inadvertently, makes this message even more compelling. The museum has selected medieval objects of daily life that seem to replicate those pictured in this Haggadah. These are not Judaica, but secular objects: goblets, pottery, pitchers, cloth. Here, slightly lopsided and flawed, is an early medieval glass goblet that resembles the one offered the vagrant. And mounted on the wall is a fragment of silk velvet made between 1500 and 1700 that seems to be taken from one of the two women's shirts.

The effect is uncanny. These common objects of prosperous medieval life are precisely the ones that would have been used in a Jewish household that might have commissioned such a Haggadah. The book, we are reminded, is not an accompaniment to something otherworldly. The Seder involves drinking, singing, discussing — all in a world filled with imperfections.

This also seems aligned with the Haggadah's specification that each person should look at the biblical story of liberation as a personal event: not just "you are there," but what happened there is about you. This is also a source of freewheeling analogy. If biblical liberation and my experience coincide, then the Seder is not about just the departure from Egypt, it is about my own trials.

And in the Haggadah's long history, such elaborations have been plentiful. A 1306 image of the parting of the Red Sea in the Harvard book portrays the pursuing Egyptians as metal-helmeted Germanic Crusaders, resembling the knights who, in the 12th century, had massacred entire communities of Jews in France and Germany.

Look, too, at the haunting illustrations Szyk (pronounced SHICK) created for his 1930s Haggadah in Lodz, Poland. Passover is meant to be celebratory. But Szyk's medievalesque figures are stern, fierce. The only smile is on the face of a simpleton. The effect is unsettling. Everybody still seems to be enslaved in Egypt, as Szyk himself metaphorically was, though his British publisher asked him to delete overt references to the Nazis. (Once he came to the United States, they became his main subject in nationally published political caricatures.)

In such cases, the Haggadah is generalized to encompass medieval massacres and Fascism, episodes in the Jewish historical experience. Analogies have also gone much further, incorporating both political parody and polemic. As Michael Medved recalls in Commentary, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, whose Freedom Seder was published by Ramparts in 1969, took radical countercultural politics as an analogy, even treating the 1968 black urban riots as forms of celebration and liberation.

So how flexible is the Haggadah Does it allow such analogies Here is where its peculiarities insist otherwise. If the Haggadah were just retelling the Exodus story, then analogies would be limited only by political or religious tastes. But it does something very different.

It sets things up by giving a central role to children who, near the start of the Seder, ask formal questions about why this night is different from all others. But the answer is cryptic: "Because we were slaves." And then we enter a whirlwind of rabbinic debate accompanied by song, prayer and ritual.

That miscellany from a millennium of traditions may be part of the answer. The Haggadah's power lies not just in what is said, but in what is shown. The story is not the key; how we treat it is. The Exodus story is analyzed, debated, invoked in symbol and ritual. It is freewheeling, but also highly structured. ("Seder" means order.) Laws and limits are not overturned, but are inseparable from liberation.

And in all of this we are not transported to another time and place or some sacred realm. We are always right there, sitting at the table, in the ordinary world, trying to make sense of the past and its connection to the present, acknowledging boundaries — even welcoming them — while celebrating freedom. This is what is necessary, the Haggadah seems to say, if you wish to treat this story as if it is happening to you. The text shows how a particular people, over centuries, labored to recall, commemorate and praise, and wrestled over meanings and observances.

Liberation, the Haggadah seems to say, is not the only thing that is hard won; so are ritual and memory.

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