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

Published: Sunday, April 17 2011 5:00 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.

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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