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The Story of Redemption

January 25, 2010 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

Every Passover, publishers unveil a string of the "newest" Haggadot, most of them capitalizing on a current societal trend that seeks to make the ancient book "more relevant" for a contemporary audience -- or, at the very least, more accessible. Over the last half-century or so, there have been Haggadot geared to the traditional family, the interfaith family, to women, and to gays and lesbians; there's been a holistic Haggadah, one with a Kabbalistic twist, and another that insists it's interactive (an odd angle, since the original is probably as interactive as you can get). Any issue or cause that you might name has been utilized as the basis for a Haggadah -- or, likely, is about to be.

But this season, Harvard University Press, instead of trying to tap into the zeitgeist, has teamed up with the Library of Congress to produce The Washington Haggadah (named in honor of the original codex's current residence in our nation's capital). The title is a recent one, explains Philadelphia's own David Stern, a respected scholar and a longtime associate professor of postbiblical and medieval Hebrew literature at the University of Pennsylvania. In one of two lengthy introductions that precede the facsimile pages of the Haggadah -- the other is written by Katrin Kogman-Appel, an associate professor of art at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev -- Stern describes the codex's long journey to the Library of Congress's Hebraic section.

The Haggadah was written in early 1478, notes Stern, by an important and prolific scribe and illustrator, Joel ben Simeon. This "unusually well preserved and beautifully illustrated Haggadah," Stern continues, offers a rare window into the world of the Jews of late 15th-century Europe.

According to the scholar, the work also exemplifies how Jewish books existed in a more general sense. Written in Germany, the Haggadah then moved on to Italy, passing through the hands of numerous owners. It was sent to America in the earlier years of the 20th century by a book dealer, the recipient being Judge Mayer Sulzberger who resided here in Philadelphia (he ended up not purchasing the work, which had an asking price of $500). It remained with the book dealer for a time, then was sold to a famous collector, Ephraim Deinard, whose nearly 20,000 books and pamphlets were eventually sold, in various stages, to the Library of Congress between 1912 and 1919.

In Stern's estimation, since Jewish printing began in the late 15th century, more than 4,000 editions of the Haggadah have been printed, many during the last century, and these variations on the text help chart the many transformations in modern Judaism. Yet before the appearance of the printing press, a variety of Haggadot existed in manuscript form -- that is, written by hand -- by craftspeople like Joel.

According to Stern, the Haggadah holds a special place in the history of Jewish books because "it is the classic Jewish text devoted to the idea of redemption. In the classical period, this idea was closely associated with the traditional messianic hope; in modern times, it has become a cipher for every conceivable type of religious, ideological, political, and sexual liberation."

In whatever period, the scholar argues, the most striking feature of the Haggadah is that it "intertwines the dream of future redemption with the memory of the past (specifically of Israel's enslavement in Egypt and miraculous liberation) and collapses past and future into a present that invariably has been colored by the diasporic culture in which the specific Haggadah has been produced. The history of the Haggadah, as a text and as a book, can be charted, virtually step-by-step, as its Jewish producers have moved deeper and deeper, as it were, into their various Diasporas and places of geographical and historical exile -- from Roman Palestine to Parthian Babylonia, from Babylonia to the European centers of Ashkenaz and Sepharad, and from those centers to all the later homes of Jews in North Africa, Arabia, Eastern Europe, the Americas, and finally, to the State of Israel. As we follow these journeys, we see how closely linked in the Jewish experience are exile and redemption; the imagining of the latter is inevitably shaped by the experience of the former. It is this linkage that most profoundly informs the Haggadah's history."

Adopted New Motifs

As for the creator of the Washington Haggadah, he was both a scribe and an artist, which Sterns insists, was "an unconventional combination at the time." There are 10 manuscripts that Joel ben Simeon actually signed, and between four and nine others that a number of scholars have attributed to him.

Born in Cologne in the early 1420s, his full name was Joel Feibus ben Simeon. He led a peripatetic life, spurred on by the prejudice and restrictions of the times he lived through. When the Jews were expelled from Cologne in 1424, Joel's family moved to Bonn, where he was raised. Some scholars think he began to travel as an itinerant scribe. After being expelled, this time from Bonn, he left Germany for northern Italy and appears to have remained there for the next 30 or 40 years.

Stern, borrowing a point from Katrin Kogman-Appel's introduction, which assesses the art in the Washington Haggadah, states that Joel's travels between Germany and Italy distinctly affected his artistic style.

"He always remained an Ashkenazic scribe, as is evident in his script," writes the scholar. "Yet while his unframed marginal drawings retained much flatness and two-dimensionality of the spared-ground technique typical of German illustration, he nonetheless absorbed the Italian feeling for depth and detail that is most evident in some of his more ambitious drawings (which, in general, are found less in the Washington Haggadah than in other manuscripts, like the London Haggadah). At the same time he also adopted new motifs that he encountered in Italy, some of which had been previously introduced by Spanish Haggadah manuscripts. In this way, Joel was an active agent of cultural exchange by bringing these influences back to the Haggadot and other works he composed in Germany."

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