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Freedom Tales

The Four Sons, Szyk Haggadah, 1934.

An enslaved people, brutalized, voiceless except for groans and cries, comes into possession of a voice of their own: no wonder the tale itself sometimes seems to embody the whole meaning of the Exodus. The seder, the ritual centerpiece of Passover, is scripted and choreographed by the Haggadah—literally, the telling.  This text, originating in the bits of Scripture that accompanied the paschal sacrifice in Temple times, and developing over the centuries, is perhaps the most ubiquitous Jewish book after the Bible.

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Master Illustrator  Eve M. Kahn, New York Times. A new, annotated edition of Arthur Szyk’s Haggadah brings back a long-neglected Jewish artist.

"In each and every generation," the Haggadah famously enjoins, "one is obligated to see oneself as if one had gone out of Egypt." In today's customized variants of the Passover tale, it is hard not to see ourselves, our tastes and our values, reflected back at us. Such reflections now also arrive through cyberspace, as in Projecting Freedom, a series of short films depicting elements of the seder and the Haggadah, or in a delightfully animated rendering of the Four Sons.  Yet the old printed—and scribal—words still hold their own, as is amply demonstrated by this year's crop of Haggadahs.

Among the most welcome is a beautifully illuminated medieval manuscript known as The Washington Haggadah, so called not because it graced the table of Thomas Jefferson, whose seven volumes of Hebraica were the first items of their kind in the Library of Congress, but because that great library is where it came to rest. The work was written in 1478 by Joel ben Simeon, a leading Hebrew scribe and illuminator—and, as David Stern and Katrin Kogman-Appel show in their own richly illuminating introductory essays, someone whom we would refer to today as a culture agent.

Born in Cologne in the 1420s, Joel ben Simeon moved back and forth among the Jewish centers of Germany and Italy, conveying and reworking the textual and artistic traditions of both sets of communities and their respective Ashkenazi and Sephardi forebears. His observations of these communities figure in his illustrations (here the Four Sons are a scholar, a knight, a man in worn clothing, and a jester), and he gives us the wealthy and well-fed alongside the outcasts and the poor.   

A different itinerant illustrator, much closer to our own time, was Arthur Szyk, a Polish-born artist who emigrated in 1940 to the U.S., where he died in 1951.  Szyk's non-Jewish work appeared in leading magazines. His Haggadah, first published in 1940, has now been reprinted with a new translation and editorial comments by Byron Sherwin and Irvin Ungar, fuller and more informative though less elegant and evocative than those in the earlier edition, which were written by the Anglo-Jewish historian and essayist Cecil Roth.

Szyk's illustrations mix archaism and historical romance with pointed contemporaneity. (His Wicked Son is a corpulent Tyrolean prig who sports a Hitler moustache.) His style is highly decorative and extensively detailed, almost too figurative in its avoidance of abstraction.  This visual explicitness may not be to everyone's taste, but it powerfully advances what Szyk means to say. Executed on the cusp of the Holocaust, his Haggadah breathes a furious anger as well as ferocious love for the Jewish people and their history. His art seems at times a visual correlative of the poetry of Uri Zvi Greenberg; aesthetics aside, both exude a raw intensity that still has the power to jolt.

How far away from all this does today's America appear. Just how far, one can see in Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families, coauthored by the well-known journalists Cokie and Steve Roberts. Their Haggadah, an instant best-seller, is the fruit of a decades-long effort to fashion a seder in the authors' home that, despite their separate religious backgrounds, would reflect their shared attachment to each other and to "our traditions, families, histories." While the resultant Haggadah is far from Orthodox, it is in fact strikingly traditional in its structure and in many of its textual choices. Understandably, some of the Haggadah's harsher comments about Gentiles are missing, while the overall Passover message has been shaped by themes—liberation from slavery, concern for social justice—that will be deeply familiar to American Jews.

One does not want to be churlish in criticizing a volume that is so obviously a product of good faith and genuine love between two people. Still, the very notion of an intermarried seder hardly fits in any obvious way with what is perhaps Passover's governing idea: the creation of the Jewish people. One cannot help wondering whether this kind of Haggadah can sustain itself over time or anywhere outside the American ethos, which seems to be the real faith anchoring the Roberts family. And what, over time, will become of the faith of Christian spouses? What central messages of their own will they feel the need to omit from their Christmases and Easters?

Of course one need not be intermarried to want to make the Haggadah one's own. It is, after all, a troubling text in many ways; its own editorial choices are far from obvious, and its relation to the rabbinic canon as a whole is not always clear. And so especially welcome is the wonderful new A Passover Haggadah: Go Forth and Learn, based on decades of classes on the Haggadah and its underlying biblical texts by David Silber, founder of the Drisha Institute, a pioneering center of Talmud study for women. Beautifully edited and integrated by Rachel Furst, a young scholar of medieval Jewish law, the work brims with arresting insights and provocative formulations.

Silber shows that the tale and the telling really are the essence of the Exodus, since only those who were not in Egypt can understand its meaning in the fullness of time and in freedom. Yet that freedom is covenantal, and its essence resides in accepting that one is part of a longer history, a history that lies behind and beyond the horizons of one's own life. This acceptance of covenant, of the commitment to walk along a path whose future we cannot see, with all its travails and its redemptions, is perhaps the hardest demand of Passover. Compared with that, staying up late through the seder, or going without leaven for a week, is nothing.  

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