Friday, April 15, 2016

An Exhibit of Haggadot in Jerusalem: Our National Past and Future

If you suddenly found yourself stuck on in a foreign country and a business trip with Pesach approaching, what would you do? You'd probably seek out the local Chabad, and that would be that. But what if you lived hundreds of years ago, before Chabad? Aside from the basic needs of matzah, wine and maror, where would you find a Haggadah to celebrate the night of the Seder?

This isn't a new problem at all. In fact, Jews throughout history found themselves in need of a copy of the Hagadah text for family use. While most communities could rely on the communal Siddur for prayer in shul, we conduct the Seder home, necessitating a copy of the text available to every household. This resulted in an unusual plethora of texts of the Haggadah, offering a fascinating view of Jewish history though these amazing book.

The Gallery on the Library Website
A Facebook post from my friend Dr. Yoel Finkelman (whose ridiculously cool job involves buying historical Jewish artifacts for the Library) shared information about a new exhibit at the National Library of Israel (neatly tucked into the Hebrew University Campus in Jerusalem) displaying a series of handwritten Haggadot that span some eight-hundred years of history. Rena and I decided last Friday to visit, and we were quite glad that we went.

When we first got there, the room was locked (I guess no one had asked to get in. But, to our pleasant surprise, the librarian on duty was great; she found the person who had the authority to tell the security guard to open the exhibit space, and we were in. She also gave us a nifty full color guide of the exhibit, bookmarks, a brochure about the library and its 1960s exhibit upstairs (which we went to see), and even emailed me a virtual tour of the Hebrew U. campus!

The space of the exhibit is actually a small room which you can peruse slowly in half an hour. And, in truth, you can see pictures of the Haggadot on the exhibition website, which is well done. Nonetheless, in person you can better see the little hand-written drawings that were drawn usually by artists, but sometimes by an amateur, which add much color and character to each Haggadah. Even more importantly, there is something incredibly powerful about being in a room with Haggadot that were hand-written literally around the world over the course of centuries, from the Cairo Geniza all the way to a 1942 hand-written personal Haggadah written in Mozambique by a family fleeing from Belgium during the Holocaust. While we couldn't actually touch them, their physical presence conveyed a tangible sense of living history.

The Really Nifty Exhibit Brochure - for Absolutely Free!
If the Hagaddah is the story of Jewish redemption, the story of these books is the tale of our national travails around the world, as the People of Israel fled from way station to way station, searching for peace and stability, while yearning truly to reach the final destination of our exile in the Land of Israel.  At every stop we celebrated our past and future redemption. And if we lacked a text, we either hired a professional or wrote one ourselves by hand.

Looking at this small collection of books, I couldn't help but think of them as clues in a centuries-long search for Home. Standing over the display cases in that tiny room in Jerusalem, I found myself feeling a sense of closure: these books, that had for so long guided our people on a path towards Redemption, had finally made their way to the rebuilt State of Israel. As they rest in the National Library of the Jewish State, they remind us not only of the many places and eras that came before us. They also remind us of the many centuries of yearning and prayer - of reciting the blessing at the conclusion of Maggid of which begins with the words, אשר גאלנו וגאל את אבותנו - "that God has redeemed us and our forefathers"...but then adds, "כֵּן ה' אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ יַגִּיעֵנוּ לְמועֲדִים וְלִרְגָלִים אֲחֵרִים הַבָּאִים לִקְרָאתֵנוּ לְשָׁלום, שְׂמֵחִים בְּבִנְיַן עִירֶךָ וְשָׂשִׂים בַּעֲבודָתֶךָ" - "So too Lord our God and the God of our fathers shall bring us to additional holidays and festivals that will come upon us in peace, joyous about the building of Your city and rejoicing in Your worship..."

This blessing was recited over the Haggadot in the exhibit and many thousands like them around a table of Jews - sometimes small, sometimes large - who actually can ever know - but those families throughout the ages always expressed a yearning and a hope for a future of Redemption, rebuilding and renewal. While the individuals around those tables may not be here, their Haggadot remind us that their dreams and prayers and yearning propelled our people to rebuild, reconnect and renew.

We have yet to arrive at the realization of the final stage of the blessing: וְנאכַל שָׁם מִן הַזְּבָחִים וּמִן הַפְּסָחִים אֲשֶׁר יַגִּיעַ דָּמָם עַל קִיר מִזְבַּחֲךָ לְרָצון - "and we will eat there from the offerings and the Paschal lambs whose blood reached the walls of your altar according to your desire..." Not yet at least. Still, hidden in those Haggadot is the reassurance and the knowledge that the Jewish Nation will fully realize the truth of the Haggadah, if not this year, then Next Year in Jerusalem.