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Read This First, Then Get Brisket


The Passover Haggadah beyond Maxwell House

This Wednesday and Thursday night, Jews all over the world will sit down to dinner and read, earning that "people of the book" moniker all over again.Passover is celebrated by reading a haggadah, a small printed book or pamphlet, out loud, around the table. Each seder participant receives a copy, usually placed on top of their plate, as if teasing, "you have to read me first, then you get to eat!" Many Americans use an an inexpensively staple-bound pamphlet. Nothing fancy, just something that you can pick up eight, or 18 copies of, one for every diner.For decades, Maxwell House-yes, the coffee company-produced haggadot so popular they became ubiquitous amongst American Jewish families. Some quip the 70-year reign of the Maxwell House haggadah may be correlated with a parralel increase in interfaith marriages: those blue and white pamphlets made Passover tedious and bland for many American Jews. (I disagree: I kind of miss them….)Haggadah means "telling," and the book sets the order of the Passover seder. By reading the story of the Exodus aloud around the table, Jews fulfill our commandment to tell our sons about our liberation from slavery.The contents of the book are important, and, post-Maxwell House totalitarianism, they vary greatly. Different demoninations will use different ones, of course. New ones have cropped up to focus on new Jewish demographics, too: there are women's haggadot and ones for children. But all involve the group: even if the leader reads from a special version of the haggadah, the rest of the table will participate, reading portions aloud, asking the Four Questions, etc.Haggadot as promotional ploys are just one part of the long history of haggadot as physical objects. As many have learned by reading Geraldine Brooks' wonderful, bestselling novel, The People of The Book, the haggadah has a fascinating past. Brooks fictionalizes the historical story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautiful Medieval book that was hidden from the Nazi's by a Muslim scholar and rediscovered years later.The earliest discovered haggadah is part of another text, dating from the 10th century. The first stand-alone haggadot stem from the 13th and 14th centuries. One of the most beautiful ever produced is also one of the earliest, the "Golden Haggadah," probably produced in Barcelona in the 1320s. Luckily for us digital agers, we can all view this incredible work of art. The British Library has produced a facsimile, which you can access here (the site includes a great overview on Passover as well). Even better, if you go here, you can turn the virtual pages of this astounding object.Want to learn more? Impress your family on Wednesday night? Or, for you goyim readers, show up your Jewish friends? Order up a copy of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's Haggadah and History, a wonderful book that includes hundreds of illustrations of rare printed haggadot. Published in 1975, Haggadah and History was nominated for a Pulitzer and remains a fantastic introduction to the history and art of haggadot.Now that your haggadah reading is over, time to eat! Try to find something without leavening, and happy Passover to all.Thanks to Erik Inglis, Associate Professor of Art History, and Abe Socher, Associate Professor of Religion and Jewish Studies, both of Oberlin College, for help with research.

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