Pesach is approaching, so it is appropriate to write about a Haggadah. This book, a historical collection of texts celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt, has been the repository of Jewish art and craft throughout the centuries – at least as early as the Middle Ages and proliferating to the present day. Haggadot have been a focus for many Judaica collectors, and many publications have been devoted to it. I will not add any additional discussion to these publications; I want only to describe two contemporary, unique haggadot that we own; one is available on our web site, the other is in our personal collection.
When Reuven Benaja retired from teaching, he turned his attentions to illuminated manuscripts. He was fortunate to be living in Siena, Italy; the Piccolomini Library is located in the city’s main Cathedral (Tempio Maggiore); and close to Siena is the library in the Benedictine monastery of Monte Oliveto. Both libraries have outstanding collections of 15th century illuminated choir books. Also in this center of illuminated Renaissance manuscripts is the Siena Art Institute. It offers coursework in the book arts, one of which is on Book Resoration. In this environment Benaja learned the techniques with which he fashioned his own Jewish illuminations. But more than the techniques, he also acquired the style of the High Renaissance – the colors, the clothes he provided his figures, and the mythical creatures that also occur in his art. There is additional information about him on our site. We were fortunate to acquire many of his illuminations on individual parchment sheets, some of which are on the site. And then we asked him to create a haggadah – the one I am describing here. Two wood boards covered in a maroon dyed leather bind its parchment leaves. The front board is embossed with a thin gold rectangle and is decorated with four brass rosettes attached at the corners. Forty-eight leaves are bound inside, four of which are blank. The manuscript begins with a title page; next is the ceremony for searching out the chametz; then the traditional text of the haggadah through to Next Year in Jerusalem; and finally the Hatikvah and a colophon. Text, front and back on each of forty-four leaves is handwritten in Hebrew and illuminated; all the pages are separated from one another with bound-in soft tissue. On the colophon page are the date of production (5760) and the names of the collaborators – the scribe, Even Carredio; the illuminator, Reuven Benaja; and the editor, Moshe Hacohen Rav Livorno. The text is in ink; the illuminations are in watercolor, gold pigment and paste, and ink. The following carousel has a sampling of the text and images in the manuscript. Since the binding is tight, I could not lay the pages flat to photograph them. As a result, the pages lie unevenly and the lighting on them is also uneven. Nonetheless, you should be able to get a good impression of the artwork.
Bernard A. Solomon (1946-1995) designed, illustrated and translated the Hebrew for this Haggadah, published by The Boxwood Press in 1991. (Poetry Editor – Rochelle Ratner) This folio sized volume has cloth covered boards, half-binding leather and a cloth covered slip case. I have been unable to learn much about the artist, but it is clear that this was a labor of love for him. Rochelle Rattner (1949 – ) is a poet, writer and playwright. She contributed a number of the poems included with the text and apparently suggested others. All the images are woodcuts, except for three wood engravings and one color blockprint. Many are mounted, the rest printed together with the text – to one side, around, in the middle, and often right over the lettering. The colophon page is signed (B Soloman) and numbered (10/50) While I must guess at the artist’s intention(s) for this haggadah, it is perhaps signaled by the list of 36 diverse guests sitting at his very large seder table. The list starts with Rabbis Tarphon, Akiba, and Hillel; includes other Jewish dignitaries, e.g. Rashi and Rabbi Elimelach; historic figures – George Washington, Lincoln and Queen Victoria; more contemporary figures, such as Anwar Sadat, David Ben Gurion, Mahatma Ghandi, Harry Truman, Mother Teresa, M. L. King; and finally the prophet Elijah. The illustration is on a fold out sheet with paper cutting and is bound into the book.
The diversity of his seder guests matches the diversity of his haggadah’s contents. In addition to the art that serves to illuminate the Hebrew text, there are contemporary poems and illustrations referring to recent European history, slavery and freedom, and other social issues. Here are photos of some of the haggadah’s pages so that you can get the flavor of this magnificent book.
Two wonderful contemporary Haggadot – one that looks back to the manuscripts of the early Renaissance, the other embellishing the text with modernist images and present day social concerns.