Arts & Culture

Haggadot on View at the University of Chicago

Exhibit highlights rare, striking Haggadot from Chicago resident’s large private collection Read More

By / April 5, 2012
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

Archetype and Adaptation: Passover Haggadot from the Stephen P. Durchslag Collection, an exhibition at the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center, opened with a lecture and reception the evening of Sunday, April 1st, 2012. The books on display are a sample of Stephen P. Durschlag’s renowned collection, lauded as the largest known private collection of Haggadot. Durchslag, a resident of Chicago, acquired his first in 1982, in a New York City antique store, and has since collected roughly 4,500 specimen from 1485 to the present.

The evening began with Durschlag introducing his collection, and explaining his impetus for and interest in collecting. The Haggadot “speak rather deeply to my heart and to my mind,” Durschlag said. His interest stems from the Jewish peoples’ transformation from servitude to redemption, and the fact that the Haggadah encompasses the full scope of the Jewish tradition: people from often vastly different cultures throughout time have used the same text in different contexts and communities, some of which have been decimated, all in order to make sense of the oppression, persecution and ultimately the freedom of the Jewish people. The Haggadah, for Durschlag, was like a hand reaching from the past to remind us of where we came from, to remember our ancestors and to keep the memory alive, with all of its complexity and diversity.

The Haggadah-as-cultural-object presents several axes on which to interpret it: we learn about the varied communities that produced it through time and space, we see a spectrum of Jewish expressions (reform, Orthodox, feminist, vegetarian, Zionist, gay rights, etc.), and encourages an inner-meditation that stems from the wide range of voices that comprise the Jewish people.


(Illustration of the Four Sons from a 1695 Haggadah printed in Amsterdam. From the collection of Stephen P. Durchslag.)

Collaborating with Durschlag, Alice Schreyer, Assistant University Librarian for Humanities, Social Sciences, and Special Collections, and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Professor of Modern Jewish Thought in the Divinity School, Pesach Weinstein, doctoral candidate in the Divinity School at University of Chicago, within the History of Religions Department, curated the exhibition. Weinstein chose Haggadot from Durschlag’s collection that stood out, with original and high-quality illustrations: “The Geismer 1928 and the Steinhardt 1923 have particularly striking illustrations and they were two of the pieces that I was most excited to show. Another way that certain Haggadot stood out from the thousands of others in the collection was their age and scarcity. I wanted to display pieces that represented the earliest examples of printed Haggadot, and that were also copiously illustrated. The Mantua 1568 and Venice 1599 fall into this category,” Weinstein explained. Certain Haggadot, such as the Munich 1946 produced for Holocaust survivors, convey a particularly strong emotional impact. I also chose contemporary political Haggadot which are unique in terms of their very specific intended audience.”

The first in a series of four lectures led by four distinguished scholars followed Durschlag’s opening remarks. David Stern, Professor of Classical Hebrew Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, started off the series with his lecture entitled The Haggadah and the Jewish Imagination. Stern introduced a “Haggadorama”—images of illustrations within early Haggadot, which depict Seders replete with Haggadot. The self-reflexivity of these images, that is, the Haggadah reflecting upon itself, furthers the idea that the Haggadah moves through history and yet remains the same. It is a static object in a dynamic world. It mediates between the fragmentary nature of identity and the fixed traditions that compose that very identity.

The illustrations in the Haggadot often reflect this imaginative property—they begin with Creation, or with the birth of Moses, and end in the moment the Haggadah was created in order to make it real and present for the community that would use it (Moses crosses the Nile in a gondola in a Venetian Haggadah from 1601).

A highlight of the lecture was Stern’s contention that throughout the history of Jewish culture, Jews always ate the way their host cultures ate. Seders in first century Roman Palestine, therefore, were modeled after the Roman Banquet—specifically the Symposium. Jews today recline at the Seder because Romans reclined, and drink wine at every course following the Roman model. For Romans, the Symposium was a place to drink, to praise the gods, discuss arcane topics and ancient history. The Seder evolved out of this tradition, but came to focus on redemption. Rabbis invented the Seder as a substitute for a sacrifice which could no longer be offered. A text was developed, somewhere in the 8th or 9th century, as a way to contextualize and order the symbolism imbued in the foods eaten at the Seder.


(Illustration of a Seder dinner from an 1867 Haggadah printed in Livorno, Italy. From the collection of Stephen P. Durchslag.)

There is no other Jewish ritual so connected visually with a book. Why then is the redemption of the Jewish people ritualized and reified? Why is the story played out through food, and not some other medium? Why is it important that the book changes after the various exiles? How does it concern the imaginative redemption—and why does it remain relevant in imagining and reimagining the exodus from Egypt, enslavement, the ten plagues, and sacrifice?

One major aspect of the Seder (or, “order”), and a function of the Haggadah (or, “the telling”), is for the Jew to look upon him or herself as though he or she had actually been freed from Egyptian slavery. The Haggadah has been adapted by cultures and subcultures to fit into modern terms. Therefore, Egypt can be the patriarchy, it can be Auschwitz, it can be addiction (there have been several Alcoholics Anonymous Haggadot printed). A Haggadah can be adapted for every identity in order to symbolically interpret various forms of oppression.

The notion of adaptation can be extended from a culture borrowing the Exodus to suit its own purposes. As was seen with the Jews using the Roman symposium for the Seder, is also a major factor in deeply rooted religious traditions. For example, the four sons in the Seder are equated with the four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic), which were integral to understanding human behavior in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and elsewhere. As such, the Wicked Son, for example, is equated with Mars, the God of War, and the choleric temperament. This borrowing from Greco-Roman culture, polytheistic societies in which the Jews lived (Egypt, too, was of course polytheistic) is in keeping with the idea that traditions are often adapted to fit another culture. Perhaps it would be meaningful to think about this adaptation in terms of The Last Supper, which is believed to have been a Seder, though Christians have adapted this to fit into their own tradition.

The Haggadah has become integral in re-imagining oppression, in helping Jews to understand their respective places in history—not only seeing oneself in symbolic terms, but, as Stern concluded, collapsing the past and present into a single moment. The Haggadah reminds us that we aren’t breaking free from the past, but instead are using our imaginations to connect to our pasts.


(Detail from a woodcut illustration from a Haggadah illustrated by Jacob Steinhardt, 1923. From the collection of Stephen P. Durchslag.)

Upcoming Lectures:

Sunday, April 22

Marc Michael Epstein (Vassar College), “Birds Head Revisited: Identity, Politics and Polemics the Birds’ Head Haggadah”

Sunday, May 6

Vanessa Ochs (University of Virginia), “The Coconut on the Seder Plate: A biography of the contemporary Haggadah.”

Sunday, May 13

Katrin Kogman-Appel (Ben-Gurion University), “Popularizing Books in a Manuscript Culture: The Visual Language of the Late Medieval Haggadah.”