As we endure the pandemic of COVID-19, the plagues from the story of Exodus and the Haggadah acquire a different meaning. The iconographic representation of the plagues can already be found in medieval illuminated Haggadot, like the 14th-century Spanish haggadot: Golden Haggadah and the “Brother Haggadah,” now at the British Library. Both begin with a sequence of magnificent illuminations depicting the story of Exodus.
The “Brother Haggadah” has depicts eight of the ten plagues, skipping the first (blood) and the last (the killing of the first born). Both the Golden Haggadah and the “Brother Haggadah” were were commissioned by affluent Spanish Jews. These are two of several surviving illuminated haggadot from Spain. Among the other known Spanish haggadot are the so-called Sarajevo haggadah and the Rylands haggadah from the the John Rylands Library in Manchester.
Christian illuminated bibles, especially the so called moralized bibles, also included illustrations of the plagues. Here is a late 14th century French bible, now at the Morgan Library, Histoire de la Bible et de l’Assomption de Notre-Dame, France, Paris, between 1390 and 1400 (MS M.526). Folios 12r-14v depict the scenes from Exodus relating the ten plagues. Here is the plague of locust. On top right Moses speaks with Pharaoh, depicted as a king, and at the bottom right Moses speaks to God, who is depicted as Christ.
The iconography found in many modern haggadot does not draw from these medieval examples, but rather from the iconography developed in the printed haggadot of the early modern era. This is the case for the 1946 Haggadah from Cairo. Below are images of the first five plagues: blood, frogs, lice, ‘arov (wild beasts/swarms), and murrain.
Below are images from a haggadah issued for the first Passover after the end of World War II. It was published in a Displaced Persons Camp in Fernwald in 1946. The Haggadah’s wine stains show it was used for a Passover seder (below). The pages below illustrate the dependence of modern haggadot on premodern iconography. The bottom image, marked by wine stains, shows the section shefokh ha-matkha (“Pour forth thy wrath”) section of the Passover Haggadah, which must have been particularly meaningful in 1946.
The break away from that “traditional” imagery came only from the more artistic modern haggadot, such as the 1969 El Al Haggadah.
On August 22nd,
1898, the Jewish-Russian journalist Phillip Kranz, pseudonym of Jacob Rombro,
received a subpoena from the Supreme Court of New York City. Kranz and other
writers and editors of the “Workingmen Publishing Association” learned that
“the action is brought to recover damages for libel, for a willful, reckless
and atrocious libel.” The plaintiff was Kasriel Hirsch Sarasohn, the most
important Yiddish and Hebrew press publisher in New York at the time. Sarasohn
was represented by his son Abraham, a young and successful lawyer.
The trial revealed
some of the most fundamental tensions in the Yiddish press in 1890s New York:
orthodox versus secular; capitalism versus socialism; a family business versus
a workers‟ organization, popular journalism versus cultural elite journalism,
etc. All of these tensions presented themselves openly.
The cause for
Sarasohn‟s complaint was an article from the socialist Yiddish daily “Dos
Abendblatt” (The Evening Paper; founded in New York on 1894). The socialist
daily had been attacking Sarasohn for months, publishing one investigation
after another about his misuse of charities, as well as misrepresenting himself
as a friend of the workers‟ class supporter, a supporter of the Zionist cause,
a charity organizer – thus gaining support, good reputation and capital – while
using them eventually for his own profit. Sarasohn demanded 20,000 dollars for
the damage to his reputation within the Yiddish speaking community in New York.
Sarasohn was born
in 1835 in Paiser, Suwalki County in North-Eastern Europe. His brother in law,
the typesetter and editor Mordechay Yahlomstein, escaped to America in 1861,
and on 1865 he wrote back to Sarasohn, recommending him to immigrate to America
and to found a printing business. Sarasohn settled in New-York in the early
1870s and opened a small printing house. The business grew successful, and the
Sarasohn family would later become a prominent force in the Yiddish and Hebrew
press in America.
The defendants in
the trial, Phillip Krantz and Bernard Feigenbaum, were also Jews from an
East-European origin. They came to America in the early 1890s with a solid
socialist ideology. After arriving to New York they were involved in writing
and editing the socialist weekly “Arbeter Tsaytung”, and later the socialist
daily “Dos Abendblatt”, both of which funded by the Socialist Labor Party.
The articles against
Sarasohn were originally published in Yiddish; the plaintiff provided a
transcript and an English translation to the court. Soon enough the trial
shifted from Sarasohn‟s misdeeds to the political affiliation of the
defendants. In an article which was published in “Dos Abendblatt” during the
trial under the title “Sarasohn informs the court on us as anarchists”, the
paper claimed: “Sarasohn writes in his prosecution that we are heretic
socialists, „anarchists‟, „demons‟, hoping thus to convince the American jury”.
According to the journalist, Sarasohn aimed to put “socialism on trial.”
On his final
address to the jury, Sarasohn‟s lawyer – his son Abraham – accused the
defendants of being “socialists, anarchists, nihilists […] He told the jury
that we are coming from a country (Russia) when every written line must be
signed by a policeman, and because of that when we came to this free land –
where there is freedom of the press, we misuse this freedom”. The verdict of
the trial, given on March 1901, was in favor of Sarasohn; the jury accepted his
claim and decided that the “Workingmen‟s Public Association” will pay him 3,500
dollars plus trial expenses.
The fact that
Sarasohn was accusing the socialist journalists of being Russian is
counterintuitive: after all, he came from a not so far region three decades
earlier; he surely didn‟t think any of his newspapers were misusing the very
same freedom of the press. However, by using this argument, Sarasohn was able
to differentiate between himself, the “good” immigrant, and the socialists, the
“bad” immigrants – a very useful differentiation in Fin-de-Siècle America.
This legal case can serve as a key for understanding the ideological and political trends of Jewish immigrants from Eastern-Europe in the first two decades of mass migration. It can also shed light on two major types of economic immigration and Americanization. These types represent different aspects of American capitalism in the 19th century: the worker(s) and the entrepreneur(s).
Sarasohn was different
from his opponents in the type of the project each of them ran: “Dos
Abendblatt” was an ideological and political project, rather than a
profit-oriented business. Sarasohn on the other hand had a family business, not
very different from other immigrant entrepreneurs in the late 19th century: it
was a small scale project, ran and operated from his home at 175 East Broadway
during the first years; his children were his typesetters and later became his
business partners; and he didn‟t have any local background both financially and
administratively. Put it this way – Sarasohn was an immigrant and an
Sarasohn’s enterprise – a weekly and later a daily newspaper in Yiddish – was indeed an early form of American Jewish entrepreneurship. He had to count on family labor, communal support and home-based production. But Sarasohn‟s sweatshop was different: his product was a “Jewish” product. Unlike a pair of pants, a tie or a box of cigars – it couldn‟t have been produced and couldn‟t have been bought by non-Jews. Sarasohn needed typesetters who could read the Hebrew Alphabet, and he counted on Yiddish readers to buy his newspapers. The type of the project can also explain why Sarasohn was so worried about his reputation in the Yiddish speaking world: it was his clientele.
The 1890s New York Yiddish press represented vividly the Yiddish worlds of the city, and the main ideological debates were represented in its papers both as a subject and as an object. As the Sarasohn case shows us, understanding the role of the Yiddish press in the Jewish community of the East Side is crucial for portraying the historical and political context of the era.
Yael Levi was a Fordham-NYPL Research Fellow in Jewish Studies in the spring of 2019. Below is the lecture she delivered at Fordham University in April 2018.
The majority of Polish Jews who survived World War II did so in the Soviet Union, some in the gulags of Siberia, experiencing forced labor, hunger, and illnesses. When they returned to Poland at the end of the war, they often encountered hostile Christian Poles. The hostility of their former neighbors brought about feelings of betrayal and loss, which are ubiquitously described in the accounts of returning Jewish refugees. Very few of the survivors stayed where they had previously lived. Confronted with postwar antisemitism, most of them chose to leave not only Poland, but Europe altogether, the continent that inflicted upon them wounds that could never heal.
These survivors have been easy to find. Among them are acclaimed authors, directors, economists, philosophers, linguists, scholars, estate managers, doormen, family members, and neighbors. However, few were interested in hearing about their past. Now the moment has come to hear their stories.
Dancing on the Titanic
Rita Blattberg Blumstein compares the last weeks her family spent in Krakow before it all started – the war, the Holocaust, the Gulag – to dancing on the Titanic. Her beautiful, cozy life, sheltered by her parents’ love, was interrupted abruptly and irreparably. Yet, until her father died, Rita Blattberg Blumstein said in 2002, “I never thought of myself as a Holocaust victim.”
Jack Pomerantz had never been outside his little town of Radzyń when his odyssey began: “I didn’t know how to go east. I followed people. And I walked. I kept walking many days. In a kind of stupor.” His long trip led him to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Siberia, Kazakhstan, and then back to Poland.
Joachim Schoenfeld from Lwów (Lviv) recalled
how in the wake of WWII for the first time in the long history of Jewish
persecution, refugees had found all the gates to the lands of the ‘free world’
closed: “The 3.5 million Polish Jews found themselves trapped. Not knowing
where to go, they moved about aimlessly on the roads and highways like ants to
avoid being trampled by a giant’s foot.”[i]
Life-saving deportation to Siberia
Hundreds of thousands of such lives were
thus interrupted and thousands of people set on a move. Their eastward exodus began after the German attack on
Poland. From the east of Poland, simultaneously occupied by the Soviet Union,
the Jewish refugees were sent further to the Soviet interior and forced to hard
labor, exposed to hunger and bitter
cold. Returning to Poland at the end of
WWII they learned about the tragic fate of relatives they left behind under the
German occupation. Torn between feelings of shock, grief, guilt, and relief, they considered their experience of
minor importance and kept silent. Only recently have some of the Poland-born Jewish
exiles to the USSR begun to convey the stories of their survival.
They were now both Holocaust survivors and survivors of the Stalinist terror. They were often the only members of their families to remain alive and by far the most numerous group of the few Polish Jews who survived the war. This difficult Soviet chapter of the Holocaust survival, largely overlooked, has recently been the core of research projects conducted by international scholars.[ii] In the course of their work, they may achieve more inclusive re-definition of Jewish survival, normally associated with the horror of having gone through the death camps or with a difficult hideout among Christians.
Lidia Zessin Jures was a 2018 Research Fellow in Jewish Studies at Fordham University and the New York Public Library. She is currently in the Department of Modern Social and Cultural History at the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Science in Prague
[i] Rita Blattberg Blumstein, Like
Leaves in the Wind, London: Valentine Mitchell 2003; Jack Pomerantz, Run East: Flight from the Holocaust,
Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press 1997; Joachim Schoenfeld, Holocaust memoirs: Jews in the Lwów Ghetto, the Janowski Concentration
Camp, and as deportees in Siberia, Hoboken, N.J : Ktav Pub. House 1985.
[ii] See the work by, inter alia, Atina Grossmann, Laura Jockusch/ Tamar
Lewinsky, Katharina Friedla, John Goldlust, Markus Nesselrodt.
In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day we wanted to highlight The Freedom Seder: A New Haggadah from in our Judaica collection. The Freedom Seder was held at the Lincoln Temple, a black church in Washington, DC, in 1969 and was attended by hundreds of participants, Jews and Christians, black and white.
Passover of 1968 came on Aprl 12, just eight days after the assassination
of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and three days after his funeral. Days after the “Holy
Week Uprising” was quelled. That year, Arthur Waskow, one of Jewish peace activists
at the time and a future founder of the Shalom Center, felt that the Passover holiday
spoke to the struggles of the time. As he told NPR’s
Code Switch, for that Passover, “I wove the story of the liberation of
ancient Hebrews from Pharaoh with the liberation struggles of black America, of
the Vietnamese people, passages from Dr. King, from Gandhi.”
In 1969, the anniversary of Dr. King’s death fell on one of the days of Passover, and Arthur Waskow along with other activists organized the Freedom Seder. For that occasion, Waskow created a “new Haggadah,” one that combined traditional elements with those relevant to the times, using the Saul Raskin Haggadah, which he had been given in 1946 for his bar mitzvah, and adapting it by adding new voices, among them Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner, Emanuel Ringelblum, and of course Martin Luther King Jr.:
No, the moments of resistance have not been bloodless. The blood of tyrants and the blood of freemen has watered history. But we may not rest easy in that knowledge. The freedom we seek is a freedom from blood as well as a freedom from tyrants. It is incumbent upon us not only to remember in tears the blood of the tyrants and the blood of the prophets and martyrs, but to end the letting of blood. To end it, to end it! For as one of the greatest of our prophets, whose own death by violence at a time near the Passover were member in tears tonight—as the prophet Martin Luther King called us to know: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites-acquiescence and violence. The nonviolent resister rises to the noble height of opposing the unjust system while loving the perpetrators of the system. Nonviolence can reach men where the law can not touch them. So—we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.”
The Freedom Seder Haggadah was first published in the Ramparts magazine, and, according Waskow, this was “the first Haggadah, certainly the first widely circulated, that celebrated the liberation of other peoples as well as the liberation of the Jewish people.”
The Shalom Center, founded by Rabbi Waskow, has posted a 10 minute video of the 1969 seder: