Israeli collector offers glimpse into magnificence and variety of haggadahs

Haggadahs have been printed in more editions and languages than any other Jewish book and published in nearly 200 locations, including Istanbul, Bombay, Aleppo and Djerba.

The beauty of the haggadah lies in its variation. Some illustrated haggadahs are manuscripts created by artists and calligraphers as collectors’ items, while others are printed in book form.

In addition, the style of the haggadah has kept pace with the times, with modern versions coming in the form of comic strips, animated movies and interactive digital versions. But whatever its format, the purpose of the haggadah remains the same: to pass on the miraculous story of the Israelites fleeing Egyptian bondage.

One of the world’s largest and most magnificent collections — more than 2,500 haggadahs — belongs to Israeli Avraham Frank.

Frank immigrated to Israel from Germany in the 1930s and is a retired educator who served as a senior official in various organizations and promoted Western aliyah as a Jewish Agency emissary. During one of his sojourns abroad in the 1950s, he received a haggadah printed in 1762 from a relative of his mother — an heirloom dating back 200 years.

“This inspired me to start collecting,” he recalls.

From commercially produced haggadahs, like the Maxwell House

Haggadah that became a staple in American homes along with its coffee, to facsimile editions, the shelves in Frank’s compact study provide a fascinating tour of the Jewish world.

Haggadahs written by scribes before the invention of printing include the Sarajevo Haggadah, written in Spain at the beginning of the 14th century with illustrations of biblical stories. The original was deposited at the National Museum of Sarajevo in 1894.

Frank’s haggadahs also document the branches of his family in southern Germany, as well as the history of German Jewry up until the Holocaust. He pulls out a haggadah with a classic commentary (bi’ur) in German by 18th-century philosopher Moshe Mendelssohn and another by a liberal rabbi from Offenbach (near Frankfurt-on-Main) written in classic German.

“There is hardly a verse in Hebrew,” he says. “This represents the assimilation of Jews, a widespread feature of German Jewry in the 19th century.”

A haggadah for

children published in Germany in 1936 with sky-blue binding has pullout tabs revealing three-dimensional figures and spinning circles with information designed to sustain children’s interest during the seder.

From the Holocaust, Frank has the moving Gurs Haggadah. In 1941, Jewish prisoners held for deportation and eventual execution by the Nazis in the southwestern French Gurs concentration camp held an illicit seder to assert their own inner sense of freedom from the terror of horrific oppression. The haggadah was recreated from memory by Rabbi Leo Yehuda Ansbacher and written in square print, to be copied on a stencil machine. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Authority later republished the haggadah from the remaining copy with photographs and background material. “It ends with the wish, ‘next year in Jerusalem,'” Frank said.

Frank also owns a facsimile edition of a handwritten haggadah translated into Chinese, with an introduction by British Jewish historian Cecil Roth. The original haggadah belonged to the Jewish community of Kaifeng, a large commercial city in China, and was first printed from a manuscript from the 17th or 18th century. This isolated community kept its Jewish identity for about 1,000 years, disappearing in about 1840 due to assimilation.

Roth also wrote the introduction to the Szyk Haggadah, produced by Polish artist Arthur Szyk, which the London Times called “a book worthy to be placed among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has produced.” It was printed in 1940 in London with Hebrew and English text on pure vellum leaves.

But there is one haggadah Frank has yet to acquire: that of Israeli artist Avner Moriah. Each of the 360 copies of the limited edition haggadah is printed with archival inks on archival paper and hand-bound in leather. Like all haggadahs, it fulfills the scriptural commandment — gorgeously — to “tell your son” about the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and the concept of freedom.

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