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A smorgasbord of haggadot

The guiding text for the Passover meal has taken every form known to man, woman and child.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2002


The guiding text for the Passover meal has taken every form known to man, woman and child.

ST. PETERSBURG -- "And thou shalt tell thy child."

For more than 30 centuries, from generation to generation and wherever they have made their home, Jews have obeyed the biblical injunction to retell the Exodus story of freedom, redemption and hope.

They did so when they settled in India. Escaped from Spain. When held in detention camps on Cyprus on a modern-day exodus to Palestine. On kibbutzim in Israel. And in the New World.

On Wednesday, the ritual will continue. Passover, the festival of freedom that commemorates God's deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, begins at sundown. It is a time for families and friends to gather from far and near for the Passover seder, or ritual meal, and retell the ancient story.

The guiding text will be the haggadah, or service book, with its questions, prayers, songs, psalms and rabbinic commentaries. The haggadah, which literally means telling, has evolved over the centuries and is a mirror of contemporary life. Versions in existence include illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, lavishly illustrated printed tomes of the 16th and 17th centuries, and modern-day texts of every sort, some created specifically for children, women, vegetarians and other groups and causes. There have even been haggadot (plural of haggadah) published by Coca-Cola and Maxwell House.

Largo resident Herbert E. Wollowick has long been fascinated with the rich history of the haggadah. He is the curator of an extensive collection of original texts, limited-edition publications and facsimiles of illuminated manuscripts that will go on display today at the Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. S. The exhibition will run through Aug. 4.

"The haggadah is a book that has been published in over 7,000 editions and it has probably been translated into every language wherever Jews have lived," Wollowick said this week.

Just for women

At Temple Beth-El, 400 Pasadena Ave. S, 160 women and girls -- great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers and daughters -- gathered last Sunday for an early Passover seder. They followed the service in a haggadah prepared especially for them.

"I worked with some fine women to construct this haggadah," said Meisha L. Tevis, educational director for Temple Beth-El's religious and Hebrew schools. She said she modeled it on others that have been written for women and turned to several other sources to create the simple booklet.

"One of the purposes of the women's seder is to get us to sit down and reflect. When do we get to be just the individual who can stop, pause and reflect?" Ms. Tevis asked.

The emphasis on introspection was one of the aspects of the noontime gathering that impressed Marianne Bender, a Christian guest of temple member Annie Ennis.

"I find it very wonderful to look at yourself," Mrs. Bender said.

Seated at the same table was Barbara Cores, a U.S. Airways flight attendant who attends Temple Beth-El.

"I think it's very nice that they are doing this, that women can get together and bond and pray," Ms. Cores said.

"I still very much enjoy the traditional seder as well."

It is believed that the first women's seder in the United States was celebrated more than two decades ago by a small group of women that included the late U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug. In most circles, though, the women's seder is not regarded as a substitute for the traditional ritual but as an opportunity to explore issues relevant to women.

"Why are we gathering together here today as women, leaving our men outside?" the Temple Beth-El women's haggadah read Sunday.

"To lay claim to our story -- 'her story,' " was the answer.

"To reconnect to our great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers and sisters. To reach out to our children so that they might hear the other voice and their voice -- melodies augmenting, challenging, harmonizing."

The women's haggadah also addressed issues such as war, overpopulation, homelessness, abuse and prejudice.

It must be relevant

An important part of the Passover experience is to draw parallels between the Israelites' experience and present-day life, Ms. Tevis said.

"If it's not relevant, we won't have the next generation buying in," she said.

"Without relevancy, the meaning becomes obscured. We must link one generation to the next. I remember when I was growing up, my parents were always mentioning the Soviet Jews and then there were the Ethiopian Jews. There is always this need and this recognition that someone is hurting and needs to be freed."

On Sunday Ms. Tevis dedicated the seder to those who died on Sept. 11 and the victims of violence in the Middle East.

"At this Pesach (Passover), it seems exceptionally important to figure out freedom and how to respect everybody's freedom," she said during an interview.

Ms. Cores said: "There are so many people out there who are so enslaved in one way or the other. And by us bringing up our history, it makes them aware. "And I think it also brings attention to the fact that Israel is still struggling and all they want is to live in peace with the rest of the world and not be annihilated because we are Jews."

Haggadot hodgepodge

Haggadot across the centuries have reflected the agony and hope of the Jewish people, Wollowick said.

For example, mimeographed haggadot were used in refugee camps such as in Landsberg, Germany, in 1947, or Cyprus, in 1948, where Jews were detained by the British and not allowed to enter Palestine.

A special haggadah was prepared in 1998 to celebrate the 3,000th anniversary of Jerusalem. The Poona Haggadah, published in 1874 in India, shows sari-clad Jewish women preparing for Passover. Another, published in 1768 in Amsterdam, in Hebrew and Spanish, was used by the Marranos who had escaped from the Inquisition in Spain. The Florida Holocaust Museum exhibition also documents the censorship of Hebrew books by Christians, governments and by Jews themselves. Visitors will see haggadot in which lines have been crossed out.

In the United States, Jews published their first haggadah in 1837. The first books were simple, Wollowick said, explaining that Jewish immigrants at the time were more focused on becoming a part of American society.

Later came what Wollowick calls the "advertising" haggadot, a few of which will be on display at the museum.

"We show haggadot which were given for free from wine companies, coffee companies, butcher shops and banks," Wollowick said.

He added that the haggadah emerged as a major marketing device to reach Jewish shoppers, who have to adhere to special dietary laws for Passover. Coca-Cola, he said, published its only haggadah in 1936 in Memphis, Tenn.

The appearance of the alternative haggadah, created for specific groups or causes, did not occur until the last half of the 20th century, Wollowick said.

"The real forerunner was the kibbutz haggadah," which muted the religious meaning and emphasized the agricultural origins of the holiday and contemporary issues such as the return to Israel and Holocaust, he said.

Later came haggadot for college students, feminists, vegetarians and one called the Freedom Haggadah, written in Washington, D.C., after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Today it seems to be a very popular movement of people embellishing and adding to the haggadah," Wollowick said.

This Passover will be no different, he predicts.

"In our family we use the traditional haggadah that has been essentially unchanged for over 1,800 years, and in keeping with tradition, which says, 'He who adds to the narration of the story of the exodus from Egypt is to be praised,' we always add to the traditional text," Wollowick said.

"This year, certainly after the events of Sept. 11, when reading about Pharaoh and slavery, (both) will fade away and terrorism and its perpetrators will emerge, and when we recite the second half of the haggadah, which emphasizes hope and redemption, we will hope that terrorism will disappear and love of fellow man will prevail."

If you go

"Freedom Illuminated: the Haggadah, a Mirror of Jewish History, its Agony and Triumph," today through Aug. 4 at the Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg. For information, call (727) 820-0100.

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