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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sarajevo Haggadah

- An illustrated page from the Sarajevo Haggadah, written in fourteenth-century Spain. Top: Moses and the Burning Bush. Bottom: Aaron's staff swallows the magicians'. Wikipedia

I checked a book out of the library today that seems like it will be a keeper - People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. I'm not so enamored of the main character so far, but the subject of the book is really interesting - it's about the real life Sarajevo Haggadah, which, as Wikipedia states .....

... is an illuminated manuscript that contains the traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Passover Seder. It is one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world, originating in Barcelona around 1350. The Haggadah is presently owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, where it is on permanent display. The Sarajevo Haggadah is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold. It opens with 34 pages of illustrations of key scenes in the Bible from creation through the death of Moses. Its pages are stained with wine, evidence that it was used at many Passover Seders. It is considered to be the most beautiful illuminated Jewish manuscript in existence and one of the most valuable books in the world. In 1991 it was appraised at US$700 million .....

Here's a review of the book from The New York Times ......


All the World’s a Page

Published: January 20, 2008

When Hanna Heath, a manuscript conservator, first touches the centuries-old Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, she feels a “strange and powerful” sensation, something “between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby’s head.” The manuscript is small, the binding soiled and scuffed, but its lavish illuminations — miniature scenes “as interpreted in the Midrash,” created “at a time when most Jews considered figurative art a violation of the commandments” — are stunning. It’s the spring of 1996 in Sarajevo, and Hanna has been called in to examine the book before it’s put on display.

To understand the work of the craftsmen who created the medieval texts she restores, Hanna has made her own gold leaf and created white pigment by covering lead bars with the dregs of old wine and animal dung. She’s familiar with “the intense red known as worm scarlet ... extracted from tree-dwelling insects” and the blue, “intense as a midsummer sky, obtained from grinding precious lapis lazuli.” Looking closely at the parchment of the Haggadah, she can tell it comes from “the skin of a now-extinct breed of thick-haired Spanish mountain sheep.” These lush details, at once celebratory and elegiac, will appeal to the sort of reader who picks up a book just for the feel of it.

Hanna is opposed to “chemical cleanups” and “heavy restorations,” believing that damage and wear reveal much about how and where a manuscript has been used. “To restore a book to the way it was when it was made is to lack respect for its history,” she tells Ozren Karaman, the Muslim librarian who risked his life to save the Haggadah while Sarajevo was being shelled. During her examination of the manuscript, Hanna finds a fragment of an insect’s wing and a small white hair, which she slips into glassine envelopes for later analysis. These clues and other oddities — where are the book’s clasps? — are the springboard for Geraldine Brooks’s panoramic third novel, “People of the Book.”

Brooks, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her previous novel, “March,” has drawn her inspiration from the real Sarajevo Haggadah. As she explains in an afterword, little is known about this book, except that it has been saved from destruction on at least three occasions: twice by Muslims and once by a Roman Catholic priest. Building on these fragments of information, Brooks has created a fictional history that moves to Sarajevo in 1940, then back to late-19th-century Vienna, 15th-century Venice, Catalonia during the Spanish Inquisition and finally Seville in 1480, the new home of the artist responsible for the Haggadah’s illuminations.

The history of this holy book is a bloody one, bound with brutality and humiliation. Families who protect it are torn apart; the book itself is plundered to pay for a questionable medical cure, then lost in a game of chance. A particularly disturbing scene occurs during the Inquisition in a grotesquely named “place of relaxation” where those accused of heresy by the Spanish authorities are tortured.

Brooks’s extensive research is evident throughout, but she occasionally chokes her storytelling with historical detail; her dialogue can also be heavy with exposition. The narrative works best when the burden of the past is borne more lightly, when Brooks burrows into her characters’ inner lives. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, for example, a syphilitic bookbinder, overcome by symptoms of dementia, forgets how to make tea or even pursue his craft. Terrified, he experiences his thoughts as “an army in retreat, ceding ever more territory to his enemy, the illness.”

An inscription in the real Sarajevo Haggadah reads Revisto per mi. Gio. Domenico Vistorini, 1609. Taken with the notion that a Catholic priest surveying the codex during the Inquisition might choose to save it, Brooks creates another memorable character, an erudite scholar with “an innate reverence for books.” Sometimes, he finds, “the beauty of the Saracens’ fluid calligraphy moved him. Other times, it was the elegant argument of a learned Jew that gave him pause.” This priest haunts the sacristy for draughts of unconsecrated communion wine, intent on obliterating painful memories from his childhood — “the blowing sand of that desolate town,” the secret niche within a carved Madonna — not to mention thoughts of all the texts he has sent to the fires in his 17 years as a censor.

In the intimate first-person narration of the captive artist who creates the book’s original illuminations, a longing for freedom — a theme echoed throughout the Haggadah’s account of the liberation of the Jews — is eloquently evoked. Imagining a walk to the coast, holding an enchanted staff, the artist believes that “the great sea would part, and I would cross it, and make my way, in slow stages, down all the dusty roads that lead toward home.”

These self-contained historical interludes shelter within the overarching and at times problematic story of Hanna Heath. An irreverent Aussie, she’s an appealing character, but as she travels to Vienna, Boston and London, meeting with experts who might help answer her questions about the Haggadah, the structure of the narrative works against her. A chapter that ends with Hanna wondering about the insect wing or the stain will be followed by a historical interlude solving that piece of the puzzle. Not only predictable, this back-and-forth scheme also creates a discrepancy: the reader learns far more than Hanna ever will.

Woven into the puzzle-solving is the account of Hanna’s romance with the Muslim librarian who has saved the book, as well as glimpses of her disastrous and at times melodramatic relationship with her mother. (“How is your latest tatty little book, anyway? Fixed all the dog-eared pages?”) Readers will eventually learn why Dr. Heath, an eminent neurosurgeon, is so dismissive, but this part of the plot has an artificial feel.

We are left wishing Brooks had found a less obtrusive way to gather up the many strands of her narrative. While peering through a microscope at a rime of salt crystals on the manuscript of the Haggadah, Hanna reflects that “the gold beaters, the stone grinders, the scribes, the binders” are “the people I feel most comfortable with. Sometimes in the quiet these people speak to me.” Though the reader’s sense of Hanna’s relationship with the Haggadah rarely deepens to such a level, Geraldine Brooks’s certainly has.


If you're lucky enough to be a subscriber of The New Yorker, you can read Brook's essay about the Muslim librarian who saved the Sarajevo Haggadah (Geraldine Brooks, Chronicles, “The Book of Exodus,” The New Yorker, December 3, 2007, p. 74 ). Here's what the abstract has ....

ABSTRACT: CHRONICLES about Muslim librarian Dervis Korkut’s heroism in Sarajevo during World War II. When Yugoslavia was divided, in 1941, Sarajevo did not fare well. Hitler’s ally, Ante Pavelic, proclaimed that his new state must be “cleansed” of Jews and Serbs. Jews, Gypsies, and Serbian resisters turned frantically to Muslim or Croat neighbors to hide them. The Bosnian National Museum’s chief librarian, Dervis Korkut, was an unlikely figure of resistance, but he’d already made his anti-Fascist feelings clear, in an article defending Sarajevo’s Jews. In 1942, when Nazi commander Johann Fortner arrived at the museum, Korkut rescued the museum’s greatest literary treasure, a masterpiece of medieval Judaica known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Korkut was the scion of a prosperous family of Muslim intellectuals. He was born in 1888 and he studied theology at the University of Istanbul and Near Eastern languages at the Sorbonne. His abiding interest was the culture of Bosnia’s minority communities. Describes the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, which probably left Spain in 1492, then found its way to Venice, before being acquired by the Bosnian museum in 1894. The writer spoke to Dervis’s widow, Servet Korkut, who was sixteen when she wed fifty-three-year-old Dervis, in 1940. Servet told the writer about how Dervis rescued a young Jewish girl named Mira Papo, in April of 1942, by bringing her home and passing her off as a Muslim servant. Mira had been a member of the Young Guardians, a socialist Zionist youth movement. After the war, Mira returned to Sarajevo and was commissioned as an officer in Tito’s Army medical corps. In 1946, she ran into Servet, who begged her to testify at Dervis’s war-crimes trial; Dervis was being charged with aiding the Fascists. But Mira never testified because her fiancé feared the Party would turn against her. She assumed that Dervis had been executed, but, in 1994, she read a newspaper article which revealed that Dervis had died an elderly man, from natural causes, in 1969. Now aged seventy-two, Mira wrote a three-page letter to the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial center, which testified to Dervis’s heroic actions. She died in 1998. Mentions Dervis’s son, Munib, and his daughter, Lamija. In 1999, Kosovo started to slide toward war, and Lamija evacuated her children, but was unable to escape herself. She and her husband were herded by the Serbs into a camp with thousands of other refugees, but they escaped and soon tracked down the head of the local Jewish community in Kosovo, producing a photocopy of Mira’s testimony. Four days later, Lamija and her husband were flown to Tel Aviv and told their children would soon join them there. The story of how Dervis, a Muslim, had saved Mira, a Jew, and how Mira had then saved Dervis’s child proved irresistible to the Israeli media. When Lamija and her husband arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, they were greeted by Davor Bakovic, Mira’s son.


Blogger Mark said...


Just passed quarter century mark yesterday. All 7 of us wish you well. Good luck to the "not afraid to say it blog." Jack

3:49 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Happy birthday, Jack.

5:46 PM  

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