The Washington Haggadah, an illuminated medieval manuscript and, since 1916, a principal treasure in the Library of Congress, is spending Passover in New York City on a snug reading stand in a display case at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Haggadah, the collection of prayers and songs that tells the story of exodus that is the Passover Seder, lies open to the Dayenu (“If He had given us Shabbat and not led us to Mount Sinai, it would have been enough . . .”), a thousand-year-old song that’s unusually sprightly for its age, perhaps because it can function as a cue to cooks and celebrants that it’s nearly time to serve the meal.
The scribe reinforces that cue with a drawing at the bottom of the page: A man, apparently a beggar invited to help with the feast, turns a rack of lamb while two women, well dressed in the Italian style, stir soup and offer him a cup.
You could easily miss “The Washington Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context,” an exhibition that consists of just two vitrines and a wall display in a hallway in the Met’s department of medieval art. But the modest display fits the artifact — the mix of homey scenes and exquisite items was a trademark of the scribe and illustrator, Joel ben Simeon (approximately 1420-95), and suited the taste of his wealthy Ashkenazi clientele in Germany and Italy.
Although this exhibition does not display the manuscript’s individual pages — as the Met did successfully last summer with the utterly bloodthirsty and not-safe-for-work exhibition of the Book of Hours of Jean de Berry — the museum’s medievalists have vividly conjured the world of medieval European Jewry, surrounding the small manuscript with luxurious objects similar to those in the drawings. A pale yellow glass with a decorative band is a close match for the one the woman offers the man turning the lamb. A brass ewer from Germany is practically identical to the one in the hands of the red-hatted man filling cups, who is beside instructions to pour the service’s second glass of wine.
“The Washington Haggadah,” on view through June 26, is the first installment in a three-year series devoted to Hebrew manuscripts and their contemporary context, a clever strategy that pairs valuables from the Met’s stronger collections with loan items in one of its weakest areas (illuminated Hebrew manuscripts).
“Our colleagues in the textile department are thrilled,” said curator Barbara Boehm, standing beside a silk-velvet swatch that looked like it could have been cut from the skirt of a fashionable woman who shows up later in the Haggadah. “I don’t think these have ever been shown. They’re not great big pieces, but they’re exquisite and such a nice match.”
Scribes are typically anonymous artisans, but ben Simeon signed and dated this illuminated Haggadah. It was an unusual move, but some 20 years before, German publisher Johannes Gutenberg had printed his first Bible, and illuminators were scrambling to come up with marketing strategies to compete with the burgeoning book trade. Ben Simeon created this work not on commission but as a salable stock item that could appeal to the broadest possible tastes. He left the last few pages and many of the margins blank, in case the buyer, most likely a wealthy banker, doctor or merchant, had any special requests.
Ben Simeon specialized in Haggadot, a sensible business plan for a Jewish scribe, but the exodus story at the heart of the service almost certainly had personal resonance, too. Soon after he was born in Cologne, Jews were expelled from that city. His family moved to Bonn, and 20 years later that city expelled the Jews.
He seems to have adapted by spending most of his life in transit, moving back and forth across the Alps between Italy and Germany. As a result, he drew with a mixture of national styles: His figures are flat and stubby in the German woodcut style, but his faces are delicate and individual, and his representations modern and realistic, in the manner of the Italians — the wicked son is drawn like a knight (for an effect similar to drawing him in Nazi get-up today), and the beggar turning the lamb has goiter (a then-common affliction in landlocked areas such as the Alps).
On the page with the Curse Upon the Gentiles — a prayer added to the Seder after the Crusades — ben Simeon seems to have captured a moment of changing traditions. A man stands at the door to his house, as was the habit, checking to see that there are no Gentiles within earshot during the recitation: “Pour out thy wrath upon the nations that do not know You,” as ben Simeon faithfully copied in a passage that begins in large gold-leaf letters and his most elaborate filigree. But he also depicted the tradition that has come down to Jews today: As the door is opened, Elijah appears, riding on an ass, accompanied by what appears to be his entire family. Near the tail end, a fashionable lass in a silk-velvet dress raises a wineglass.
No one knows who first bought the Haggadah from ben Simeon — an Ashkenazi in Italy or Germany, judging by the handwriting on some of the blank pages. But the Haggadah, too, had its years of wandering: from Germany in the 1700s, over to Italy by the late 1800s and into the hands of the Provencali family of Mantua, where in 1879 one Ettore Finzi added a note in German (“Guten Appetit”) during a Passover celebration.
Twenty-three years later, Ephraim Deinard — an American book dealer and a preeminent figure in the development of many great institutional collections of Judaica and Hebraica — bought the copy and persuaded New York financier Jacob Schiff to donate it, along with nearly 20,000 other books in Deinard’s collection, to the Library of Congress as part of a vast “gift to the Nation.”
After 500 years, the Haggadah had found its permanent home — except, of course, for the occasional Passover visit to New York.
Conley is a freelance writer.
Through June 26 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York. Visit www.metmuseum.org/special or call 212-535-7710.