Every­body’s Book: The Sto­ry of the Sara­je­vo Haggadah

  • Review
By – April 15, 2024

A fam­i­ly hag­gadah is often an object of great affec­tion. One exam­ple, the Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah, has enjoyed a unique sta­tus, hav­ing been res­cued many times through­out its long life. By cel­e­brat­ing the Sara­je­vo Haggadah’s val­ue as both a guide to fam­i­ly seders and a price­less work of art, Lin­da Leopold Strauss and Tim Smart demon­strate how this sacred book became impor­tant even to those out­side its traditions.

Everybody’s Book opens in wartime. It is 1995, and an aer­i­al assault on the Bosn­ian cap­i­tal of Sara­je­vo is in progress. Neat lines of black planes and plumes of smoke wreak destruc­tion on the city below. The Haggadah’s resilience is a cen­tral part of the sto­ry. First giv­en to a Jew­ish cou­ple as a wed­ding gift in Spain in 1356, the Sara­je­vo Hag­gadah even­tu­al­ly joined the mass exo­dus of Jews after their expul­sion by the Catholic mon­archs. A two-page spread of a world map high­lights the Sephardic com­mu­ni­ties of Spain, North Africa, and Italy. The book has shared the fate of any well-used Hag­gadah: wine has been spilled on its pages, and it’s also served as a note­book for a boy prac­tic­ing his writ­ing. The Hag­gadah is not only an object of admi­ra­tion, but also a prac­ti­cal item to be respect­ed and loved. The author and illus­tra­tor explain to young read­ers how dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties have con­tributed to the uni­ver­sal sym­bol­ism of everybody’s book.”

The cos­mopoli­tan city of Sara­je­vo is home to Mus­lims, Chris­tians, and Jews. In 1894, the Bosnia’s nation­al muse­um pur­chased the Hag­gadah from its Jew­ish own­ers, who were com­pelled by finan­cial need to sell it. Dur­ing World War II, a Mus­lim cura­tor at the muse­um hid the Hag­gadah, and the direc­tor, a Croat Catholic, bold­ly lied to the Nazis to pre­vent them from loot­ing it. A long chain of events suc­ceed­ed in relay­ing the book from one res­cuer to anoth­er — but anoth­er war, in 1991, chal­lenged the uni­ty of Bosnia’s diverse com­mu­ni­ty once again. As Strauss points out, there are many accounts of how the book was saved. One sto­ry, for instance, sug­gests that it was res­cued from a fire that destroyed most of the muse­um and library. Ulti­mate­ly, the lack of clar­i­ty about the Sara­je­vo Haggadah’s preser­va­tion lends the book an almost myth­ic sta­tus. What is con­firmed is that, in 1995, the Hag­gadah was used at a seder in Bosnia’s last remain­ing syn­a­gogue and drew the par­tic­i­pa­tion of many reli­gious leaders.

One illus­tra­tion fea­tures a num­ber of hands inter­act­ing with the Hag­gadah. An adult’s and a child’s fin­gers point to its pic­tures; a pair of clasped hands is fold­ed in con­tem­pla­tion; and the hands of an aged man turn the pages. Mutu­al respect among dif­fer­ent peo­ples has trans­formed one price­less doc­u­ment of Jew­ish life into proof that coex­is­tence is possible.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions