People of the Book: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks (2008) is a popular book of Jewish historical fiction. It explores various times and places of Jewish history by tracing the journey of The Sarajevo Haggadah, originally created in the fourteenth century.
The author portrays what life was like via imaginary characters. Muslims are shown in a most sympathetic light (except for one story). I found the Inquisition story very disturbing; torture is graphically described. The stain in the Haggadah, that I always assumed was wine, is said to be blood. The book is reminiscent of James Michener’s The Source (1965), except that the stories are in reverse chronological order in People of the Book. I know many people love this book and that it is a popular Book Group selection. I found the writing not as polished as I would have liked. I was especially disappointed by the absence of any pictures since the plot refers to the Haggadah’s illustrations so often.
One important plot point has to do with the fact that a reproduction is never entirely the same as the original. Digital copies of a picture, no matter how small the pixel size is, will never be quite like a painting done by hand. And certainly copies of the things that get spilled or dropped on a book as it is used will not be the same as the actual spillage. I think this relates to the interest in the analog qualities of music records as opposed to the digital audio files that have mostly replaced them. Anyway, ….
The book I really want to recommend this week is the library’s facsimile edition of The Sarajevo Haggadah. Half the book is English commentary and history by Cecil Roth; the other half is a reproduction of the original on shiny paper. The more recent, unfortunately exciting, history of the Haggadah happened after this version was published. It is mentioned in Geraldine Brooks’ novel.
The Haggadah starts with pictures of Creation and the origins of the Jewish people.
The illustrations are brilliant and the Hebrew is surprisingly readable. It was exciting to see two of the four sons, Hacham (wise) and Rasha (wicked), highlighted in decorative borders on facing pages.
Every page is beautiful. It reminded me how important the visual appearance of books is. I’m toying with the idea that one problem with too many Jewish ritual books is that there are no pictures. Why can’t we have a siddur with cartoons?
Two illustrated 20th-century Haggadot in our library are by Arthur Syzk and Ben Shahn; Cecil Roth is connected to these books as well. And there are others on display on top of the bookcases in the children’s section of the library.
Next week I’ll talk about some books that you can use to get ready for and celebrate Passover.
Meanwhile, if you would like to comment with recommendations about Haggadot (and foods and activities) for the Seder, I would be most appreciative: After about a quarter of a century (wow!), I think I’ve done all I can with the Conservative movement’s Feast of Freedom and my husband is eager for a book that has page numbers.