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Crafting from the Collections: Handmade Haggadah

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This is a guest post by Rachel Gordon, Visitor Services Specialist at the Library. 

A colorful illustrated page with a man and boy reading together.
“The Four Questions” from Arthur Szyk’s 1940 illuminated Haggadah, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Last Passover, in April 2020, few of us imagined that the 2021 holiday would also take place under COVID restrictions. A year later, it’s safe to say that many Seder plans will again be affected, with fewer people around one table and many guests attending virtually. So how to make this Passover feel special, rather than a rerun of last year’s e-versions? Bespoke Haggadot might be one answer.

Making your own Haggadah is not a new pastime; for years many families have assembled personalized versions. But this year, with relatives and friends scattered, it might be particularly meaningful to have a home- and handmade version to have everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, in a very literal sense.

There are several ways to go about sharing handmade Haggadot. Perhaps make a whole set and send them to participants ahead of time, ask each group to create their own, (adding a little good-natured competition to the evening), or assign the task to younger guests as a craft project. Whatever you decide, the Library’s Family Engagement Resources page has two great activities that demonstrate how to make a cardboard-covered “cartonera”, and a mini book.

Once you’ve made your booklets, they’ll need text and decorations. As you’re no doubt well aware, a quick general online search will turn up plenty of suitable writings, blessings, songs and readings that you can freely use. At the Library, wonderful treasures abound in the Hebraic Division, such as its extensive holdings of more than three thousand Haggadot. Judaica has been part of the Library since its earliest days, as you can find out here.

Elijah approaching Jerusalem on a donkey. From the Hebraic Section’s 1478 Washington Haggadah.

Many Hebraic Division materials available online cannot be used due to copyright restrictions, but they can certainly provide wonderful inspiration for budding artists and craft enthusiasts. The Washington Haggadah, a fifteenth century text with beautiful illustrations, is the crown jewel of these special collections (do be sure to scroll all the way through so as not to miss the gorgeous Artist’s Editions towards the end). This 2016 blog post, written by a reference librarian in the Library’s Hebraic section, highlights illustrations in nineteenth century Haggadot from around the world. You can explore another good source of ideas here – scroll down to link to a large selection of illustrated children’s books in Hebrew and Yiddish.

Fortunately, there are resources you may freely use, in a variety of styles. Search “matzo” or “matzoth” in the Prints and Photographs online catalog, and up pop a 1960’s poster, matzo going to France in 1919 for Jewish soldiers, and matzo flour delivery in the early 1900’s.  Typing in “Passover” brings up several more options, like these old photos titled “baking the unleavened bread” and “washing of the hands.” “Picture lessons” is a series of brightly colored cards illustrating the life of Moses, particularly suitable for the Passover story.

This is a holiday that both looks back and to the future. Given the year we’ve just had, such reflection may be even more meaningful this year. Items in the Library’s collections may be useful in framing some thoughtful conversations around the Seder table. Two online exhibitions, From Haven to Home and Words Like Sapphires highlight Jewish life in America and Hebraica at the Library, respectively. Both include several examples of Haggadot. The Library’s extensive digitized newspaper collection contains many gems, like this 1922 Passover edition of American Jewish World. The entire issue is a fascinating snapshot of a century ago. Highlights include the front page image of Americans setting off to observe Passover in Jerusalem, an article about the Seder (pages 7-8), an editorial column (page 14), and recipes (pages 30-31).

Wishing you a Happy Passover, with friends and family at the table or through a screen.

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