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The Wandering Haggadah

Libi Astaire

Just as Jews have wandered from country to country during our long exile, so too has the Haggadah traveled over mountains and across seas. But while almost every vintage Haggadah has a story of exile and escape, some are more incredible than others — such as the stories of these four Haggados, which are still making headlines.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

From Soup to Matzah

The Manchester Haggadah

 

It once graced the Seder table of one of Europe’s most fabled families, so how did this Haggadah end up forgotten in an Osem soup box? That was the question that faced Bill Forrest, a member of the Adam Partridge Auctioneers valuation team, who in July 2013 was sent to a Jewish home in Bury, England.

The elderly owner of the home had passed away a few years earlier. When the new owner, a niece (who has chosen to remain anonymous), was ready to dispose of the house’s contents, she contacted the locally based auction house.

Forrest went from room to room. When he reached the garage, he saw some old cardboard cartons. At the bottom of one of them, in an Osem soup box, he found a “thin, fairly modest-looking manuscript.” He began to leaf through the handwritten vellum pages, marveling at the more than 50 colored illustrations. Forrest, who isn’t Jewish, had no idea what the book was, but he realized at once that he had stumbled upon an amazing find. That initial hunch was confirmed as the illuminated Haggadah’s story began to unfold.

According to the title page, the Haggadah was written in the year 1726. The sofer and illustrator was Aaron Wolff Herlingen, a Jew from Moravia, who has been described as one of the greatest Jewish calligraphers of the 18th century. During his lifetime, Herlingen put his pen to miniature prayer books, Megillos Esther, circumcision books, and several Haggados. It’s thought that about 40 to 60 of his works are still in existence. Herlingen specialist Professor Emile G.L. Schrijver of the University of Amsterdam not only authenticated this Haggadah as the sofer’s work, but added that it is “a better-than-average example.”

The title page also provides information about the person who commissioned the Haggadah: Elias Oppenheimer, “son of the deceased R’ Mendel Oppenheimer.” Elias was a grandson of Samuel Oppenheimer, court Jew to the Austrian emperor and the founder of the famous Oppenheimer banking dynasty. In the evocative words of Professor Yaakov Wise, a historian at the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester, who examined the Haggadah’s wine-stained pages, “It is easy to imagine the wealthy family in Vienna sitting around in their wigs and their buckled shoes, reading it by candlelight.”
Although much of the Haggadah’s history remains shrouded in mystery, according to auctioneer Adam Partridge, by the early 1900s the Haggadah had been acquired by a family living in Belgium. When the family fled to England in 1940, ahead of the Nazi invasion of their country, the Haggadah went with them.

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