In Venetian history

The new Venice Haggadah is ready. It is a book that took years to prepare and now it is finally here, beautifully printed and I hold it in my hands. I feel the paper, slightly rough, strong and with a certain weight. Ready to be used for the oncoming Passover and for the future ones, as I learnt it is a book to recite and apparently expected to get dirty with food.

What is the Haggadah?

From Hebrew Haggāḏāh, ‘tale, parable’, from higgīḏ ‘tell, expound’, the Haggadah is a book that is recited at home during the Seder on the first two nights of Passover, also called Pesach. It includes the story, or rather the commentary, on the Exodus. In other words, the Haggadah talks about how people can reach freedom.

As the book is not supposed to be recited and read in the synagogue, but at home, it features illustrations, which otherwise are not allowed in Jewish religious literature. It is the most beloved book, right because it is for your home. Moreover, the way you recite is a ritual interrupted by moments of eating, drinking, and finally singing.

The book gets “dirty” with food: the wine you accidentally spill —and as you drink four glasses of wine, it may happen… and the jam of dates, raisins, apples, orange juice, almonds and pine nuts and some cinnamon. I don’t know you, but my mouth is watering 🙂

Sophie Herxheimer, 2015 for the new Venice Haggadah, 2021

When learning about this tradition, it reminded me of when I was a child and I always brought a book or comics I was reading at dinner with me. My parents were upset as they said, dinner is a moment to talk together and not to isolate yourself and read. I love the idea that reading the Haggadah happens during a dinner and that it is a book to recite aloud and to generate conversation.

Why a new Haggadah? And why in Venice?

The idea to publish a new Venice Haggadah was born in 2015. In 2016, Venice commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Jewish Ghetto. Not the first ghetto in history, but the first time that word would be used. The word “ghetto” originated in Venice in 1516, stemming from the fact that the area where Jews would be allowed to live, had been in the past a metal foundry, “getto”, in Venetian. German speaking Jews using the guttural “g” changed the pronunciation. The significance also changed, eventually describing an area of segregation, where officially Jews only lived with the compulsory rule to lock themselves from within starting at sunset till sunrise.

Hillel Smith, Ma Nishtana, The new Venice Haggadah, 2021. The artist has depicted Venetian houses inspired by the form of Hebrew letters

Industrial debris, unhealthy air to breathe, geographically peripheral in Venice’s urban plan: the Ghetto was a place where copper would be cast (“gettare” in Italian) and where cannons and weapons would be once forged. Where God would never reside — the parishes had never built a church there, either.

The publishing industry in Hebrew in ancient Venice: the 1609 edition of the Haggadah

Out of such a nowadays derogatory term, however, the Jewish ghetto in Venice also became a multilingual and multiethnic cradle where Jewish culture thrived, where academic salons were held and where diversity expressed itself in a flourishing publishing production, as well. As Shaul Bassi lists in the preface to the new Haggadah, it was in Venice where “the first Talmud, Torah commentaries, Halakhah, mysticism and in 1609 a famous Haggadah in several languages” were published.

This new project would focus on a book about freedom, to be published in a city that created the word “ghetto”, a city, on the other side, where Hebrew words about freedom would be printed. Interviewing Shaul Bassi, he pointed out

Jewish civilisation is not made of bricks, but words.

It takes a lot of courage to think of setting up a new version of the Haggadah in a city, Venice, where the famous one, printed by Israel ben Daniel Zifroni in 1609 came out. That famous edition appeared simultaneously with translations in Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Spanish and Judeo-German, the languages of the Jewish communities living in Venice at the time. In a later edition in 1629, the renowned Rabbi Leone da Modena, prepared the Judeo-Italian translation, too. You can see it here:

I love the illustrations as they show the preparation of the food for the Seder, the tools, the interiors of the house, they illustrate the events regarding the Exodus. Most importantly, the edition in 1629 published in Venice featured the use of copper engravings (instead of woodcuts) and stemmed from the extraordinary cultural growth the Ghetto was experiencing in those years. Copper to print books and no longer to create weapons…

The new Venice Haggadah: a traditional process for an innovative result

In Venice we are used to the overwhelming presence of the past. Sometimes that past is choking. Will we ever be able to create something as iconic as the Doge’s palace? As involving as the Assunta by Titian? As revolutionary as the books published by Aldus Manutius at the end of the 15th century?

The spirit of this new Haggadah is not to replicate the one published in 1609. As Jacqueline Nicholls, the head artist of this project, pointed out

Venice is layered with the imaginations of other artists and writers.

Andi Arnovitz, The four children, the new Venice Haggadah, 2021. The artist was inspired by the masks of the Carnival in Venice to represent the four children passage from the Haggadah

Different from a facsimile of the 1609 Venice Haggadah

Beit Venezia is an organization that promotes Jewish thought and culture and serves as a bridge between people of all cultures and religions. It launched the project of the new Haggadah and involved eight artists from five different countries, a mix of ages and backgrounds.

Neither tourists, nor residents

as Nicholls stressed. The residence would last four weeks to be spent in Venice, during which time each artist would then study the history of the Haggadot, think of three illustrations for the new Haggadah, prepare the etchings on copper plates and then print them. Illustrations sometimes connected to Venice, but not just. Surely however, thought of while in Venice. As Sophie Herxheimer pointed out, to be in very touristic Venice, but to work on this project helped her see Venice in a completely different perspective.

The artists collaborating at the new Venice Haggadah with Marc Epstein at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, Venice

Collaborative ethos underlying the new Venice Haggadah

A new English translation was curated by the current director of Beit Venezia, Marc Michael Epstein. He described his work as:

a quirky, non-gendered, egalitarian translation (…) at times literal, at times impressionistic, at times interpretative.

The Scuola Internazionale di Grafica Venezia directed by Lorenzo de Castro was in charge of the workshops, the preparation of the etchings and the printing process. Just a few meters away from the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo.

The project involved a small, independent publishing house in Venice, Damocle Edizioni run by Pierpaolo Pregnolato, who showed enthusiasm for a complicated job. He described it as

the experience of living inside the word, working on a book for conversation and meant to help people be together.

So, he selected a kind of paper he had never used before, its weight, the colours, a new binding, a new layout. Intrigued by the alphabet. He clearly showed the satisfaction for having published a book you will now find in Venice, which was not in Venetian bookshops before. Most importantly, not a facsimile, but a “lively, contemporary book with a more modern translation.”

The link to tradition

There is a strong link to tradition, though, in the new Venice Haggadah. As Shaul Bassi pointed out,

we did not imitate the past, but imitated the process of the past.

Epstein explained that meeting with the publisher, explaining the idea, coming up with technical and intellectual solutions was indeed a very similar process as in the ancient times. When the Haggadah in 1609 was printed, it was a contemporary work and so is this new book. In Venice you need to be inspired by the past. But, it is not the outcome you need to repeat, but its human, creative and collaborative process.

Only in this way, Venice can be a lively “home”, like a book of words, illustrations and fingerprints dirty with jam.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

On the cover of this blogpost: Josh Baum, Chad Gadya, Only one kid – the Song

To order your new Venice Haggadah copy, here is the link:
For further learning:
and reading: by Hillel Smith

Recommended Posts

Leave a Comment