Friday, January 14, 2011

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

This book is a fantastic tour through history, following the fate of one 500 year old Jewish prayer book, the Sarajevo Haggadah. While the stories are fictional, the actual book does exist, and it was saved by the muslim assistant curator when the museum was being bombed in the Bosnian war. It is also true that it was similarly saved by a muslim during WW2 when the Nazis took over Sarajevo. He managed to hide the book in a library in the country where it remained safely until the war's end. While these amazing true stories are included in the book, the author paints a portrait of other possible adventures the book had throughout history, including the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the harrowing Inquisition that continued long after. Each chapter uncovers a 'mystery' of a certain part of the manuscript, whether it be a wine stain in one corner, or the fate of the missing clasps, or the white hair found on one of the illuminations. These stories are interspersed with the story of Hannah Heath, the modern book preserver who was in charge of preserving the book after the Bosnian war ends. She seeks to learn as much as she can about this book, but in the meantime steps inside her own drama.

I found the historical chapters much more interesting than Hannah's, but thought they were a good way to tie-in all the adventures that this amazing book may have had, and all the history it has witnessed. A truly engaging book from start to finish, and I learned much of the fate of Jews in Europe in history earlier than WW2. I also learned a little about the process of book conversation and preservation, and how much the materials used to make books have changed in the last 500 years.

What is a Haggadah? s It is a Jewish religious text that sets out the order of the Passover Seder. Reading the Haggadah is a fulfillment of the scriptural commandment to each Jew to "tell your son" about the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt as described in the Book of Exodus in the Torah. ("And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt. "

As of 2006, the oldest complete readable manuscript of the Haggadah is found in a prayer book compiled by Saadia Gaon in the tenth century. The earliest known Haggadot (the plural of Hagaddah) produced as works in their own right are manuscripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries such as "The Golden Haggadah" (probably Barcelona c. 1320) and the "Sarajevo Haggadah" (late fourteenth century). It is believed that the first printed Haggadot were produced in 1482, in Guadalajara, Spain; however this is mostly conjecture, as there is no printer's colophon. The oldest confirmed printed Haggadah was printed in Soncino, Italy in 1486 by the Soncino family.

The Sarajevo Haggadah (the book in which People of the Book is based) is one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world, originating in Barcelona around 1350. The Haggadah is presently owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, where it is on permanent display.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold. It opens with 34 pages of illustrations of key scenes in the Bible from creation through the death of Moses. Its pages are stained with wine, evidence that it was used at many Passover Seders. In 1991 it was appraised at US$7 million

Other Books to Consider: The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier, Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, and The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber.

1 comment:

Booksnob said...

Loved this book!