Rabbi Stuart Geller has always cherished his Passover Seders as a young boy
growing up in Denver, Colorado. His fascination with the Haggada began at one
such Seder in his childhood when, for a brief moment, adults listened to him
shakily sing the Four Questions. That was the special beginning for Geller. But
it wasn’t until the 1970s when he was a rabbinical student that he developed a
lifelong appreciation for the text.
“It was only when one of my
professors at Hebrew Union College showed us that the Haggada was a giant lesson
plan that I realized that the story it contained could have many spiritual and
educational components,” he says in an interview from his Jerusalem
For Geller, who has collected some 190 Haggadot over the last
40 years, looking at the ancient pages of the Aleppo Codex, the oldest copy of
the Bible that still exists, and holding a Haggada make him feel close to his
“There is a special feeling standing there looking at the
ancient pages and knowing that Maimonides looked at these pages and studied
them,” he says.
“I have the same feeling when I pick up old Haggadot in
used book stores. I look closely at the pages, some with stains of wine, and try
to imagine a family and their friends sitting around the Seder table and using
this sacred book. My reveries in the store carry me back to those old Sedarim
with my family in Denver long ago. I miss them of course, but then it was from
that ‘personal Pessah past’ that I began to understand how to organize our
Geller acquired his first Haggada while serving as the
spiritual leader of a synagogue in Cleveland in the early 1970s.
up in western America, he had participated in Sedarim with his grandparents
where the standard Haggadot were from Bloch Publishers. He wanted more unusual
volumes for his table to share with his wife and children, like the Arthur Szyk
Haggadah in Blue Vellum, his first Haggada purchase some 40 years ago.
the early ’70s the Szyk volume was very popular because of the power of the
images therein and because of the wonderful colors.
In recent years,
Rabbi Irvin Ungar, conservator of the Szyk manuscripts, has published a new
edition of that Haggadah based on the original drawings.
AS THE Geller
quest continued, he ran across the early reproductions of Haggadot by the Diskin
Orphanage and by the Girls’ Orphan Home of Jerusalem. These series, only in
black and white, introduced many people to the 18th- and 19th-century
handwritten and hand-drawn Haggadot. In addition, Geller has acquired a Chinese
Haggada from the 18th century produced in Kaifeng Fu and, from the 19th century,
a Haggada from Bombay with illustrations and a translation in
When the Ethiopian Jews began to come to Israel in the early
1990s, one of the important statements about their identity as Jews were the
Haggadot which the group published and distributed. Geller has a beautiful one
from 1999 in which the cover shows, in color, a large group of Ethiopian Jews
praying. Inside, the Haggada has more illustrations and a text in Hebrew. Last
year the Koren Haggada about Ethiopian Jewry explored the history of Passover
traditions from this group who struggled so hard to make aliya.
was was first issued in 2006, Geller drove to Haifa to acquire the Tamar Messer
Haggadah. The color images are very impressive.
Geller also owns the Ben
Shahn Haggadah which made its mark in the 1960s. Recently, Stuart found a copy
of the Trade-In Motors of Israel Haggadah with a piece of matza, protected by
plastic, on the cover.
GELLER NOT only collects Haggadot, he also wrote
basic editions for nursery and religious school classes, as well as for his
“There was the Haggada we created and used when the kids were
little,” he recalls. “Still later, after our aliya in 2001, my daughter and her
husband wrote their own incorporating all the songs and poetry that we had
utilized in a nearly 40-year span.”
In retrospect, Geller explains the
many paths he has traversed with this most inspirational work of our
“The Haggada has been a wonderful lesson plan for children filled
with questions and answers; [it] has provided a continuing sheaf of songs; and
has demonstrated the essence of family all in one classroom. Ah, perhaps I
should mention my grandmother’s matza-ball soup as a vital part of all of this?”
What Geller can best teach us is how to collect on a limited budget in
“Every year,” he stresses, “new Haggadot are published and
offered up for sale. Clearly, I cannot buy all of them, but I do try to buy new
ones, in my price range, that are different. This year I purchased the
Cailingold Haggadah at the Jerusalem Book Fair since I had missed it two years
ago. My motto, clearly, is at least to buy a few.
“But then I have a lot
of fun perusing the used book stalls and stores. I want to emphasize that in
Israel people do not throw away holy books. They do, however, pass them along to
the book stores which do stock the old used Haggadot. So every year when I walk
in, I am warmly greeted, and I leave with at least a dozen of those Pessah books
which people have given up for Seder spiritual recycling.”
another source which helps him build up his numbers.
“Friends know that I
collect so they pass them on to me. Never forget that companies give out
Haggadot for free every year. I, in fact, have several from El Al which my wife
and I received during trips around Pessah time.”
The printed Haggada was
first issued in 1493 in Italy.
The Soncino family published one that
year, and an anonymous publisher printed the other. Since then the Haggada has
appeared in a multitude of countries with translations and commentaries in at
least 70 languages.
One interesting fragment of the Haggada was found in
a bookbinding by the “kitchen archeologist,” Ezra Gorodesky of Jerusalem. In a
binding he opened, he found the artist’s proof pages of a 1560 Haggada printed
in Mantua, Italy. The cataloguer explained “these pages were probably used by
the printer as proofs for the setting of illustrations and rejected as improper
because of their bad quality.” The Gorodesky Haggadah fragments reside in
Special Collections at the National Library in Jerusalem along with 1,000 other
pieces he discovered.
For this Jerusalem collector 2013 is an especially
good year because the first Haggada from a Jerusalem press was printed by Israel
Bak in 1843, 170 years ago. Geller, in the last two years, has added over 20
used Haggadot published in Jerusalem. He also now has a 1958 Sinai Haggada from
Tel Aviv with a picture of a synagogue sanctuary that he identified as the
Stadtstempel in Vienna.
Geller’s ritual each year of collecting new
Haggadot and revisiting old ones keeps the spirit of the holiday alive for
“Before the Seder each year,” Geller stresses, “I take out many
Haggadot which have been tucked away and hibernated since last Pessah. I discuss
them, and invariably this prompts our visitors that night to tell their stories
and recount their memories. Personally, I always have tears in my eyes when at
that magnificent conclusion we intone ‘next year in Jerusalem.’ I dreamed of
fulfilling that promise and now we are actually living that dream.” Stuart
Geller and David Geffen are neighbors in Jerusalem. The author continues
to learn about Haggadot from his friend.
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