A collector’s life

Rabbi Stuart Geller has kept the spirit of Passover alive for himself by collecting some 190 Haggadot over the last 40 years.

Rabbi Stuart Geller 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Rabbi Stuart Geller 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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 apartment.
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 people’s past.
“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 family Sedarim.”
Geller acquired his first Haggada while serving as the spiritual leader of a synagogue in Cleveland in the early 1970s.
Growing 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.
In 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 Marathi.
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.
When it 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 family.
“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 people.
“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 Jerusalem.
“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.”
Geller has 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 him.
“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.