When Prof. Shimon Iakerson was a teenager he learned an unpleasant fact, he was Jewish, and will not be able to pursue higher education in the USSR. Decades later, the public is invited to virtually meet him on Tuesday for an English lecture at Beit Avi Chai taking you on a trip in time about how the Passover Haggadah evolved through history.
“I said, if I am a Jew, I might as well know what that means,” he shared.
Thanks to Aba Taratuta, a towering figure in the Soviet-Jewish struggle to leave the USSR, Iakerson got his first Hebrew text book and fell in love with the language.
Now he offers to take the audience on a fascinating virtual journey as he explains the different forms Jews created to tell of the Exodus from Egypt as they partake of the Passover meal.
He begins with a rare example of Jewish folk art currently at the Russian Museum of Ethnography at Saint Petersburg. Paper-thin, “it is the only example of such popular art used by the common people during the 19th century,” he explains.
“These things were bought in the market, hung during the holiday, and then tossed away.”
The art depicts the four sons of the Haggadah, the wise son in religious garb, the evil one clean-shaved with a military hat, and the one who does not know how to pose questions not paying attention to the dinner table.
“I have a Russian soul,” shares Iakerson, “so this art gave me joy as it reminded me of the poem ‘Who is Happy in Russia?’ by Nikolai Nekrasov, in which he asks when will the people put on their walls not the portrait of some army general but of Gogol or [literary critic] Belinsky. Here we have an example of how the average Jewish person going to market also found the time to buy something of a spiritual nature, just as the poet hoped.
“Some Jewish prayer books included the Haggadah,” he points out, “and the production of individual books meant to be used at Passover was also acceptable.” The format of the Passover meal was only formally established by Maimonides in his 1168 work Mishneh Torah.
In his Tuesday lecture, Iakerson will also explore the Sarajevo Haggadah.
Created in roughly 1350, this telling of the Passover story is one of the best known examples of Jewish-Sephardi art.
“In my own eyes, it is an example of how good people can work together against evil,” Iakerson told The Jerusalem Post.
“During WWII the Nazis entered Sarajevo and wished to confiscate this work. Derviš Korkut, the non-Jewish curator and librarian of the museum then, risked his life and hid it in a mosque. This is how people, regardless of their differences, are able to resist evil.”
While in the US for Passover one time, his host asked if he could share a recent discovery.
“Of course,” joked the scholar, “I have found that the copies we all use that request people drink four cups of wine are all wrong. An earlier version required Jews drink fourteen cups of wine. Yet, sadly, the teen got dropped during the generations of copying the text down.”
The host laughed and warned him not to repeat it. “Some people,” he cautioned, “would believe anything you tell them.”
The lecture, Hebrew Manuscripts Treasures in the Saint Petersburg, and other collections with a focus on the Passover Haggadah will take place on Tuesday, March 16 at 8 p.m. via the Beit Avi Chai website. Admission is free. Previous lectures are available on the site as well.