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The Sarajevo Haggadah: A History of Hope for Humankind

The Sarajevo Haggadah was created in the mid-1300s in Spain, when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together in relative harmony. A richly illuminated manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah bears similarities to medieval Christian books.

"The illustrations paint a vivid picture of medieval Jewish life," notes correspondent Kim Lawton, in a 7 1/2-minute news video prepared for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, a source for cutting edge reporting and analysis at the intersection of faith and culture. "Doodles and red wine stains on the pages show the Haggadah was well-used at Passover celebrations." Not only that, but according to Professor Marc Michael Epstein of Vassar and Boston Colleges, the persons in the images probably look like members of the family that commissioned the work because "the tradition of Jews on Passover is that one should see oneself as if one had personally come out of Egypt, and by putting oneself visually into the art, one has an opportunity to do this."

Although created in Spain, it probably left the country in 1492, when Jews were expelled. The document's subsequent history shows the humanity of people across religious and national divisions. A notation in the book places it in Italy in 1609, then in 1894 it was sold by a Joseph Kohen to the National Museum in Sarajevo, where it was hidden from the Nazis during World War II by a Muslim librarian, who kept it in a mosque. It was back in the museum in 1992 when, during the Bosnian war, another Muslim librarian risked his life to retrieve it and secure it in a bank vault.

Bosnian Merima Kljuco has now written a musical that tells the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been performed at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Boston. Her musical is based on a book by Geraldine Brooks, called "People of the Book," a fictional story  that expands on real events surrounding the Sarajevo Haggadah. Brooks says the value of this particular version of the haggadah is how its story shows that even though "we succumb so easily to this demonization of the other," every time we do that, "there is (sic) always a few people who are able to stand apart and say, 'No, not this way. What unites us is greater than what divides us.' And that gives me hope for us as a species."

In an extended interview, Professor Epstein offers additional perspective. For more on reaching across national, cultural, and faith boundaries, see our feature article, "Best Resources for Community Engagement."

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