Braille Haggadot: The Exodus from Egypt at Your Fingertips

A look at Passover Haggadot written for the blind and the visually impaired

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A Braille Haggadah. Photograph: Hanan Cohen

The ancient Biblical command, “Tell your child,” led to the appearance of the “Haggadah,” the text which is traditionally read at the Passover Seder (“Haggadah” is derived from a Hebrew root word which means “to tell” or “to say”). The Haggadah, one of the most ancient and central texts in the Jewish culture, apparently first took shape in the Second Temple period, and its form has largely remained stable from the Middle Ages to the present day. While originally the command “to tell” was interpreted as an instruction to recite the Passover story out loud, in public, today no Seder is complete without a written Haggadah.

Haggadot in Braille

As such, it is no surprise that the blind and the visually impaired also have need for a Haggadah  and are unwilling to make do with reciting the texts aloud. The National Library of Israel is in possession of seven Passover Haggadot written in Braille. Six of these were printed in Israel in recent years by various institutions that provide services to the country’s blind citizens, while another was printed several decades ago in the United States.

A Braille Haggadah. Photograph: Hanan Cohen

This American text produced in the early 1950s and acquired recently by the National Library, is likely one of the first Braille Haggadot ever printed.

How is a Braille Haggadah Printed?

The Passover Haggadah is an essential ritual item in the Jewish year cycle and there is naturally  great demand for Braille copies of the text among visually impaired Jewish readers. Ms. Esti Maouda from the Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped located in the Israeli city of Netanya, shared some more details with us on this topic.

 

A Braille Haggadah. Photograph: Hanan Cohen

First, as one would expect, Braille Haggadot are printed without illustrations. Braille is designed to transcribe text and does not relate to any other kinds of graphic elements. Maouda confirms that the Netanya Library has been in possession of a number of Braille Haggadot since its founding, sixty years ago. The library has many subscribers who are either blind, visually impaired or have other disabilities. All of them are in need of Passover Haggadoh. Therefore, ten years ago, the institution mounted a campaign to print numerous Haggadot and send them to all its subscribers, eliminating the need to maintain a large inventory of Haggadot and of having to deal with the lending and return process. Today, the library in Netanya offers a print-on-demand service. A subscriber interested in obtaining a Haggadah in Braille can contact the library and a Haggadah is printed for them.

What kinds of Braille Haggadot can be found at the Library for the Blind? There are three different versions available. The most popular is a regular Haggadah featuring the standard text. In addition, one can find Haggadot which feature the classic text alongside commentaries. The third type, perhaps the most intriguing and poignant, is a Haggadah which includes songs and stories for children. This version is used by blind parents who wish to read to their children as well as by blind children who prefer to take an active part in the Seder ceremony around the table. All the Haggadot in the Netanya library are in Hebrew.

 

A Braille printer. Courtesy of the Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped in Netanya

A Braille Haggadah: A Perishable Book

As any collector or library with a collection of Haggadot will tell you, the Haggadah is a particularly perishable book:  signs of use are especially evident in an item used during the Seder, a culinary event that lasts for hours. Esti Maouda insists that a Braille Haggadah is no exception. It too absorbs wine stains, and food crumbs typically become stuck in between its pages. Therefore, every once in a while the Library for the Blind receives a request for a Haggadah from someone who is already in possession of a copy but whose Haggadah was either badly stained or torn. And, naturally, the same process of erosion that occurs with any Braille book is also evident in Braille Haggadot: the more a book is read, the more the raised Braille dots on the page become worn down, with the text then becoming more difficult to read.

Today, the use of Braille books is on the decline. New computer technology, which can convert onscreen text into Braille dots that a blind person can feel with their fingertips, has made the thick, heavy Braille book redundant. However, because of the ceremonial use of the Haggadah at the Seder, the demand for Braille Haggadot remains high and many blind celebrators of Passover continue to use these books to this day.

 

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Meet the Oldest Printed Book in the National Library!

Printed in Rome, this book was once part of an Italian prince's library. Years later it made its way to Argentina, and eventually to Israel. The tome is now over 550 years old...

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The oldest printed book in the National Library collections, from 1469

The National Library of Israel collections include thousands of rare books from a plethora of countries, most of which were printed hundreds of years ago. About 300 of them were published during the Incunabulum period, the term used to denote the first 50 years of printing history, between 1450-1500. Printing was introduced to Europe around 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany. One of the first books Gutenberg and his publishers printed was the Biblia Gutenberga, which contained both the Old and New Testaments in Latin. The book was well received thanks to the high quality print of the sacred text and the relatively large number of copies produced. Around 50 copies have survived to this day and they are considered extremely rare and valuable. A single page from one of the copies printed between 1450-1455 is preserved in the National Library of Israel.

Printing technology spread rapidly. First in Germany – by the year 1500 there were already some 300 printing presses up and running in different locations across the country. Other European nations soon followed suit: Printing began in Italy in 1464, a year later the Netherlands followed, while France received the new technology in 1469. In 1473, books began to be printed in Spain, and then in England in 1476. Often, the printing pioneers in these countries were German experts who had studied and operated presses in their homeland, and then immigrated to other parts of Europe to establish new printing houses.

The rapid expansion of printing houses across the known world led to the First Knowledge Revolution. Christian religious books were the most commonly printed literature in the early days of the printing press, but philosophical works and even popular literature found their way onto the presses as well.

European Jews also recognized the advantages of printing. By the 1470s production of Hebrew books in Italy and Spain had begun. In most cases, the editions were relatively limited in quantity. The first books, released in batches of only 200 to 300 copies, were quite expensive.

Among the incunabula preserved in the National Library of Israel is a copy containing several ancient philosophical texts, all originally composed in the second century CE. It contains essays by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis, “Hermes Trismegistus” (there was no such author in truth, this was a later given name for an author or multiple authors active in the 2nd-century), and Albinus Platonicus.  Printed in the city of Rome by Konrad Sweynheim and Arnold Pannartz (a German pair who had immigrated to Italy) in 1469, this marked the first time that the philosophical texts were printed.

The printing of this book, as according to the colophon (the author or printer note that usually appears at the end of a book), was completed on February 28th, 1469. This precise, recorded date helped us to determine that this is the oldest printed book in the National Library of Israel’s collection.

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Lucii Apuleii Platonici Madaure[n]sis philosophi Metamorphoseos liber

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As was customary during this period, typesetters left room for the first initials of passages or chapters to be added in later. Book purchasers could then take the book to a professional illustrator to add colored letters, which often transformed the books into fascinating works of art. However, in our copy, these places remained empty. On the other hand, there were at least two owners of the book through the centuries who filled the tome with many handwritten footnotes.

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We can reconstruct some of the history of the book via the various seals and the ex-libris. For a certain period at the end of the 18th century, it was part of the library of Prince Marco Borghese of Italy. At the beginning of the 20th-century, it was owned by the collector Marcel Schlimovcz. For a period of time, it was kept in the Jewish community library in Argentina. The book was then donated to the National Library around 40 years ago.

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All that Remains of “The Great Unknown”

When culture critic Carl Ehrenstein reviewed the 1927 film, "The Great Unknown," he could not have known the fate that would befall the actors at the hands of the Nazis.

the great unknown

Cover of the invitation to the premiere of "Der Große Unbekannte" - "The Great Unknown", 1927, the National Library of Israel collections

Beginning in the last years of the 19th century, a new medium conquered the entertainment industry: cinema. During the first three decades of the development of cinema, viewers had to tolerate watching moving pictures that played with musical accompaniment. From the end of the 1920s, the number of films featuring synchronized sound (“talkies”) began to grow steadily, and within just a few years, silent films disappeared entirely.

Disappearing with them were also many actors who did not adjust to the new demands of the medium, including the soundtrack. In effect, film was a technological upgrade of theater: on theater stages, actors would appear every evening before a new audience, as they do today, while films preserve a one-time production of the plot. The film reels could be reproduced countless times, so copies of the film could be screened in the various cinemas in many cities across the globe – and in every screening, the audience would see the same version of the work (with the exception of differences that arose from the conditions of screening or from technical defects in the particular copy of the film).

Many cinemas also sprung up in Germany. Already in the days of Imperial Germany, these institutions drew an audience that was enthusiastic for even more films to be produced. The rate of film production was greatly accelerated during the years of the Weimar Republic – despite the tremendous economic problems that hindered the growth of the branch in the early 1920s. The production companies also operated movie theater chains such as UFA and EMELKA. In 1927, there were already some 4,300 cinemas in Germany, and the largest among them could house over 1,000 viewers. Premiere screenings of the new films took place in prominent movie theaters in the large cities, in order to ensure a large audience and immediate positive public response with the film’s release. Film critics and journalists were invited to these screenings, in the hope that they would write positive reviews in the newspapers, which in turn would be likely to draw more viewers to subsequent screenings.

One of the cultural critics active in Berlin was Carl Ehrenstein (1892-1971), a Viennese Jew, and brother of the well-known expressionist writer Albert Ehrenstein.

Albert Ehrenstein, Karl's brother
Albert Ehrenstein, Carl’s brother

Carl, who also attempted to create literary works in the expressionist style (but without much success), wrote reviews of various cultural events that took place in the German capital in the mid-1920s, often for the communist newspaper, Die Welt am Abend (“The World in the Evening”). Ehrenstein saved the invitations, entrance tickets and drafts of his articles about the events, as well as the final texts that were ultimately published in the newspaper. In this manner, his personal archive presents an impressive picture of the cultural life of Berlin in the “Golden Twenties.”

Cover of the invitation to the premier of Der große Unbekannte, 1927, National Library of Israel Collections
Cover of the invitation to the premiere of “Der Große Unbekannte” – “The Great Uknown”, 1927, the National Library of Israel collections

One of the events reviewed by Carl Ehrenstein was the first screening of the silent film “The Great Unknown,” held on October 13, 1927, at the Emelka Palace Theater on Berlin’s grand entertainment boulevard Kurfürstendamm. This movie was the first rendering of one of the spy novels written by British author Edgar Wallace (1875-1932): The Sinister Man. Wallace’s spy novels were very popular in Germany and appeared on the bestseller lists even decades after their publication. However, because this particular book was translated into German only a year after the premiere screening of the film, the plot was still unknown to most of the viewing audience.

The text of Ehrenstein's review of the film
The text of Ehrenstein’s review of the film

The film was produced and directed by Manfred Noa, a German director, who apparently came from a Jewish background, and who directed approximately 30 films during the 1920s. The most outstanding of these was a cinematic version (the only to this day) of the play “Nathan the Wise” (1922) by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. “The Great Unknown”, however, whose spectators included Carl Ehrenstein, belongs to another genre and appealed to a wider audience.

 

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The plot tells the story of a drug dealer, the power struggles of criminal gangs, and big money. The assortment of actors appearing in the film is a good representation of the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Berlin in the 1920s. It included actors from England, France, Austria, Germany, and even Asia. As occurred often, six years after the production, with the Nazi rise to power, the paths of the actors who appeared together in the film diverged. For example, Jack Trevor, the British actor who played the film’s leading role, moved to Germany and stayed there even through the Nazi period, during which he was forced to broadcast news on the radio throughout World War II. His Jewish colleague, Kurt Gerron, who was a very well-known actor in Germany, attempted to flee the Nazis but was apprehended and became an inmate at Terezín (Theresienstadt) where the Nazis forced the actor, who was also a director, to direct a propaganda film on the Theresienstadt Ghetto, the “City of Jews.” Ultimately, Kurt Gerron was murdered in Auschwitz a few months after the film was produced.

The invitation to the premiere, including the names of the actors and their parts
The invitation to the premiere, including the names of the actors and their respective roles

It is clear that when Carl Ehrenstein wrote his review of “The Great Unknown,” all that was yet to happen to those involved in it, and to the film itself, was unknown to him. In Ehrenstein’s opinion, the plot of the film was boring and represented bourgeois values (it should be remembered that he was writing for a communist newspaper). In contrast, he did not conceal his opinion that the directing and acting were good. As far as we know, every existing copy of the film disappeared. All that remains from “The Great Unknown” is the announcements advertising it, as well as the rare invitation to the opening screening presented here, which Carl Ehrenstein preserved among his documents.




 

The Beautiful Postcards Theodor Herzl Sent to His Daughter

Tracing Herzl’s journey to the Land of Israel through the touching postcards he sent to his young daughter along the way

הרצל

Herzl and his children

On October 12th, 1898, the visionary of the State, Binyamin Ze’ev (Theodor) Herzl, embarked on a journey to the Land of Israel in order to advance his great dream- a Jewish state for the Jewish People.

Throughout his journey, Herzl sent regular postcards and letters to his family. The one-of-a-kind collection of correspondence is housed at the National Library of Israel. The collection features brief greetings, written on postcards, sent to his eight-year-old daughter Paulina, from various stops along the journey.

The inscriptions on each of the postcards are brief, containing one or two sentences in Herzl’s handwriting. But the poignant words shed light on Herzl’s great love for his daughter and his desire to update her on the progress of his trip and reassure her that everything was fine.

The first postcard in the series was sent from Constantinople, soon to become Istanbul. The postcard is dated October 15th, 1898:

“Tender kisses to my delicate daughter Paulina from her faithful Papa”הרצל

Herzl had timed his journey to the Holy Land to coincide with a visit by the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Zionist visionary hoped to discuss the particulars of a future Jewish homeland with the Kaiser. On the same day on which he sent the above postcard, Herzl wrote the following in his personal journal:

I have discussed the conditions we should put forth with Bodenheimer [a member of the delegation which accompanied Herzl]. The border of the region: from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates. To stipulate a transitional period with independent institutions. A Jewish governor for the transitional period. When the (Jewish) population in a certain area reaches two-thirds of the total population, the administration, from a political standpoint, will become a Jewish administration.”

Five days later, on October 20th, Herzl wrote to his daughter from Smyrna, the Turkish port city of Izmir:

“Many tender kisses from Asia Minor to my good daughter Paulina, from her faithful Papa”

הרצל

 

Herzl, already in Athens the very next day, wrote:

“Tender kisses from Greece to my delicate daughter Paulina from her faithful Papa”

הרצל

 

The journey stretched on, and on October 29th, reached its climax – the meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm II at Mikveh Yisrael in Jerusalem. Herzl hoped that, with his help, he might receive a special charter for the establishment of a Jewish state from the Turkish Sultan. A cameraman from Herzl’s delegation was supposed to capture the historic moment, but the amateur photographer missed the photo-op to Herzl’s great disappointment…

The next day Herzl wrote again to Paulina, this time in a postcard celebrating his meeting with the Kaiser:

“To my good Paulina, tender kisses are sent to you from your faithful Papa in Jerusalem”

הרצל

 

The next day, Herzl sent yet another postcard, this time with a picture of Hebron, on which he wrote:

“Kisses from your faithful Papa

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If I remember you in the future, Jerusalem, not with pleasure will I remember you,” Herzl wrote in his journal on October 31st, “The moldy residues of two thousand years of cruelty, intolerance, and filth lie in the stinking streets. If we ever get Jerusalem, and if it is within my ability, I will clean it first. I shall remove everything that is not sacred, I shall set up housing for laborers outside of the city, I shalI empty out the nests of filth, destroy them, burn those ruins which are not  sacred, and the bazaars I shall move to another place. Preserving the old building style as much as possible, I will erect a modern, convenient, clean and functioning city around the holy sites.

 

Thanks to Dr. Gil Weissblei of the Archives Department for his assistance in the research and preparation of this article.

 

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