These Rediscovered Melodies Survived the Holocaust. Now They’re Online

Tunes from his childhood accompanied Yitzchak Freilich through the camps and on to his new life in America. Recorded by his son, they are now online as part of the National Library of Israel collection

"The rituals of Shabbes and holidays and the lively Hasidic niggunim as well as their soulful prayer marked the happiest and deepest memories of my father’s prewar life." [Image from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection]

My father Yitzchak Freilich’s stories of survival during the Holocaust were laced with liturgical references. In recounting his first Shabbes (Sabbath) as a prisoner in the Pustkow camp in southeastern Poland early in the war – forced for the first time to violate the Sabbath by performing hard labor – he returned to his barracks exhausted and despondent and fell into a deep sleep.

Dreaming that he was at home with his family for Seudah Shlishit, the afternoon Sabbath meal, he woke himself up singing zmirot, songs traditionally sung around the table.

His long and harrowing tale ended on a similar note: five camps and years later, as his Russian liberators approached Theresienstadt, my father and some of the other prisoners spontaneously burst out singing “Avinu Malkeinu“, the hallowed prayer of the High Holidays. By then, he was the only survivor of his immediate family.

This sort of musical bracketing of his wartime experiences is not surprising given my father’s upbringing. The fourth of five children born to a Hasidic family in 1922 in Radomyszl Wielki, a tiny Polish shtetl, his father, Asher Freilich, was a traveling Ba’al T’filah, an itinerant prayer leader.

Asher Freilich (Courtesy: Toby Perl Freilich)

My grandfather’s route was guided by a quest for Hasidic davening (prayer) that dug deep into his soul, and he was frequently accompanied by my father and my uncle Naftuli, my father’s older brother. Occasionally my grandfather or others in the shtetl hosted visiting Hasidic dignitaries, such as the Dembitzer or Zabner rebbes, who might leave behind a little known but striking tune, known as a “niggun” (pl. “niggunim“), that was then incorporated into the family’s repertoire.

The rituals of Shabbes and holidays and the lively Hasidic niggunim as well as their soulful prayer marked the happiest and deepest memories of my father’s prewar life. The household was poor, but my father’s memories were invariably warm, loving and inextricably linked to the music he had heard at home when his family had been intact.

In the late 1990s, with my father’s health failing and his depression deepening, my brother, Mel Freilich, had the brilliant inspiration to sit my father down over the course of a number of Shabbes and holiday eves to videotape him singing the t’fillot (prayers), piyyutim (liturgical poems), zmirot, and other songs that had formed the soundtrack of his childhood.

Yitzchak Freilich (lower left) and his family before the war (Courtesy: Toby Perl Freilich)

Mel also asked him to recall the rituals surrounding the holidays and the origin of the niggunim, insisting that my father speak in Yiddish – an astute directorial prompt, as it allowed my father to vividly channel his boyhood memories including the folkways of the town’s Jews.

On Fridays, his mother prepared a lunch of farfel and tzikker arbis (lima beans), a modest meal to ensure that they came to the main meal that night with a keen appetite. On Purim, the matzos were baked in a communal oven and hung from the attic rafters until Pesach to keep the mice at bay.

On the morning of Lag Ba’Omer, the rebbe of the kheder (children’s religious school) took them to the woods; they carried hard-boiled eggs and bagels and crude bows and arrows (“a feil und boigen“), made of two sticks and a string. They would merrily shoot into the air, vaguely in the direction of the birds so that it was never a surprise when they failed to capture any quarry. He recounts the precise order of t’fillot and niggunim on Friday night: what was recited after the fish; which zmirot were sung at Seudah Shlishit.

My father passed away in 2002, and only my brother – the keeper of the family’s flame – watched the videos in toto, my sister and I not having the heart.

Mel Freilich, keeper of the family’s flame (Courtesy: Mel Freilich)

A few years ago, my sister’s husband died and suddenly the mortality of our generation became all too real, as was the anxiety that these memories would pass along with us if we didn’t ensure their preservation.

I became an Israeli citizen a couple of months ago, joining my sister, who made Aliyah in 1968 and lives on Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi. My parents are buried on the kibbutz, and most of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren either live in Israel or think of it as a second home, so it made sense for our father’s tapes to find a home here as well. I reached out to my friend, Naomi Schacter, who heads International Relations at the National Library of Israel, and she put me in touch with Dr. Gila Flam, the Head of the Music and Sound Archives, Collections and Reading Room, who welcomed our precious legacy to the NLI’s ethnographic collection.

The videos are now preserved and available online for all to see.

Click to view two clips of Yitzchak Freilich singing various songs and niggunim, including some traditionally sung on Purim, Passover and the High Holidays, now part of the National Library of Israel collection
Click to view two clips of Yitzchak Freilich singing Shabbes and Shavuos songs from his childhood, now part of the National Library of Israel collection

Once the videos were online, I began to watch them more assiduously, finding new connections between the origin stories of these niggunim and my father’s Holocaust stories. For example, my father sang an outstanding and exceedingly rare rendition of “Yah Ribon Olam“, the popular table hymn sung on Shabbat. It was not until I listened to my brother’s recording that I heard the source of this niggun, which my father attributes to the “Melitzer rebbe,” Reb Yitzchokele Horowitz. “Melitz” rang a bell and I realized it was the Yiddishized reference to the town of Mielić, where my father had been imprisoned as a slave laborer in the city’s aircraft factory, which had been appropriated by the Nazis and turned into a camp. It was also where he had received his distinctive tattoo – a large KL on his right wrist, an acronym for Konzentrationslager Lager (concentration camp). But when asked, my father would declare that KL stood for “koidesh l’Hashem” – Holy to God.

My mother, Chana Perl Freilich, also a survivor from a Hasidic shtetl in Poland, punctuates the videos with a few well-timed and powerful cameo appearances. The Yom Kippur eve recording is particularly difficult to watch as my father repeatedly breaks down. Following his third or fourth failed attempt (before finally rallying), my mother comes into frame, kisses him on his head and says in Yiddish, “You know what? Today is Yom Kippur eve… And I don’t think you have so much to repent – you haven’t sinned very much.”

Anna and Yitzchak Freilich, 1947 (Courtesy: Toby Perl Freilich)

Implicit in her comments is the grudge many observant survivors bore toward God for the unwarranted catastrophe visited upon pious Jews. My mother would frequently wave a rhetorical fist at the heavens, saying “Ikh hub a din v’khesbon mit dem Riboineh Shel Oilem” – “I have an accounting with God”.

It was at once an expression of unquestioning faith yet resentment toward God, testifying to a longstanding and weary, yet intimate relationship.

Yom Kippur was a loaded day for my mother as well as my father, a day heavy with memory and fate. There’s a particularly chilling story related to Yom Kippur and my mother’s shtetl, Szydłowiec. The Jews of her ghetto were rounded-up and transported to the camps two days after Yom Kippur, on September 23, 1942. A surviving eyewitness recounts that as they were gathered in the central square before being deported to Treblinka, the rabbi of the shtetl, Chaim Yekusiel Rabinowitz, said, “Yidden, we will not even have anybody left to say Kaddish for us, so we are obligated to say Kaddish for ourselves.”

Jewish cemetery in Szydłowiec (Photo: Jerzy Budziszewski). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

All of the assembled began to wail and chant Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer: “Yisgadal v’yiskaddash shemei rabba.”

A day earlier, my mother along with a married cousin and her husband, Gitele and Yossel Friedenson, had been fortunate to escape to the nearby town of Starachowice, having secured forged work papers for the labor camp. They barely survived the brutal conditions and were transported to Auschwitz on Tisha B’Av, July 30, 1944.

On the Shabbes tape, my father says that it was the custom among the Hasidim in his region

to begin the Friday davening with a “kapitl Tehilim” – “a little bit of Psalms”, and he begins to chant the customary Psalm 107, reaching the following words:

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.
Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness,
prisoners suffering in iron chains,
because they rebelled against God’s commands
and despised the plans of the Most High.
So he subjected them to bitter labor;
they stumbled, and there was no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.

He finishes midway through the Psalm and says, “You see, I didn’t want to end on hunger, thirst, and bondage.”

And so, I will stop where he chose to end:

He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness,
and broke away their chains.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Drawing Moses… From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

A glimpse into how artists across the ages have tried to depict the undepictable events at Mt. Sinai...

Moses and Mt. Sinai on a 17th century Dutch map. From the Amir Cahanovitc Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

“And they saw the sounds…”

What does that mean? How can sounds be seen? What do they look like?

Though every word in the Torah has been scrutinized and analyzed for generations, this description – provided in the context of the Israelites receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai – seems particularly enigmatic.

The answer is certainly not obvious nor clear, and like any good Jewish question, it has been asked and answered in some very interesting ways across the ages.

Many understood it quite literally – the letters comprising the Ten Commandments themselves appeared in the air, for all to see.

Jewish National Fund poster, ca. 1960. From the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

Some took a bit of a more mind-bending approach, explaining – in various ways – how at that critical moment in the Jewish story, the Israelites were on a different physical and spiritual plain… All their senses merged together.

Still, other commentators rejected both of those explanations, instead opting for a more rational approach: the description was not to be understood literally. Just as someone who understands something might say, “I see,” so, too, did the Israelites “see” the commandments they were receiving.

Given the ambiguous nature of these particular words, it seems no wonder that artists over the centuries who wanted to draw the scene largely focused on concepts and imagery that would be a bit easier to convey.

Here are a few depictions from the National Library of Israel collections, ranging from the sublime to the (all but) ridiculous…

Let’s start with the sublime…

This gorgeous 15th century Italian prayer book shows Moses atop Mt. Sinai receiving a Torah scroll from Heaven. You have to give the artist credit for making efforts to show the sounds and shofar blasts referenced in the original text… those shofars are clearly blasting right down to Moses and all of the Israelites below!

Prayer book according to the Roman rite, ca. 1450. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

Less colorful (and less Jewish) – though no less detailed – our next depiction comes from one of the first printed books to integrate images and text. Liber chronicarum, published in Nuremberg in 1493, is an historical encyclopedia printed in Latin and shortly thereafter in German.

Though depicting God is generally a “no-no” in Jewish sources, it was okay for the Christian artists who created this work, showing God Himself giving a horned Moses the Ten Commandments!

In a seeming contradiction to the Biblical text, Israelites are shown waiting for the Law rather patiently.

Page 114 of Liber chronicarum, Nuremberg, 1493. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

This one, which appeared in a work edited by an 18th century Jesuit missionary, features a crucified Jesus right next to Moses on Mt. Sinai! Also, check out the stairs going up the mountain. Eighty-year-old Moses surely would have appreciated those, even if they do kind of look like an MC Escher creation…

Engraving by Christian Dietell appearing in Joseph Stoecklein’s Der Neue Welt-Bott, Augsburg and Graz, 1732. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel collection.

A similar one, printed in Russia in 1821, shows Moses literally being handed the Ten Commandments:

“A view representing Mount Sinai, all the wonderful and ancient places lying in Jerusalem and in the vicinity of Onago…”, St. Petersburg, 1821. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

No hands of God in the next one, printed in 16th century Venice, though Moses does get horns (as opposed to rays of lights protruding from his head), and a nice cottage!

Moses receiving the Law on a Latin map printed in Venice, 1569. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Moses on Mt. Sinai features in countless Christian maps, sometimes appearing as a geographical location within the map and sometimes as more of an artistic accent somewhere outside the boundaries of the map itself.

Here are a few examples, many of them featuring identical or very similar images alongside texts that have been translated into different languages.

Click on the link in each caption to see the full map and see if you can find Moses in the original!

Map appearing in a Dutch Bible, ca. 1600. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

Images of Moses and Mt. Sinai on a map printed in Amsterdam, 1677. From the Amir Cahanovitc Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click images to enlarge
Moses receiving the Law on a French map printed in Amsterdam, 1704. From the Amir Cahanovitc Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Moses receiving the Law on a German map printed in The Netherlands, 1716. From the Amir Cahanovitc Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

And now for some Jewish renditions…

Here are the Ten Commandments appearing on Mt. Sinai. Notice that Moses doesn’t appear, perhaps due to the religious sentiments of the Jewish cartographer or his intended clientele.

“Map of the Holy Land and its boundaries” by Joseph Schwarz, Wuerzburg, 1829. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

Though there are some Jewish maps, such as the one by Joseph Schwarz appearing above, Haggadot are, of course, a much more common place to find Jewish art, and – in our case – depictions of Moses on Mt. Sinai.

This depiction, which includes a fence around Mt. Sinai as mentioned in the text, has an almost shtetl-like vibe to it, no?

Depiction of the scene by renowned scribe and illuminator Meshullam Zimmel ben Moshe of Polna (Bohemia) appearing in a Haggadah produced in Vienna, 1719. From the National Library of Israel Collection. Click image to enlarge

A similar scene, with Moses apparently engulfed by clouds, appears in a different illustrated Haggadah produced a few years later by another renowned Jewish artist, Joseph ben David of Leipnik. It is likely that both of these images (as well as the last one featured in this article) were inspired by the 1695 printed Amsterdam Haggadah.

Depictions of Moses and Mt. Sinai by Joseph ben David of Leipnik, appearing in a Haggadah produced in Darmstadt, 1733. From the National Library of Israel Collection

And now the illustration of Moses you may or may not have been waiting for…

From afar it looks like a similar scene and a decent enough rendition of Moses and the Giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Haggadah, Amsterdam, 1769. From the National Library of Israel collection

Yet as you look closer… something seems a bit off…

With all due respect to children, this illustration appearing in a priceless centuries-old Hebrew manuscript looks like… well… a second grade arts-and-crafts project?

Maybe even a self-portrait of an enraged elementary school student tearing up his homework?

Could something have gone wrong along the way?

The artist’s own child stepped in when Dad wasn’t looking?

Paint was running low?

An attempt at “post-modern” before there was even “modern”?

A botched restoration attempt?

We will never know, though maybe – like the sounds at Mt. Sinai, any good work of art and every Jewish text – we are all meant to see and appreciate this particular “revelation” at Mt. Sinai in our own way.

Many thanks to friends and colleagues Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Dr. Stefan Litt and Ayelet Rubin for their assistance.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

From Amsterdam to Persia: A World of Wine-Stained Haggadot

Four glasses of wine is a lot, are we really that surprised?

The wine-stained Amsterdam Haggadah

We urge you to please be as understanding as possible. There’s simply no need to rush to judgement here. Those gathered around the Passover Seder table are required by tradition to down four glasses of wine during the holiday meal. As fate would have it, over the course of the Seder, the wine contained in these glasses has been known to spill over onto tablecloths, dishes of food, nearby Seder guests, and even the cherished pages of our Passover reading material: the Haggadah.

Meet the manuscript known in Hebrew as Yom Geulat Avadim (“The Day of Redemption of Slaves”), completed in Persia in the year 1782 by the scribe David Shabtai. This is in fact a Passover Haggadah, containing a distinguishing feature: a series of mysterious stains, which only appear in its second part.

On the right – an unstained page, on the left –  wine stains  on the 1782 Haggadah


“Come and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do our father Jacob”

Why is only one section of the manuscript adorned with these stains? The answer likely has something to do with when the different sections were written. Pages 1-13 feature a different script as well as a different type of paper, which was mercifully not exposed to the staining liquid. This section was apparently added to the manuscript at a later stage. It contains a Hebrew piyyut, a liturgical hymn, beginning with the words “Yom geulat avadim”, and also includes a translation into Judeo-Persian.

Generally, when we encounter stained manuscripts, we tend to assume that they resulted from the ravages of time leaving their mark. But in this case, we have reason to believe that the stains are the result of wine spilled during a Passover Seder, as the stained section of the manuscript contains the Passover Haggadah. The work’s colophon states that these pages were copied by David Shabtai, while also adding an ominous warning – “The reader shall rejoice and the thief shall be erased” (“הקורא ישמח והגונב ימח”).

The second stained manuscript we will present here, inscribed in Amsterdam in 1712, also has its stains on the “right” pages. In the case of this Haggadah, the wine stains show up on the very pages which instruct readers to drink from their glasses. True, we haven’t gone to the trouble of sending the Haggadah to a lab to confirm the molecular structure of the liquid we suspect to be wine, but we feel the evidence is quite convincing. The stains naturally re-appear in the section recalling the ten plagues of Egypt, whose reading is accompanied by the traditional dipping of the finger into one’s wine glass. That’s all the confirmation we need.

The Amsterdam Haggadah from 1712


The stains appear on a page mentioning the four glasses of wine, “טעמי ארבע כוסות”

It seems that four glasses were more than enough for one reader, as a huge wine stain also covers an entire page containing part of the classic Passover song Dayenu.

Ten copies of this edition of the Haggadah came to the National Library of Israel with the deposit of the Valmadonna Trust Collection in 2017. Of these ten Haggadot, the Library decided to digitize the wine-stained copy, as a souvenir of an especially festive Passover Seder held long ago.

A huge wine stain covers part of the song Dayenu

The practice of spilling wine during the Seder has endured over time, of course, with our next piece of evidence dating to 1946 – a Haggadah  published in the Land of Israel, towards the end of the British Mandate period.

Haggadah Eretz-Yisraelit LePesach, Sinai Publishing, Tel Aviv, 1946

Here we see that the Jewish pioneers of the pre-state era were just as careless and ill-disciplined as their ancestors in the Diaspora, if not worse! In fact, wine stains can be found on nearly every page of this Haggadah, with no connection whatsoever to written instructions regarding wine-consumption. It seems these people enjoyed their holidays.

While this is the most recent example we were able to find in the National Library catalog, we have reason to believe that this custom is still going strong today. Wishing you a very happy Passover from the National Library of Israel!


The Wicked Son Runs the Seder: Yiddish Parodies of the Haggadah

They provided annual humorous explorations of religion, politics, current events and much more...

"The Four Sons (of the Haggadah of Unemployment)", appearing in the April 10, 1914 edition of the satirical newspaper Der Kibetzer⁩. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Why is this article different from all other articles? It’s not because you’re reading it in a reclining position or because there’s something bitter about it. This article is different because it considers an odd fact of Jewish literature: that there are more parodies of the Passover Haggadah than parodies of other traditional texts.

Parody, the imitation of a literary style or structure for comic effect, is a relatively common product of Jewish and, especially Yiddish, humorists. Everything from the Tanakh to the Talmud through the greatest hits of Jewish liturgy have been parodied by wags the world over.

The question may be asked, who would do such a thing, and why? Who would dare to take sacred texts and imitate them just for a laugh? Apparently, it turns out, quite a few people: there are thousands of liturgical parodies. And while there’s no question that Jews hold their holy texts dear, using these traditional materials hasn’t seemed to rile anyone too terribly.

Israel Davidson, a scholar better known for his four-volume encyclopedia of medieval Jewish poetry, Otsar ha-shirah veha-piyut, noted in a lesser known book of his on Jewish parody that there were, in fact, some rabbis who didn’t appreciate liturgical parody and who complained about it.

Rabbis complain about a lot of things and, like many of their grievances, this one also fell on deaf ears, as Jews have produced liturgical parodies of all kinds and in especially large numbers as the number of Yiddish periodicals grew during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tempering the rabbinical gripes, perhaps, was that it was the nature of these parodies not to attack the source material, but to instead use the structure of the liturgy to launch satiric attacks on all kinds of other issues.

The Passover humor magazine Pesekhdiger rosl (Passover Soup Broth). Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

As the Yiddish press grew, daily newspapers developed humor sections and weekly magazines dedicated to humor and satire began to appear.

Each holiday season, Yiddish humorists would publish jokes, stories, and cartoons related to a variety of aspects of each one. Included among these were numerous parodies of some portion of the respective holiday’s liturgy.  Additionally, publishers of Yiddish satire material developed a tradition of printing discrete humor magazines dedicated to Jewish holidays, typically with cover cartoons that related to some aspect of the holiday.

The Passover humor magazine Fir kashes (Four Questions), 1911. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Special Passover humor magazines, for example, often had titles that related to the festival. Some examples: Moror (Bitter Herbs) – Warsaw, 1921; Di elefte make (The Eleventh Plague) – Riga, 1922;  Di malke (The Queen) – Warsaw, 1928;  Di freylekhe hagode (The Happy Haggadah) – Lublin, 1924; Der roshe (The Wicked One) – Warsaw, 1927; Der afikoymen (The Afikoman) – Warsaw, 1929;  Zalts vaser (Salt Water) – Warsaw, 1930;  Der peysakhdiger kantshik (The Passover Whip) – Bialystok, 1931; Bialistoker khareyses (Bialystok kharoset) – Bialystok, 1932.

The Passover humor magazine Zalts-vaser (Salt Water), 1930. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Satirical khad gadye, 1914
The Passover humor magazine Khad gadye, 1914. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Passover garnered more of these humor publications than any other holiday and almost all of them contained parodies of at least portions of the Haggadah. Why would Passover have more parodies on its liturgy than, let’s say, Purim, which is renowned for fun, inebriation, and mockery?

The reasons are fairly simple.

The central text of the Passover Seder, the Haggadah, is familiar to so many because it is read together with the family as part of a festive meal in the home. Moreover, everyone in the family old enough to read participates. Haggadot were also sometimes illustrated, making them both a rarity and more visually enjoyable than the average Jewish text. Most important, at least from the perspective of the humorist, the Haggadah contains distinct structures that are easy to imitate: the four questions, the four sons, and the ten plagues, for example. For parodists and cartoonists, these were the most common aspects to imitate.

Parodies of the Haggadah use the text’s literary structures to create humorous commentary on a wide variety of issues.

Most Haggadah parodies are fragmentary and do not attempt to use the entire text – although some do. Given the limited space available, in newspaper humor pages or in small magazines the focus was on aspects like the Kadesh, urkhats, karpas mnemonic, the four questions, and the four sons, among others.

Each year, Yiddish humorists would refill these structures with whatever issues were then important to readers. The subject matter was broad and one can find parodies dealing with virtually every political and social topic: from socialism to Zionism, Reform to Orthodox Judaism, to taxes, to high rent, to dating, to interest rates, to summer vacation, to beauty pageants, to moral issues, to the politics of the day, and more.

One of the earlier modern parodies can be found in an April 1887 edition of the Arbeter fraynd, a socialist newspaper published in London.

Its four questions read as one would expect a poor laborer to say them:

Ma nishtane, why are we different from Shmuel the manufacturer, from Meyer the banker, from Zorach the money lender, from Reb Todros the rabbi? They don’t do anything and they have food and drink during the day and also at night at least a hundred times over, we toil with all our strength the whole day and at night we have nothing to eat at all.

This parody was subsequently expanded into the Passover Haggadah with a Socialist Approach and republished multiple times in booklet form.

Passover Haggadah with a Socialist Approach, 1919. From the National Library of Israel collection

Der groyser kundes, a popular humor magazine based in New York, published this parody of the four sons in 1916:

The Wise Son: A shtetl horse thief who escaped from prison, stowed-away on a ship to America where he became a horse poisoner and a gangster until he managed to become a saloon keeper and a politician. Today he’s the president of his synagogue, a fighter for Judaism, in short, a mentsch …

The Wicked Son: A man who fills his wallet with relief receipts for victims of the war that he picked up off the ground and shows them to volunteers asking for money to prove what a big philanthropist he is. ‘See how much I already gave?’

The Simple Son: A kid who sits with a girl until 2 a.m. waiting for permission to kiss her.

The Son Who Doesn’t Even Know How to Ask a Question: A traveling salesman who only comes home on Passover to find his wife about to give birth and doesn’t think to ask how a woman can be pregnant for 12 months.

The popularity of Haggadah parody was such that nearly every Jewish community put something out that either supported their views or mocked their enemies. One example is the Peyskeh-blat, which appeared in Lublin in 1925.

An extended parody of the four questions and the sons created in order to promote Orthodox social mores, the scene is inverted and the sons become daughters.

Entitled, “The Four Questions Asked Here by a Young Lady from the Beys Yankev School,” the text begins, “Mameshe, ikh vil dir fregn fir kashes.” (Mama, I want to ask you four questions).

Why, the daughter wonders, does her aunt show her cleavage, put on makeup, wear stockings, and have long fingernails? The piece deals with a number of moral issues and has each daughter, the wise, the wicked, the simple, and she who doesn’t know how to ask a question, each give their reasons for going, or not going to the mikvah.

Unlike most interwar parodies, the purpose of this one is to promote traditional Jewish values, but it does so in a humorous way, which is something not typical.

It ends with a short parody of Dayenu:

If women would wear wigs and men would wear a beard and peyes, dayenu.
If women and men would dance together but not at Jewish weddings, dayenu.
If Jewish daughters went naked but cut their nails, dayenu.
If our aristocrats would put up a mezuza and not lay tfilin,* dayenu.
* We gave out special pamphlets explaining the requirements regarding tfilin and mezuzes.

Peysekh-blat, Lublin, 1925. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Haggadah parodies provide an unusual amalgam of traditional text and contemporary criticism, in addition to a plethora of referential material, much of which has gone under the historical radar. The parodies address an array of issues from a number of differing perspectives and allow for a unique and often humorous exploration of cultural, social, and political issues.

The satirists who created these parodies understood the power of combining the traditional Passover text with contemporary events to create satiric commentary. It was the enduring quality of the Haggadah that challenged them to do so.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.