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The tabs are broken, but it works for me

Susan Reuben loves her copy of The Children's Haggadah

    How many British families this year will have at least one copy of Routledge’s The Children’s Haggadah at their Seder table? I’ve done some rigorous statistical analysis and the answer is “loads and loads”.

    The Children’s Haggadah was first published in Berlin in 1933 as Die Haggadah Des Kindes and appears to have been translated into English in the same year. It remains incredibly popular, despite the enormous range of other Haggadot on the market, including many designed for children and it crosses denominations in its appeal.

    The earliest copy in my family was presented to my mother (who turns 80 this Pesach Shabbat), “for good progress in Gosforth Hebrew classes”. It was printed in 1942 and the paper is yellow and very soft presumably because higher quality paper wasn’t available during the war.

    A lot of the enduring appeal has to do with nostalgia. Parents who remember it fondly from their own childhood buy copies for their children, and so it goes on. But I think it’s also because it has really stood the test of time.

    The illustrations from The Children’s Haggadah are etched into the consciousness of thousands of Jews who grew up with it. There’s the afikomen page, for example, with a family sitting round the Seder table. (A friend points out that the girl’s dress has ridden up and her garter belt is showing, which caused much hilarity at her own childhood Seder).

    There’s the vignette on the back cover of a little boy asleep, cuddling a copy of the very same Haggadah and still wearing his kippah. And the bucolic scene for “Next year in Jerusalem”, in which pioneers work on the sun-drenched land, accompanied by a camel, some sheep and rather surprisingly a duck.

    The text design is exemplary, with huge, clear type, both in Hebrew and in English, and each section easily identifiable because the first word is in red, making it super easy to follow.

    But, of course, the real stand-out feature is the moving parts. Pull a tab and help Pharaoh’s daughter rescue Moses from the bulrushes; pull another and watch the Egyptians drown…

    …Except that they don’t! Because all the tabs are broken! The Egyptians, instead of drowning, remain permanently submerged.

    The spinning wheel of plagues is dislodged so that it will only turn if you put a finger in the middle to hold it in place. I have found just one person whose childhood copy is still intact, a situation that one might describe as a miracle like the parting of the Red Sea.

    Yet, strangely, it doesn’t seem to matter. The Children’s Haggadah is a rare example of an object where the very fact of it not working properly adds to its charm. People describe their damaged copies in gleeful tones. This may be because the precise way in which each copy doesn’t work individualises it, so people feel extra affectionate when they’re reunited with it each year.

    These days, many families create interactive, child-centred Seders but, until quite recently, children were expected to sit at the table for many hours, while the four questions that the youngest of them had asked at the beginning were answered, at great length and in Hebrew — a language that they could probably read but not understand. Little wonder that the illustrations in this Haggadah were stared at, the wheel turned, the tabs pulled, again and again, until every page of the book became unforgettably familiar.

    A 1952 advertisement for the Haggadah in the JC reads, “The pictures, many of which are ingeniously constructed to move, with fascinating results, are not the least delightful features of the whole praiseworthy production.” The advertising copywriter in question could have done with some lessons in being punchy and to the point but the general sentiment is definitely correct.

    Pesach is a festival of memory, and this Haggadah is self-fulfilling in that respect; our battered copies, with their matzah crumbs and wine stains and dedications on the flyleaf, link us to many decades of bygone Seders and to the people who sat round the table with us.

     

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