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The tale of Hitler’s Haggadah in Morocco

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Religion

If you’re looking to add some novelty to your Pesach seder, why not consider bringing Hitler’s Haggadah to your table?

Before you express outrage, rest assured that the Nazi dictator didn’t own or publish his own Haggadah. This unique volume named after him was in fact penned by a Jew, and while it may not be a traditional Haggadah, it adds a meaningful dimension of salvation to the timeless account of Jewish redemption.

Called Hitler’s Haggadah, this supplemental text has garnered considerable attention in the press in recent years. It’s believed to have been written by a Jew called Nissim ben Shimon, also called Simon Coiffeur (Simon hairdresser) in French on the book’s cover, in Rabat, Morocco, in about 1943. It followed the 1942 Allied invasion, Operation Torch, that brought about an eventual Allied victory against the Axis powers in French North Africa.

In a novel spin on the Pesach story, the text recounts the events of that invasion, and frames them within the familiar narrative. Writing under what is probably a pseudonym, the author presents a wartime Pesach narrative in Judeo-Arabic, inserting large pieces of the original Haggadah text while injecting certain novelties into the narrative.

“He does actually what the sages have told us for generation upon generation: to see ourselves as if we are part of the exodus,” Jonnie Schnytzer, a PhD candidate at Bar-Ilan University, reportedly told American Jewish news outlet, The Forward, earlier this month.

Schnytzer discovered the text in 2019, and has since worked on translating and adapting it for re-publication this year under the title, The Hitler Haggadah: A Moroccan Jew’s Wartime Retelling of the Passover Story.

“[The author] suddenly sees ‘wow this is happening today’,” Schnytzer says. “The Allied forces, instead of G-d, are the ones that bring plagues upon Hitler, instead of Pharaoh. He’s retelling a story, the story of his generation, which is the Allied forces beating Hitler and Mussolini.”

While the text’s format is familiar, names and locations are often altered, with Rabbi Joseph Stalin asking how Berlin suffered 10 plagues and Hamburg a whopping 50; the Royal Airforce named as a plague; and Mussolini cast as the son who doesn’t know how to ask.

The Axis forces are treated similarly in the text, which poses the question: “This Italy that we are fighting, for what reason?” It goes on to explain, “Because of Mussolini, who stuck to Hitler, saying, ‘Be careful not to betray me.’ And He brought upon them Montgomery, and their dough didn’t even have time to turn into macaroni. And then the Eighth Army appeared, and they immediately fled.”

Comically, the writer adds that “they baked the dough and made spaghetti. When they kicked them out of Egypt, and they didn’t have time to shape [the dough]. Nor did they even have time to fast.”

Schnytzer writes in his blog at The Times of Israel that the text is “deep, dramatic, and sometimes comical”. “Above all, it carries an inspiring message of Jewish unity, solidarity, and a shared fate.

“One might think it’s tasteless to have chosen such a title, but bear in mind that Hitler’s Haggadah wasn’t a traditional Haggadah but more of a supplement, giving a rewritten take, a modern reading of the Magid section.”

Beyond that, the text is also a crucial window onto the oft neglected experience of North African Jewry during the war, addressing what Schnytzer calls a “black hole” of awareness. According to the Jewish Museum of Berlin, Jews living in North Africa were constantly threatened by the Germans during the North African campaign from 1940 to 1943. In the German-allied French colonies of the Vichy regime, racial laws and forced labour camps had already been established for the Jewish population.

Moreover, Nazi forces occupied Tunis for a time, establishing labour camps in which Jews perished from disease and lack of food. Morocco, too, faced the grim reality of anti-Jewish laws and ghetto confinement in some cases. Fortunately, the tables were turned by the Allied victory, a miracle and inspiration for the Haggadah’s author.

“It’s important for each of us to understand the narratives and stories of different groups, and ideally, for it to become part of how we see ourselves as Jews,” Schnytzer reportedly told The Forward.

“There’s an incredible message here, an inspirational message of Jewish solidarity, because he’s a Jew living in Rabat, in North Africa, and yet he’s worried about what’s going on with his brethren in Germany, in Poland.”

Thanks to Schnytzer’s efforts, the text has become widely available internationally, featuring unique artwork and an accessible translation. The project was initially backed and funded on the Headstart funding platform, but is now available for purchase on Amazon.

“When I first read Hitler’s Haggadah, I fell in love with the work,” Schnytzer writes on the Headstart page. “Not only because of its charm, but also because it opened a window into a whole new world for me, another piece of the diverse mosaic called the Jewish people.

Hitler’s Haggadah, in spite of its name, is an opportunity to catch a glimpse into the part of the narrative of North African Jewry, precisely on a night whose sole purpose is to tell the story of our people – a people originally from one place, in time scattered across the globe and now, many generations later, which has a homeland once more.”

  • ‘The Hitler Haggadah’ can be bought on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Hitler-Haggadah-Moroccan-Retelling-Passover/dp/1951324013

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Religion

Slave to the Omer – why counting makes us free

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We are in the midst of counting the Omer – a commandment to count the days and weeks from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot.

Interestingly, the very first commandment we perform, marking our transition from slavery to freedom, is to count time, to count days.

Why is this? Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, in his essay, “Sacred and Profane”, offers a profound insight, as follows:

“The basic criterion which distinguishes free man from slave is the kind of relationship each has with time and its experience. Bondage is identical with passive intuition and reception of an empty, formal time stream.

“When the Jews were delivered from the Egyptian oppression and Moses rose to undertake the almost impossible task of metamorphosing a tribe of slaves into a nation of priests, he was told by G-d that the path leading from the holiday of Pesach to Shavuot, from initial liberation to consummate freedom, leads through the medium of time. The commandment of sefirah was entrusted to the Jew; the wondrous test of counting 49 successive days was put to him. These 49 days must be whole. If one day is missed, the act of numeration is invalidated.

“A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth, of weaving every thread of time into a glorious fabric, quantitatively stretching over the period of seven weeks but qualitatively forming the warp and woof of centuries of change, is eligible for Torah. He has achieved freedom.”

A slave owns no time of her/his own. Every second of life is owned by a master, and therefore a slave can have no concept of responsibility because they have no ultimate choice of action. A slave may “choose” to go for a walk at 17:00 on Friday only to have that choice countermanded by the master at 16:59. Inevitably, a slave has no concept of their own time, their ability to choose to act in one way at a particular time, and to take responsibility for those actions in the fullest sense of the word.

So, the Jews needed to learn to own time, to feel its contours and use it so that they could learn responsibility.

One of the signs of real maturity is this time-responsibility awareness – just think of a child saying they will clean up their room “later”. Children lack a sense of true responsibility because they feel that there is always an infinite “later”, a period in which every wrong can be righted, every desire fulfilled, every mistake corrected.

A free adult recognises that they own a very limited amount of time, and that the gift of freedom is the choice of how to use that time. The burden of that self-same freedom is the responsibility for the consequences of that choice.

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Finding faith in the hippo

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This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?

Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.

With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!

I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.

Shabbat shalom

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Religion

Let’s start talking about Pesach

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For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.

It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.

It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.

Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.

The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.

Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.

That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.

There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.

There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.

Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.

Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.

Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.

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