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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

Mother nature’s gifts

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “The name of our parsha seems to embody a paradox. It’s called ‘Chayei Sarah’ [The Life of Sarah], but it begins with the death of Sarah. What’s more, it records the death of Abraham. Why is a parsha about death called life? The answer, it seems, is that death and how we face it is a commentary on life and how we live it.”

Abraham knew that everything that happened to him, even the bad things, were part of the journey which G-d had sent him and Sarah on, and he had the faith to walk through the valley of the shadow of death fearing no evil, knowing that G-d was with him.

I see and feel profound meaning in this paradox. Sarah’s social status – and its impact on the future of her family and people – was so great, it only increased after her passing.

Sarah, our mother, our matriarch, the mother of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people), was quite the “modern” woman. She led her life with clear vision and purpose. She had the courage to follow her convictions, no matter how progressive they were at the time. She was a role model for women of her era, as well as becoming a role model for the modern woman of the 21st century.

We can’t forget that we live in a world of duality, of light and dark, hot and cold, male and female. Sarah knew that according to well-established laws, neither side of that duality was more important than the other. In fact, they were really different degrees of the same thing – and in truth, light couldn’t exist without darkness, neither could men exist without women – and vice versa.

We often get so caught up in our own lives that we seldom pay attention to the power of mother nature. Let’s take a simple example of one mistakenly cutting oneself while preparing dinner for the family. The wound bleeds. Perhaps we run some water over it, or apply some pressure, and shortly thereafter, we leave it alone. What does mother nature do? She moves according to well-established laws, laws that are firmly in the direction of healing, and the wound begins to heal on its own. It’s only when we interfere with mother nature that things tend to go wrong. Left to her own devices, we are generally in good hands.

We should do all that we can to uplift those around us to see the same light we see, and then allow mother nature (through the womb of time) to do what she does best. Let’s not be consumed by trying to sweep the darkness out of the dark room. Let’s be like Sarah, and turn our attention to the light, reach out, and switch it on. We must know that we have received a gift from our ancestors, and pass those gifts down, l’dor vador (from generation to generation) through the generations of mothers following Sarah.

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Religion

True kindness

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Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?

The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.

Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.

This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.

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Religion

In the brave steps of Abraham

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In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.

The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.

While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.

Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.

At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.

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