Exploring the LBC Library Collections

Some thoughts on the Afikoman Haggadah

from Librarian Cassy Sachar


It is so incongruous, this bit of matzah jutting out of the pages of a book, that it makes me laugh whenever I catch sight of it. The surprise that something like this would be produced as an edition makes me smile. I embrace the gold embossed lettering and the laboured typography; the plastic packaging, the ugly fonts on shiny paper. The slight ridiculousness of it is actually soon replaced by nostalgia, as the word afikoman and this remarkably intact specimen stir childhood memories of racing to find the afikoman before the other kids on seder night and the one pound prize my father would give the winner, inflation having no impact on the prize he offered during the years of my childhood.

On the one hand this haggadah is super kitch: reminding me of the small bottles of air and water “from the Holy Land” one can bring back from Jerusalem. Taking something ubiquitous, a piece of cracker, and suggesting it has value because of the label we attach to it, the frame we place around it. A closer look at the cover reveals this is not general tourist tat, or simply popular festive “merch” but produced as a corporate gift from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport, complete with the laurelled menorah of the Israeli government. They wish us the blessings of a happy and kosher Pesach. Is the faceless machine of government trying to appropriate the domestic sphere of the Haggadah? Is this Pharaoh posing a as a slave? Possibly. But this also speaks to me as a labour of love for Tovah Aviad, Welfare Services Coordinator, the sender of these greetings named at the bottom of the front cover. Like Shifrah and Puah the midwives of the Exodus story, in Jewish literature we always take note of the named women! I imagine Tovah with fond memories of the afikoman, as I have. I imagine she has seen families who cannot afford matzah or haggadot and this is a way of suppyling both – the piece preserved in plastic looks about the kezayit size one is required to eat to fulfil the mitzvah.

Whatever the political impetus for this haggadah, the fact remains that we are presented with the Passover narrative with matzah quite literally at the centre. Like the layout of a Talmud page with the Mishnah and Gemara in the centre and central column, surround by commentary, this piece of matzah is made the foundation for all the other layers of song, prayer and discussion that the seder will involve. This is the bread of our affliction the embossed plastic packaging tells us: this is the evidence of our suffering and our slavery, this is the foodstuff that stuck in the teeth and stomachs of our ancestors. And yet we eat it today dipped in chocolate, ground up into cakes, in Pesach lasagnes and pizzas. We make our slavery a fundamental communal experience, shared across space and time by eating this piece of cracker; we make it meaningful, sweet with learning that would not be possible without the basic experience of eating on the run.

In the composition of the haggadah, we barely get a glimpse of Moses the great leader of the Chumash. The editorial emphasis is in on God (“and not an angel”) who saved and redeemed. Similarly in the Afikoman Haggadah it is not the Maror, the bitterness of the Israelite enslavement that is the quintessential element; nor is it the Pesach, the sacrifice of the lamb and its protective blood on the doorposts. It is Matzah: the improvised, the food of survival, it is the eating we do today, in memory of the past, enacting the past, in acknowledgement of our present freedom, and recognition of our present challenges.

An object crammed into the pages of a book, is a technique used by artist Tatana Kellner in the artworks she created exploring her parents experience of the Holocaust. Their Czech narratives, her English translations, and family photos fill the pagesof her bookworks and in the middle is a paper cast of each their arms, with their concentration camp tattoos. The title, Fifty Years Silence, refers to the length of time it took for her parents to talk about their experiences. For me the arm in the book shows how their Holocaust experiences, even when not expressed, or perhaps especially when not expressed, effected every aspect of family life. It is inescapable, everything else is built up around it, interrupted by it, in its shadow. Like the Matzah in the Afikoman Haggadah we are pulled back to a physical object, a tangible thing to anchor our words and interpretations, our stories.

The afikoman in the haggadah is an extension of the glorious tradition of haggadah illustration. From medieval illuminations showing the baking of matzah in Asheknaz to 20th century illustrations of families, that look a lot like us, eating it round their seder tables, this is a 3D illustration to edify and entertain, this is scratch and sniff, taste-and-smell-O-vision. Why on this night? Why in this book? The point is to ask!