Sunday, April 20, 2014

Christ Has Risen! Alleluia!

He has risen indeed! Alleluia!

The Pericopes of Henry II
Folios 116v and 117r
Munich, Bavarian State Library, Clm 4452

 Happy Easter     Buona Pasqua     Joyeuses Pâques

April 20 - 1657: Freedom of religion is granted to the Jews of New Amsterdam (later New York City).

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Peace Be Unto You

Patricia Routledge reads Chapter 20 of the Gospel of John.

April 19 - 1012: Martyrdom of Ælfheah in Greenwich, London.
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Friday, April 18, 2014

Moadim l'simcha*

*The traditional greeting for the intermediate days of Passover:  A wish for a good festival time

Monday evening many of my Jewish friends opened their Haggadah, said the Kadeish blessing and asked the age old question that begins the first Sedar of Passover:  Why is this night different from all other nights?

The rituals and observances of this holy festival - one of the three in the Jewish calendar along with Sukkot, Shavu'ot - have been passed from generation to generation in these guides to the story and rituals of Passover.  The text itself is the fulfillment of the commandment in Exodus 13:8: And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.

This beautiful tiered seder plate is from Eastern Galicia or Western Ukraine.
Made in the 18th-19th century it is in the collection of The Jewish Museum, New York
As with many ritual texts the origins of the order and form of Passover Seder are a matter of both conjecture and contention.  Some scholars date it as early as 170 CE with the latest date suggested being 360 CE.   The first complete existing manuscript is from the 10th century in a prayer book compiled by the Egyptian rabbi and philosopher Saadia ben Joseph Al-Fayyumi.

The frontispiece to the Heiligen Haggadah
Since that time Haggadot have existed in many forms from gloriously illuminated manuscripts that speak to the artistry in Jewish communities throughout the world to a few sheets of mimeographed paper stapled together as handouts from local kosher butchers.  One of the largest private collections in the world belongs to Stephen Durchslag,  a Chicago lawyer.  And the over 4,500 ritual guides in his collection represent Haggadot in all their forms - from the most elaborate to the simplest.

Many of the most beautiful early manuscripts were created in Spain and were amongst the belongings that Jews were allowed to take with them after the Alhambra Decree in 1492 expelled Jews from their Most Catholic Majesties kingdoms.  As the Shepardim moved throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire  their art and artifacts influenced and were influenced by the places they settled.  Amongst the many illuminated manuscripts now residing in museums throughout the world are the Sarajevo Haggadah, the Barcelona Haggadah, the Washington Haggadah, the Rylands Haggadah and the Golden Haggadah.  Most of these priceless books show that, as well as being beautiful, they served their intended purpose - wine stains, turned down pages, every day wear and tear indicate their use at many Passover Seders.

The Birds' Head Haggadah is oldest known Ashkenazim text and is unique in that the 13th century German
scribe -  thought to be named Menaham - followed the admonition against making "graven images". 
Most of the human figures have been given bird-like heads though some have been left faceless or
are wearing helmets.  

This delightful pop-up book based on the Birds' Head Haggadah is for children -
here Moses prepares to lead the Children of Israel through the Red Sea.

One of the things that makes a Haggadot different from most other Jewish books are the images that appear amongst - and often replacing - the text.  The admonition against "graven images" does not apply as the book is not intended as religious text but as a ritual guide.  However Menaham, the German scribe who created the Birds' Head Haggadah in the 13th century took no chances - the very human bodies telling the Exodus story and making the preparations for the feast all have, as its title suggests, birds' heads - a conceit that delights to this day.

The Golden Haggadah is so called because of the extensive tooled gold leaf
in the backgrounds.  Probably created in Barcelona around 1320 it is
one of the treasures of the Hebrew Collection at the British Library.

Smuggled out of Spain at the time of the Expulsion, the history of the Sarejevo
Haggadah would be a great subject for an adventure film.  It has survived
many close calls during wars, rebellions and attempted thefts and is considered
one of the most valuable of illuminated manuscripts.

Another treasure in the British Library collection is the Barcelona Haggadah made in
Catalonia during the second half of the 14th century.  It celebrates the Sephardic
Rite and is particularly noted for the elaborate floral and animal decorations of the border.
The earliest known copy using a mechanical press was printed in 1486 in Soncino, Lombardy. The Italian Ashkenazi family of printers took their name from their home town and members of the Soncino family were a major influence in the spreading of "printing" in Italy and the middle-East. Their output included religious and secular texts - many illustrated with elaborate engravings or hand-painted detail.

Published in Venice in 1609, the illustrator of this print Haggadah is unknown;
however Israel ben Daniel Zifroni, the printer was well-known in Switzerland,
Germany and Venice.  The scene at the bottom shows Elijah the prophet leading
the way for the Messiah who is arriving at the gates of Jerusalem (Malachi 3:24).

This 1813 Haggadah was made in Bordeaux by the Brothers Zoreph - Jacob, the
illustrator and Isaac, the printer.  The text is divided evenly between Hebrew and
French but there are instructions in Ladino, and some translations into Aramaic.
The scene represents Pharoah's daugher finding the baby Moses, as his sister
Miriam watches in the background.

As printing became more widespread the form and appearance of Haggadot changed with the times.  They reflected - as they always had - the cultural and world around them.  One famous recent example is the Szyk Haggadah created in the mid-1930s by Polish artist Athur Szyk.  Known for his political caricatures during the Second World War, his Haggadah reflected the events happening in Europe prior to the outbreak of that War.  In his original version the forces of Egypt wore swastikas on their armbands - this detail was removed prior to it publication in England in 1940.

Polish artist Athur Szyk could not find a European publisher for his Haggadah
and moved to England in 1937 to oversee its publication there.  His illustrations have
the jewel-like appearance of illuminations but he treat the subjects - here the Four Sons -
in a modern way.
A Passover songs asks:  Who knows the four?  The answer: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
The New Union Haggadah was published in 1982 and illustrated by Leonard Baskin.  Here he
represents those Four Matriarchs. 

And even today Haggadot are changing with the time:  a quick search on the Internet shows that they can be found in many forms - facsimiles of  manuscripts, reprints of previous editions, modern editions, children's editions (including that delightful pop-up version of the Birds' Head), web versions, even an iPad fascimile of the Golden Haggadah and even an iPhone app.  The method may change but the ritual, the tradition remains the same.

April 18 - 1961:  The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, a cornerstone of modern international relations, is adopted.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

Back in 1950s the Players' Theatre Club in Villiers St - in the arches under Charing Cross Station - were best known for their recreation of old style Music Hall and early Pantomimes. A revolving group of singers, dancers and comedians such as Hattie Jacques,  Peter Ustinov, May Hallett, John Hewer and Ian Carmichael and host of other West End names-to-be of the period entertained in the raucous and ribald manner of their Edwardian predecessors.  But in April 1953 the Club broke new ground by moving forward from the early 1900s all the way to the 1920s when composer/lyricist Sandy Wilson presented them with The Boy Friend.  A gentle tongue-in-cheeky poke at the chiefly mindless but wildly melodic musicals of the 1920s.

Geoffry Hibbert assures Dilys Laye that "It's Never
Too Late" in the 1954 Broadway production.
All the cliches were there - the phony French accents, the rich young hero in disguise as a poor delivery boy, the titled old lech and his battleaxe wife, even the brash American - with all the required numbers - love duets, Charlestons, novelty numbers and comic pieces.  It soon transferred to the West End and played 2082 performance making a star of its leading lady Anne Rogers.  The Broadway run was somewhat less - 485 performances - but it did prove a stepping stone for its new leading lady - Julie Andrews was spotted by the producers of a musical that was in the works and was offered the role of Eliza Doolittle in the upcoming Learner and Lowe musical My Fair Lady.

Its a show I've always loved - I saw it first at the old Music Fair summer tent theatre with the New York Madame Dubonnet and Percival Browne (Ruth Altman and Eric Brown).  And I shamefacedly admit that I actually appeared in a production of it one summer as Tony Broadhurst, the young hero - don't ask!  Let me just say that we had a campy director-choreographer named Julian who kept insisting that I "show your profile, dear; just like Ivor Novello."  It would have helped if I actually had a profile like the lovely Mr Novello.

One of my favourite numbers is one of those novelty duets:  madcap flapper Dulcie has become disillusioned with the empty young men she's encountered and the venerable, if ever so lecherous,  Lord Broadhurst thinks he may have the solution.  The recording is from the original Broadway cast with Dilys Laye and Geoffry Hibbert - impersonated here by Billy Barkhurst and Steven Widerman of The Puppet Company.

Unfortunately the success of both The Boy Friend and the popularity of Miss Andrews spawned two highly forgettable movies - Kenn Russell's unfunny mutilation of the original and the very long and equally unfunny Thoroughly Modern Millie created as a vehicle to star Miss Andrews when they couldn't get the rights to the original.  And sadly for Sandy Wilson a sequel guying the musicals of the 1930s was as unsuccessful as the movies.  One of those occasions when theatrical magic only struck once.

April 14 - 1828: Noah Webster copyrights the first edition of his dictionary.
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Monday, April 07, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

At the suggestion of our friend Cathy we've recently signed up for a programme that supports youth employment and local agriculture:   Farm Works,  an enterprise sponsored by Operation Come Home.  We have bought a half-share in a farm plot and will receive produce from the plot over the summer and into the autumn months.  It seems like a win-win set up to me and I know Cathy received more than she could use from her plot last year.

That and the appearance of our local groundhog - Spring has finally sprung! - made this little guy's adventure seem appropriate as a bit of lunacy for a Monday in April.

Hopefully our young farmers won't run into any Geomyidae Thomomys and our resident little guy and his family won't meet with misadventure when searching for food.

April 7 - 1141: Empress Matilda, became the first female ruler of England, adopting the title 'Lady of the English'
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Monday, March 31, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

It seems that every day I see another obituary for an singer, dancer, comedian, politician (quite often the same thing as the former really) or world figure from my youth.  Today it was Eddie Lawrence, the Old Philosopher.  I remember laughing my head off (we didn't LOAO in those days) as he recounted the list of horrors befalling his "buddy", "cousin" or "booby" followed by the exhortation to "keep you head up" and the blare of a brass band.

This is a routine I don't remember but it does sound very much like a group of us that sat around yesterday afternoon quaffing our Bloody Marys, nibbling our smoked mackerel and Italian olives and bemoaning the follies of today's youth.

Hope Eddie is exhorting those angels to keep their chins up and hold their heads high.

March 31 - 1909:  Construction of the ill fated RMS Titanic begins.
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