The 17th-Century German Former Minister Whose Illustrations Graced America’s Best-Known Haggadah

Aware that Ashkenazi custom forbids the consumption of legumes on Passover, Maxwell House decided in 1932 to publish and distribute haggadot for the holiday—aiming to reassure Jews that coffee beans were not beans by either rabbinic or botanical standards. Henry Abramson tells the remarkable story of the artist behind the images reproduced in the early editions of this now-famous bilingual guide to the seder.

The . . . illustrations were taken from the classic Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695, the work of an unusual former German minister and convert to Judaism who took the name Abraham bar Jacob.

Only a few tantalizing details of bar Jacob’s life are preserved. Born in 1669, most likely in the Rhineland region of Germany, he moved at the age of twenty-six to liberal Amsterdam, where he studied Judaism and became a convert.

Bar Jacob’s illustrations were technically superior to the Venetian illustrations that were popular at the end of the 17th century. Freshly drawn on copper plate, they captured so much detail and emotion that they were reprinted in dozens of editions of haggadah over the next four centuries. . . .

While his artistic originality is demonstrated in complex images that detail biblical scenes such as the rescue of baby Moses from the Nile or the adult Moses striking the cruel Egyptian taskmaster, bar Jacob also had an ability to recognize powerful imagery elsewhere and incorporate it into the Jewish narrative. By modern standards, this would be considered plagiarism (or at least “sampling”), but it was standard fare in printing at the turn of the 18th century.

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Read more at Jewish Star

More about: American Jewish History, Conversion, Haggadah, Jewish art

Reforms to Israel’s Judiciary Must Be Carefully Calibrated

The central topic of debate in Israel now is the new coalition government’s proposed reforms of the nation’s judiciary and unwritten constitution. Peter Berkowitz agrees that reform is necessary, but that “the proper scope and pace of reform, however, are open to debate and must be carefully calibrated.”

In particular, Berkowitz argues,

to preserve political cohesiveness, substantial changes to the structure of the Israeli regime must earn support that extends beyond these partisan divisions.

In a deft analysis of the conservative spirit in Israel, bestselling author Micah Goodman warns in the Hebrew language newspaper Makor Rishon that unintended consequences flowing from the constitutional counterrevolution are likely to intensify political instability. When a center-left coalition returns to power, Goodman points out, it may well repeal through a simple majority vote the major changes Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition seeks to enact. Or it may use the legislature’s expanded powers, say, to ram through laws that impair the religious liberty of the ultra-Orthodox. Either way, in a torn nation, constitutional counterrevolution amplifies division.

Conservatives make a compelling case that balance must be restored to the separation of powers in Israel. A prudent concern for the need to harmonize Israel’s free, democratic, and Jewish character counsels deliberation in the pursuit of necessary constitutional reform.

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Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Judicial Reform