Why This Haggadah is Different From All Other Haggadahs /A Thing of Beauty Is A Joy Forever
The Newly Reissued Kafra Haggadah Combines Beauty and History
(To purchase online click here.)
Budapest, 1946: The war has ended, and the Jews who managed to escape death at the hands of their enemies have returned —when possible—to their homes.
The Kahan-Frankl family, a prominent family of Budapest Jewry before the war, return to their home—a large building that takes up the better part of a city block and houses a huge library, a shul, and many sifrei Torah. It is a home that has hosted Europe’s most distinguished rabbis (Rav Akiva Sofer, Rav Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, Rav Mordechai Leib Winkler), as well as revered Hasidic rebbes such as the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the Belzer Rebbe, the Munkatscher Rebbe, and the Bobover Rebbe.
The war has left many people without homes or family, and the Kahan-Frankl home again becomes the address for community people seeking help, as well as the epicenter from which community institutions can attempt to revive. There are agunos seeking resolution, people looking for lost family members, everyone needing to put their lives back together.
Occasionally, however, the family members manage to steal a few minutes of free time. On one occasion, Mrs. Fradel Kahan-Frankl and her son Moshe Tzvi decide to seek some distraction by visiting a local museum to see the famous Kaufman Haggadah, an illuminated haggadah dating from 14th century Spain [the misleading name “Kaufmann” refers to the collection it belonged to]. They are refused permission to view it, with a happy consequence: they resolve to recreate their own version of an illuminated haggadah. Fradel is an accomplished artist who had trained professionally; Moshe Tzvi, no small artistic talent himself, is also a master of safrus.
The two of them undertake to write the haggadah with Moshe Tzvi as the scribe and his mother as the executor of all the ornamentation, from the intricate borders to Biblical miniatures. They work on 12-inch by 24-inch panels, creating a thing of color and beauty after so many dark and ugly years of war.
It takes them over a year to complete the project, working a little bit each day. Fradel will later remember this as one of the happiest times of her life, being able to spend many long, peaceful hours together with her son, sharing a mutually cherished pursuit. After a war they weren’t sure they’d survive, a war during which they’d hidden in bunkers and gone hungry for the crime of being Jews, the project of working on a deeply Jewish work of art—not simply Jewish, but themed around deliverance from crushing oppression—is particularly meaningful and deeply satisfying.
Brooklyn, 2013: In a modest brick house in Boro Park, Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Kahan-Frankl reclines in an armchair, his legs covered with a lap robe. Now in his nineties, bli ayin hara, his health is no longer good, but he is lovingly cared for by his wife Judy and his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The house is furnished simply, with solid furniture that has lasted many years. A folkloric tapestry covers one wall of the dining area, but the living room is dominated by bookshelves, filled to bursting with yellowing, flaking tomes in Hebrew and other languages. “When my father-in-law left Hungary, he was only allowed to take 1,000 books with him, out of a library of 10,000 volumes,” says Mrs. Judith Kahan-Frankl. “He said it was so difficult for him—like having to choose among his children.”
The simple furnishings don’t proclaim any particular material wealth, but spiritual and intellectual wealth clearly abounds. The works of art on the wall are almost all from the hand of Fradel Kahan-Frankl, a”h, or her son Moshe Tzvi; for example, a refined oil portrait executed by Fradel of her father, Reb Shmuel Zanvil Kahan-Frankl, hangs discreetly on an inside wall. A small study off the living room is filled with more books and seforim, including an encyclopedic collection of German-language art books. It’s also filled with Fradel’s work: pencil sketches of a menorah she made at age fourteen, an ink sketch of a boy’s face that exquisitely captures his alert expression. One simple, framed print depicts a deceased woman lying with two candles at her head and a peacock near her feet, with the inscription “hevel hevelim” at the bottom. “She kept this by her bed,” Mrs. Kahan-Frankl explains, and the unspoken meaning hangs between us: only a woman of unusual piety would create for herself such a stark daily reminder of our limited time on this earth.
To truly understand the people who produced the Kafra Haggadah (“Kafra” is an acronym for Kahan-Frankl), you have to understand something about the Kahan-Frankl family and their illustrious history. Avraham Frankl, Fradel’s father, was the Rosh Hakahal in the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the first Orthodox Jewish member of the Parliament. “The government wanted to create one religious institution to oversee the entire Jewish community,” Mrs. Judith Kahan-Frankl explains. “At the time, however, there was a movement they called Neolog, kind of like Reform Judaism, and the frum Jews wanted to remain separate from them. The Chasam Sofer, who established the first Orthodox community in Hungary, told the authorities that the community was too big for one administration and would have to divide.
“My husband’s father, Reb Avraham Frankl, was a student of the Chasam Sofer, and when he was appointed to be the Rosh Hakahal of the Orthodox community, he wrote to him asking for a bracha to succeed.”
The Frankl family, she explains, was an old, established family with enough income from their investments to be able to consecrate themselves entirely to community service. As president of the community, Reb Avraham Frankl was entrusted with appointing the rav of the community, and speaking on its behalf at the highest levels—even at the court of the king, Franz Josef. As Rabbi Avraham Birnbaum has written, “It was Reb Avraham who frequented the corridors of the royal palace and the parliament to assist and advocate for his people. It was the Frankl family who was entrusted with the task of ensuring the smooth running of religious institutions and public services within the community, from the cradle to the grave. Immediately upon the birth of a baby, the child was registered with the community body…The schools and yeshivas, the Beis Din and Chevra Kadisha were ably run by community leaders and overseen by the Frankl family.”
Reb Avraham and his wife would have only one child, Fradel, but it seems Fradel had enough talent and intelligence for several children. In addition to her artistic gifts, she was erudite in both Jewish and secular culture, played instruments, and wrote poetry in several languages. When she married Reb Shmuel Zanvil Kahan, who came from a family of community leaders in Sighet, the couple legally combined their last names so that neither surname would be lost to posterity. They lived with Fradel’s parents and their two sons in the same house, which also housed the rebbeim who privately schooled the children. When Reb Avraham became too elderly to continue the demands of his job, Shmuel Zanvil Kahan-Frankl succeeded his father-in-law as the Rosh Hakahal, and Fradel assumed the responsibilities of running a multi-generational home that was frequently host to visiting dignitaries, gedolim, and Jews in need of assistance.
Fradel passed her passion for art to her two sons, and of the two of them, Moshe Tzvi inherited his mother’s gift for creating it. According to his wife Judith, he was a precocious child who was already writing letters to his mother at age two. He would become a serious talmid chacham (his grandfather Avraham introduced him to the Mishnah by telling him, “You are a Kohen, you must start learning the laws of service in the Bais Hamikdash!”), but artistic pursuits would remain a lifelong hobby; he became not only a sofer but a talented sculptor who crafted violins and religious articles. The Boro Park apartment displays framed photos of some of the silver artifacts he created, cast from hand-carved wax molds: a grogger, a mezuzah, a clock depicting the Hebrew mazelot. For the Kahan Frankls, art was never art for art’s sake. Art was used in the service of Torah, in order to beautify religious objects, illustrate Torah wisdom, and depict family members.
Hungary was one of the last countries to be invaded by the Germans during the second World War, which allowed the Jewish community a certain measure of forewarning. Because of their prominent status, the Kahan-Frankl name was equally prominent on Adolf Eichmann’s list of Jews designated for capture. But the family was too clever for him; they disappeared, spreading rumors that they had gone abroad or left on a Kastner transport. They obtained false documents, and spent the remainder of the war hiding in bunkers.
Rabbi Kahan-Frankl did his utmost to serve his kehillah after the war, but once the Communists took over in Hungary it became clear the new government would have no tolerance for religious Judaism. They prohibited all institutions except those run by the Neolog (the Hungarian government would not give Jews the right to establish official Orthodox communities until 2011). Rabbi Kahan-Frankl abdicated his post, and began looking for ways to emigrate. “It wasn’t easy,” Judith Kahan Frankl says. “Because the family was so well known, they didn’t want to let them out.”
Their two sons, Moshe Zvi and Kalman, were the first to receive visas; they were arranged through Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, who sent them teachers’ visas. Two years later, Shmuel Zanvil and Fradel followed, parting with difficulty from the enormous library they mostly had to leave behind and which had attracted scholars from all over Europe. “The other volumes were taken to bais medrashos,” Judith Kahan Frankl says. “Some of them made their way into other hands. I’ve had collectors ask me if I’m interested in buying seforim from my own father-in-law’s library.”
Her in-laws, having decided they preferred to retire from big city life, chose to settle in Lakewood, in the days before Lakewood had become a Torah center. “Back then, Lakewood was known as a resort,” Mrs. Kahan Frankl says. “The Rockefellers, the Goulds had estates there; the Scharf family had a farm. My in-laws settled into an egg farm, and at the end of the day they would have lots of visitors for stimulating intellectual conversation. It was very pleasant there for them.” She herself had come to the U.S. from Pressburg in Slovakia, and married Moshe Zvi in America.
Publishing the Haggadah
When Fradel and her husband arrived in the U.S. in 1947, they brought the illuminated Haggadah she had produced with her son along with them. They showed the manuscript to Mr. Philipp Feldheim of the eponymous publishing company on the Lower East Side, and he was entranced. It was reproduced that same year in book form with a translation by Rabbi Issac Edward Kiev, receiving rave reviews in the English, German, Yiddish and Hebrew presses. At the time, Judith Kahan Frankl carefully saved every one of them, and she now brings out several zip-lock bags filled with yellowing clippings to display.
“But back then the printing technology wasn’t so good,” says Judith and Moshe Tzvi’s daughter, who’s sitting with us at the table. She pulls out a copy of the original book jacket to show me. The colors look pale and faded, pastel versions of the original bright, glowing tones. “A couple of years ago, my daughter Estee pushed us to reprint the haggadah, using more modern technology that would better reflect the original.”
Maidy, another granddaughter, puts in, “We all helped with the project. My sister Estee took the initiative to reissue it, my mother worked on the jacket flaps, and I helped compile the notes at the end, with the help of Rabbi Reinman.” [Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman was engaged to produce the English translation of the Haggadah.] The project was undertaken with the idea of making it a family gift to their father and grandfather, and the new version contains a lengthy dedication to Fradel.
The newly reprinted haggadah is nothing short of stunning; it’s kosher-for-Passover eye candy. The cover is gold, with two panels on each side painted like delicate Gothic towers, stacked with miniatures of Jewish heroes. In between is a scene of Mashiach riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, preceded by a Jew blowing a shofar.
Imitating the style of medieval haggadahs, the human figures are doll-like and dressed in medieval costume, with pointy shoes and hats (although some of the women are in clothing more typical of Carpathian dress). The colors are jewel-like: cerulean blues, vibrant reds, lush greens, mustard yellows. The borders are done in flamboyant floral motifs and arabesques in regal combinations of crimson, violet, teal, royal blue and orange; lions, griffins, serpents, fish and birds are interlaced here and there throughout the design.
Moshe Zvi’s calligraphy is perfectly executed in the squareish Ashkenazic style, in inks ranging from black to brown to gold. It’s not clear whether he or his mother painted the large, stylized letters of the headings of each section, which are done in bold colors. The perfect fit of text into border raises the question which was created first: was the text written out so the borders could fit around it, or was it the other way around?
Scenes from the Haggadah are depicted in small squares bordering the text: the slave labor of the Jews, the rabbis learning in Bnei Brak, the four sons, the ten plagues, crossing the Red Sea, Jews playing instruments for Hallel. Verses of the songs “Vayehi b’chatzei halilah” and “V’amartem zevach Pesach” also merit their own illustrations. The final frame, after “Adir Hu,” shows a group of Jews walking up a path to the Bais Hamikdash, bearing the aron, the menorah, trumpets and vessels.
The medieval dress gives a quaint air to the designs; the frames illustrating the ten plagues depict Pharoah wearing a very European style robe and crown, sitting on a carved wooden throne looking out over the sea. His armies, massed behind him at the Red Sea, are dressed in medieval mail shirts and helmets.
Not all the images are easily recognizable. “Sometimes it wasn’t easy—we had to get inside my great-grandmother’s head to figure out the references,” Maidy says. For example, a figurative image of Avraham and Sara in a boat is supposed to show them crossing the river into Canaan. A picture of a woman next to six children is a reference to the many children born by Jewish women in Egypt. There are six heroes depicted on the page of “Sh’foch chamescha,” and most, but not all are immediately identifiable: Shimshon fighting the Pelishtim, holding the jawbone of an ass; David with his slingshot; Matityahu; Devora leading the Jews into battle carrying her harp; Judith with a sword to decapitate Holfernes; and Esther Hamalka preparing to entreat Achashverous.
When I was a child, frequently bored at family Seders that seemed to drag on interminably, I often amused myself by studying the pictures in our haggadahs. But the Maxwell House versions I grew up on, with their blue covers and black and white illustrations, held more melodrama than real color or detail—they were more cartoon than work of art. I can only imagine how transfixed I might have been by the brilliant colors and intricate designs of a Kafra Haggadah! Happy the child who will be able to feast his eyes on the charming miniatures and swirling borders of the Kafra Haggadah, when Seder night finally arrives.
**********Sidebar: Historic Haggadahs
The Kaufman Haggadah that Fradel and Moshe Tzvi Kahan Frankl were denied viewing in 1946 in Budapest [it is housed at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences], is considered one of the world’s most beautiful illuminated haggadahs. It is believed to have been produced in 14th century Spain by a combination of several artists. Fourteen full-page miniatures depict scenes from the exodus story, not always in correct order, as well preparations for Pesach and images of the four sons and the rabbis learning in Bnei Brak. The text section is richly decorated, with smaller renditions of the full-page illustrations.
The Sarajevo Haggadah, believed to have been executed in Barcelona around 1350, is even more elaborate; it includes 34 full-page miniatures, text illuminated in gold and copper, and the Torah readings for the week of Pesach. It was inscribed on bleached calfskin which bears wine stains suggesting its use at some privileged person’s Seder. The illustrations range from Pesach scenes to the creation of the world, representations of the Bais Hamikdash, and a Spanish synagogue. Today on view at the Zemaljski Museum in Bosnia, the history of this haggadah is almost as fascinating as the haggadah itself. It apparently left Spain with its owners in 1492 and ended up in Italy; it was sold to the National Museum in Sarajevo in 1894 by one Joseph Kohen. During World War II, the museum’s librarian, Denis Korkut, hid the Haggadah with Muslims; he and his wife also hid a young Jewish girl named Mira Papo during this time. In a striking manifestation of middah k’neged middah, when war broke out in Bosnia in the 1990’s, Mira Papo—by now an older woman living in Israel—managed to bring Korkut’s daughter to safety in Israel.
This same haggadah, once returned after World War II to the museum, was miraculously ignored by thieves breaking into the museum during the Bosnian War in 1992; after that, it was hidden for safety in a bank vault throughout the siege of Sarajevo. An international campaign led to the document’s restoration and return to its place in 2002. It has become something of a symbol of interfaith cooperation in the service of fine art.
The Prague Haggadah bears a name as misleading as the Kaufmann Haggadah, as it was also produced in Spain. Following the invention of the printing press, the first printed Hebrew seforim appeared in 1475; the Prague Haggadah, probably the world’s first printed haggadah, was rolled off the presses in 1482, published by Gershom Cohen and his brother Gronem Katz. This illustrated haggadah is a combination of text, elaborate initials, and woodcuts (some of which were used repeatedly); the human figures are clothed in the fashions of the day. The Prague Haggadah served as the model for most later printed versions of the Haggadah.
In the Ashkenazic world, the earliest illuminated haggadahs are the Birds Head Haggadah, so named because most of the human figures depicted have bird heads in place of human ones, and the Darmstadt Haggadah, which shows every man and woman holding a haggadah to retell the story of the exodus (N.B.: the depiction of women being able to read, and participating actively in the Seder, may have been a novelty at the time).
The Birds Head Haggadah originated in late 13th century Germany. Its author was a sofer calling himself Menachem, who apparently believed the prohibition against graven images extended to include human figures. Menachem created only two pages of miniatures. The Darmstadt Haggadah dates from a bit later, around 1430; it features square Ashkenazic script and striking, colorful illustrations that incorporate architectural details and medieval costume.
Illuminated haggadahs have been created in more recent times as well. Artist and cartoonist Arthur Szyk produced a celebrated medieval-style illuminated haggadah in the 1960’s, and artist and calligrapher David Moss created a modern version of an illuminated haggadah in 1987, deliberately drawing upon a variety of diaspora traditions. “Mine is a Haggadah of ingathering,” Moss said.
You can purchase a copy of this haggadah on our shop site right here.