Modern Exodus: the Sarajevo Haggadah’s musical journey
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Passover 2014

Modern Exodus: the Sarajevo Haggadah’s musical journey

Inspired by the haggadah's story, which parallels her own traumatic dislocation, Bosnian Merima Ključo composes 'The Music of the Book'

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Detail of the 'Maror' page of the Sarajevo Haggadah (courtesy of the Foundation for Jewish Culture)
Detail of the 'Maror' page of the Sarajevo Haggadah (courtesy of the Foundation for Jewish Culture)

One of the millions of readers of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks’ 2008 “The People of the Book” was Merima Ključo, a Bosnian-born musician who left Sarajevo in 1993 during the Bosnian War. The novel offers a fictionalized history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, the medieval Spanish illustrated manuscript whose survival was oft perilous on its 650-year journey from Catalonia to Venice, to Sarajevo, to Vienna, and back to Sarajevo again, where until recently it was on permanent display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Like all Sarajevans, Ključo, 39, was already aware of the Sarajevo Haggadah. A prized national treasure that Jews, Christians and Muslims alike have endangered themselves to keep from destruction, the book is seen as the ultimate survivor and a potent symbol of the non-sectarian unity of the people of the Bosnian capital.

Ključo, a concert accordionist who performs with chamber and philharmonic orchestras around the world, decided that she, too, must retell the story of the famed Jewish manuscript—but through the language of music. The result is “The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book,” a multimedia work, which is the 2013-2014 New Jewish Culture Network’s music commission.

“The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book” premiered in late March at Yellow Barn, an international center for chamber music in Putney, Vermont, where it was developed in residence. From there, the performance, which has digital art by Bart Woodstrup accompanying and interpreting Ključo’s music, began a North American tour that will take it to Watertown, Mass., Dallas, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Toronto and Austin by the end of November.

Bosnian musician Merima Kljuco became 'obsessed' with the hagaddah. (photo credit: Zijah Gafic)
Bosnian musician Merima Kljuco became ‘obsessed’ with the hagaddah. (photo credit: Zijah Gafic)

“I became obsessed with the idea of a project that would musically and visually follow the Haggadah’s journey from Spain to Sarajevo,” the Los Angeles-based Ključo tells The Times of Israel.

This obsession came from a very personal place for Ključo, who is descended from Jews, Christians, Muslims and atheists.

“I have always been fascinated by the Sarajevo Haggadah— not only because of its amazing and fascinating history, but also because it reminds me of my own life and the ‘exodus’ I had to experience. I was forced to leave my own country, under the strangest and heaviest circumstances,” she says.

“In its journey, the Haggadah suffered transformations which make it even more special by giving it a richer history that reflects its passage through different cultures. I also travel around the world and with every journey I get a new ‘scar’… but I keep my dignity and get richer by traveling through different circumstances.”

To create “The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book,” the accordionist delved deeply in to the history of one of the oldest intact Jewish illuminated manuscripts. Despite scholarly research on the medieval book, its provenance and Diasporic journey remain somewhat mysterious.

Detail of 'Ha Lachma Anya' page of the Sarajevo Haggadah (Courtesy of the Foundation for Jewish Culture)
Detail of ‘Ha Lachma Anya’ page of the Sarajevo Haggadah (Courtesy of the Foundation for Jewish Culture)

With its colorful illustrations with traditional Jewish iconography along with Christian and Arabic visual influences, it is believed that the religious text originated some time in the mid 14th century in Catalonia. It was likely secreted out of Spain by its owners or other members of the Jewish community following the Edict of Expulsion in 1492.

The haggadah resurfaced in Venice, Italy in 1609, and was spared from being burned by the Inquisition. An inscription inside the book reads, “Revisto per me” (revised by me) and was signed by “Giovanni Dom. Vistorini,” who is presumed to have been a priest who found the haggadah to be non-threatening to the Church.

The next time the manuscript was seen was in 1894, when the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina acquired it from a Josef Kohen, whose family must have brought the haggadah to Sarajevo at some point.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had welcomed many Sephardic Jews when the Ottomans were in power, was by then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Accordingly, the haggadah was sent to Vienna for examination and restoration. (By the account of British Jewish historian Cecil Roth, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Princess Sophie were on their way to view the treasure when the archduke was assassinated in 1914.)

The haggadah became a national treasure and a symbol of hope. Although the manuscript was never publicly displayed, everyone seemed to know of its existence and many Bosnians proudly owned copies. Fahrudin Rizvanbegovic, a Muslim and Bosnia’s minister of culture during the Bosnian War told American journalist Edward Serotta that the first thing he did after being released from a concentration camp during World War II was buy a copy of the haggadah.

“I walked the streets wearing borrowed clothes… My family was destitute and I had very little money on me, and I felt ashamed that the first thing I bought was a book. But I couldn’t help myself. I had to buy this book,” he said.

Attempts to steal the haggadah by a Nazi general in 1941 were thwarted by museum director Jozo Petrovic and Dervis Korkut, a Muslim scholar. Petrovic reportedly tricked the general in to thinking that another German soldier had already taken the haggadah, while Korkut ran with it to safety. Theories abound as to where exactly Korkut took the precious book to be hidden, but, it was returned safely to the museum in 1945. Although the Sarajevo Haggadah survived, 8,000 of the city’s 10,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

It was feared that during the Bosnian War, that lasted from 1992 until 1995, the haggadah had been destroyed or sold to fund arms purchases (the manuscript is reportedly worth millions of dollars). Neither of these scenarios proved to be accurate when it was revealed at the end of the war that Dr. Enver Imamovic, the director of the museum, with the cooperation of police and interior ministry guards, removed the haggadah from a safe in the museum’s basement and, under frontline gunfire, moved it to the vault of the National Bank for safekeeping.

Accordionist and composer Merima Kljuco (photo credit: Jose de Vries)
Accordionist and composer Merima Kljuco (photo credit: Jose de Vries)

In her composition, Ključo conveys the Sarajevo Haggadah’s legendary journey through time and space in twelve movements. Four movements are for solo accordion, and eight are for accordion and piano.

“Merima is an unusually beautiful player on an instrument that originated in folk traditions and has now crossed over in to art music,” notes Yellow Barn artistic director Seth Knopp, who accompanies Ključo on the piano for the project.

Ključo, long a student and performer of Jewish music (both Sephardic and Eastern European Klezmer), brings together here the musical traditions of Sephardic Jews of Spain, Italy, Austria, and Bosnia, and Herzegovina.

The accordionist, who has been mentored and championed by actor and musician Theodore Bikel, first discovered Jewish music as a teenager, and was drawn to it by a sense of familiarity.

“Klezmer and Sephardic music, in their style, lyrics, depth and humor have many similarities with the Bosnian traditional Sevdah,” she explains. “This made it easier for me to get close to this music and I started to love and play it with the same passion as I do Bosnian and other musical styles from the Balkans.” (Interestingly, many Sephardic songs from Bosnia are about celebrating Passover.)

Partners to the project, such as San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, are excited not only by the music, but also by the multi-media aspect of the performance.

“We are interested in compelling content across all platforms,” says CJM director Lori Starr.

While the music reflects the haggadah’s historical journey, Woodstrup’s digital art is a visual abstraction based off of the captivating original illustrations contained within the book itself.

“I took inspiration from the aesthetic quality, the textures, of the illuminated manuscript and created new illuminations using software,” the artist explains.

Every project Ključo undertakes is important to her, but this one is exceptional.

“Bosnians and Sephardic Jews use the same scales and rhythms,” she notes. “They share the same emotion in their songs, the same pleasures, and the same pain.”

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