The Sarajevo Haggadah inspires peace, music

The Sarajevo Haggadah inspires peace, music

By Emily K. Alhadeff Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound

The Seattle Peace Chorus has been “cultivating peace through song” since 1983, when Helen Lauritzen sought a way to bridge Americans and Russians in the midst of the Cold War.

Now in its 31st year, the Seattle Peace Chorus continues its mission. Over the years the group has traveled to Russia, Cuba, and Venezuela to unite cultures through that universal language, music.

This year’s concert, “Origins: Musical Migrations of Balkan Song and Dance,” features a range of pieces from the temperate peninsula that straddles East and West.

Choral director Frederick N. West was inspired to create a Balkan-focused show after reading Geraldine Brooks’ historical novel “People of the Book” (Penguin 2008) about the Sarajevo Haggadah.

“I was just captivated by her story,” West told JTNews over a beer in Wallingford after rehearsal. “You really have a sense of the Jewish experience through the last 500 years through this book.”

The Sarajevo Haggadah is an illuminated Passover manuscript originating in 14th-century Spain. It survived the expulsion from Spain and ended up in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 1894, when it was sold to the National Museum. When the Nazis invaded, a Muslim family hid the manuscript, and later it survived a museum break-in during the Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo. Wine stains on the pages prove it was used for Passover seders over the centuries.

This is the story Brooks fleshes out in “People of the Book.” It’s a story of mystery and intrigue, but also of “convivencia,” a time in Balkan history when different religious and ethnic groups got along.

“As a peace chorus director you can always read the history of wars, but it’s hard to read about the history of peace,” said West. “I thought we would really look more carefully at the circumstances that made people coexists even with their religious differences. It was ready-made for the Peace Chorus.”

Parts of the Haggadah and its story will be read during the concert.

Peace Chorus

A copy of Geraldine Brooks’ “People of the Book” rests on the piano while the chorus practices.

In addition, the chorus will be performing three Jewish pieces: Salomon Rossi’s “Shivisi,” an enigmatic Baroque adaptation of Psalm 16 (“Shiviti Ado-shem l’negdi tamid”); a Hebrew-Ladino version of the popular Shabbat tune “Ein Keloheinu”; and the singular Yom Kippur chant “Avinu Malkenu.” West also convinced Temple Beth Am music director Wendy Marcus into singing “Ha Lachma Anya” (“Bread of Affliction”) during the second half of the show.


Listen to the Chorus rehearsing Shivisi.


Other pieces include Serge Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers,” which was banned in Russia for over 70 years, and performances by the Radost Folk Ensemble, the Dunava Balkan Women’s Chorus, Klapa Do Wapella, Peter Lippman and Dormeno, and Ruth and Christos Govestas family band on traditional Balkan instruments.

West had been looking for a way to bring Balkan music to the chorus. In Seattle, at least, Balkan music is hugely popular, with electrifying bands like Okestar Zirkonium, and large Balkan dance parties regularly occurring across the city.

“There really is quite a subculture of people who love that music,” West said.

“In the Balkans, there’s a particularly rich mix of cultures, because everybody has marched through there over the past 3,000 years,” he said. “You find that out of all those empires and all those conquests, the art kind of settles, and helps sculpt how people are. This is one of the rich treasure chests of music right there in the Balkans. This is particularly diverse, because it’s where the East met the West. It’s a pretty magical place.”

Today the former Yugoslavian bloc is pretty quiet. Jewish culture, however, is all but erased, Bosnia is divided between ethnic lines, and shells of bombed-out buildings in Belgrade remind visitors to the Serbian capital of the terror the region faced just two decades ago.

And where is the Sarajevo Haggadah now? Good question.

It remains under lock and key in Bosnia’s National Museum, but the museum, along with other national heritage organizations, is closed due to lack of funds (a result of the 1995 peace treaty and the formation of a government that did not budget for a culture ministry). Bosnian officials rejected an offer by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to host the manuscript for three years. The country doesn’t have the infrastructure to prepare the book for its next journey.

All the more reason for the Seattle Peace Chorus to use it as a centerpiece in the upcoming show.

“I have a real interest in the things that human beings on the planet have in common,” said West. “And yet we want to preserve the cultural differences that make us interesting…. We need to preserve our different languages, our different culture, our different dances, our songs. As a singer and choir director, this is a deep well to draw from.”

If you go: The Seattle Peace Chorus performs “Origins: Musical Migrations of Balkan Song and Dance” Saturday, May 31, at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. For tickets and information visit or or call 800-838-3006.