The Sarajevo Haggadah is an artifact with an extraordinary history — most of which is lost and long forgotten, and what little is known seems to at once baffle and excite such scholars as let themselves be baffled and excited by old artifacts. But rampant and imaginative speculation about the particulars of this curious ancient book is the basis of Geraldine Brooks’ new work of historical fiction, People of the Book.
A haggadah is a Jewish prayer book. At the center of this story is the Sarajevo Haggadah — one of the earliest illuminated Hebrew texts ever found (and a challenge to the common assumption that Medieval Judaism forbade representational art such as the illustrations in this text. ) Some of the few facts gleaned from its history: the inscription of a Venetian priest named Vistorini seems to have saved the haggadah from being burned during the Inquisition; a Muslim scholar smuggled the book out of Sarajevo to save it from the Nazis; and a Muslim librarian rescued the book from the bombings of the Bosnian war.
And it is from these stories that the novel People of the Book finds its theme. As it imagines the details of the haggadah’s history it tells a tale of faith overcoming intolerance. At those times in human history when ideology and dogma seem to bring out the very worst of human nature, there are always those rare individuals who recognize the larger picture.
People of the Book offers us stories of those who can see beyond their own narrow viewpoint — Christians, Muslims, and Jews cooperating, forming sometimes uneasy alliances, even as the societal structures around them work to turn them against one another. But it is ultimately the Book — the paintings and handwritten texts, loving tributes to the God they all adore — that brings them to recognize God’s presence, even when God appears in the guise of a different faith.