About the Author

Shona Crabtree is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco who writes about religion in America. Her work has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post and The Dallas Morning News, among others. She started covering religion for CBS Radio's national show, The Osgood File, and previously worked as a daily newspaper reporter. Her interest in religion stems, in part, from growing up in India, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Puerto Rico, England and Switzerland

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The Most Mysterious Haggadah: Q+A with “People of the Book” author Geraldine Brooks

A sweeping narrative set in multiple locations with a myriad cast of characters, People of the Book, a novel by Pulitzer-prize winning author Geraldine Brooks, is held together by one thing – a powerful fascination with a deceptively tattered book. The maxim “don’t judge a book by its cover” couldn’t be more applicable as the book in question – the Sarajevo Haggadah – is a priceless Hebrew text and one of the oldest illustrated manuscripts that tells the story of Exodus. Haggadahs are read aloud at the family seder during Passover.

While Brooks, formerly a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, uses fiction to tell the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah and the people of different faiths who have kept it safe over the centuries, the book is in fact real. The Sarajevo Haggadah has a long and storied history, including being smuggled out of Spain by the Jews during the Inquisition, hidden from the Nazis in World War II by a Muslim curator before being rescued 50-odd years later by another Muslim librarian during the Yugoslavian War.

Brooks creates a plucky protagonist in Hanna Heath, an Australian conservator, who is chosen to rehabilitate the Sarajevo Haggadah. Her reverence for the book is immediate and electric upon opening its humble cover to reveal its gleaming illuminations drenched in color. Heath’s passion for her work sends her on a quest to hunt down the reasons behind mysterious clues in the book, including a butterfly’s wing, a salty splash, a hair and a wine stain.

The narrative begins in 1996 with Heath in Sarajevo but travels through time and place with each clue, catapulting the reader backwards in time to Sarajevo in the 1940s, nineteenth century Vienna, Venice in the 1600s and finally fifteenth century Spain where the reader finally meets the unlikely illustrator of the manuscript. At each stop, the reader is introduced by characters of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths – all “people of the book” – to worlds where interreligious harmony and tension vie for prominence.

The chapters are interspersed with Heath’s story, as she grapples with the book’s mysteries and those of her own heart – a growing attraction to the librarian who saved the Sarajevo Haggadah during the Yugoslavian War and her battles with her mother which lead to the revelation of a family secret.

I spoke with Brooks about why she chose fiction to tell a true story, what readers today can learn from the multi-religious cities of the past, and how her spiritual life changed when she converted to Judaism.

Shona Crabtree: How did you find out about this story and what drew you to it?

Geraldine Brooks (Photo by Randi Baird)
Geraldine Brooks: It goes back to when I was working as a newspaper reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and I was in Bosnia to cover the siege of Sarajevo and the UN operations there. And there were rumors floating around about the missing treasure of the Bosnian national collections, this fourteenth century illuminated Hebrew manuscript, and nobody knew what had happened to it. It was missing at the time. And so some said it had been destroyed and others said the Muslim government of Bosnia had sold it to buy weapons. Some said Mossad had come and got it. It was this swirl of rumor and I said that’s interesting and I must check into that. And then towards the end of the war what had really happened to this manuscript had been revealed, and that was even more interesting than the rumor, which was a Muslim librarian named Enver Imamovic had risked his life and gone in under shelling in the early days of the war to bring this book to safekeeping.

Years went on, and I started writing historical fiction and this story about this illuminated manuscript and all the mysteries that surrounded its creation started banging away in my imagination. And I started with the idea of the illuminator, who was it who had made the beautiful pictures in this book, because Jews in the Middle Ages didn’t generally illustrate because of the commandment against graven images.

Crabtree: You wrote a compelling non-fiction article about the Sarajevo Haggadah during World War II in The New Yorker. In it, you describe the Muslim librarian Dervis Korkut and his saving of not just the Sarajevo Haggadah under the nose of the Nazis, but also a young Jewish woman, Mira Papo. Decades later, Papo’s testimony to Korkut’s brave deeds ends up helping Korkut’s daughter, a refugee, evacuate to Israel during the Bosnian war. The real story of the Haggadah is so interesting, why did you ultimately decide to use fiction to tell the book’s story?

Brooks: Well, the real story is a great magazine article and a very short book. We don’t know so many things. The further you go back in time the less we know. Absolutely nothing is certain about the circumstances of the creation of this book. Who was the artist? Who was the sofer, or scribe? Why it was made? Why it was illustrated when other Jewish books weren’t? Even where in Spain? We know it was in Spain but we’re not sure where. So that’s where you need to engage your imagination and try and come up with plausible stories. And that’s what I love to do. I love to find histories, stories on the historical record where you can know something but you can’t know everything. So the imagination has room to work.

Crabtree: How do you go about creating stories that are plausible?

Brooks: I do a lot of research, but I was guided by the Haggadah itself. And there are lots of little mysteries in the illuminations, like there’s a scene of a medieval Spanish family celebrating the Passover Seder meal and at the table is an African woman. And her identity kind of got my imagination going. Who was she, such a good friend that she was included in the Jewish celebration? When typically if you’re African in Spain at that time you would have been Moorish and Muslim. So was she really an African Muslim woman? So I try and research what the role of Africans in Convivencia Spain was like and what the atmosphere in Convivencia Spain was like and sort of take it from there.

Crabtree: The novel emphasizes the interfaith cooperation and coexistence among Jews, Muslims and Christians in the course of the Haggadah’s history, but it also doesn’t shy away from interreligious tension throughout the centuries, including the Spanish Inquisition, World War II and the Yugoslavian war. How important was the interfaith angle to you in writing the book?

Brooks: I think the book, at this point, is carrying a huge amount of significance because of the number of times it’s been saved from destruction. And I think right now it bears witness to the fact that even though we have this human capacity to demonize each other and this terrible fear of otherness that comes up from time to time in human history and is a very destructive force, there are always people who see through that and who stand against it sometimes at great personal cost. And I loved the true stories I was able to retell, albeit in a fictional way. And then trying to imagine the circumstances of other rescues that we really don’t know what really happened, but we can speculate.

Crabtree: In the novel, it seems interfaith harmony wins out over divisive religious differences. How does your fictional treatment of this subject square with your experience as a reporter covering the Middle East and the Bosnian war?

Brooks: Well, Sarajevo is really, at this point, a bit of a beacon of hope because those forces that said only one kind of people can live together were defeated in Sarajevo at great cost. But Sarajevo is once again a multiethnic city, and it’s rebuilding itself and is very committed to that idea of the multiethnic community with religious tolerance. So I take some consolation from that. I think it’s our destiny because the alternative is too bleak. It’s so disruptive, and every time it happens that we let this fear of otherness overpower our societies we lose so much. And then it takes a century or more to rebuild back to where we were.

That’s one of the other themes of this book is how it recurs. We have these incredibly productive and creative societies where intellectual exchange across areas of difference is happening and everybody is prospering and moving forward, and it all gets smashed. You see that with Nazism and with the ethnic cleansing ultranationalists and with the Inquisition and on and on. So it does seem to be a play we’ve had to reenact over and over again.

Crabtree: Did you feel an urgency in writing this book given the context of our times today?

Brooks: I don’t think so. I really write to tell stories and whatever message people might want to take out of them, that’s the reader’s business. I just felt like my God, this is a great story and I want to tell it. It wasn’t so much that this is a message for our time. If people read a message into it then that’s great, but I didn’t feel my God I have to write this, it’s so important for people right now or anything like that. That didn’t really enter into it, it was more of an intellectual and an imaginative engagement with something that had been given to me which was the framework of this beautiful story. And then I had to try to work and fill in the voids in the historical record.

Crabtree: How did you handle the constant thread of anti-Semitism that runs through the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah?

Brooks: I wanted to talk about the people who had made this book and the people who protected it. And so I had to deal with crucial moments in the history of this book and the times when it was most at risk. And usually it was most at risk when anti-Semitism was at a high point. So you have to deal with that and definitely the Inquisition and then Vienna in the Belle Epoque which was a fantastically rich cultural time, but it was the time when the seeds of the anti-Semitism – that was the atmosphere in which Hitler grew to manhood – were being sown. So obviously I had to investigate and write about that.

Crabtree: You’ve covered religion before, specifically Islam during your time as a reporter in the Middle East and in your book, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, which tackled the sensitive topic of women, sexuality and Islam. Was writing about Judaism any different? If so, how did it affect your approach as a writer and researcher?

Brooks: I guess it was a little different in that Islam was something I learned about on the job, as it were, when we went to live in Cairo in the 1980s and it just happened to coincide with the religious revival of Islam and people returning to a more orthodox interpretation all around me. So that was something that I hadn’t really been prepared for.

But the history of the Jews is something that’s interested me ever since I was a little girl. And I think that came from my father who wasn’t Jewish but he was an ardent lefty Zionist. He had served in what was then Palestine during World War II and because he was a Socialist he got very caught up in the romance of the young kibbutz movement. So this was something that mattered a great deal to him and when I was growing up in Sydney, he often talked about his experiences with the kibbutzniks.

And so when I became a teenager, I started reading the usual suspects like “The Diary of Anne Frank” and what have you. I got very deep into it and I started hauling around William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and when we had options in our history study I would write papers on the Suez crisis. I perhaps was the only 15-year-old in Sydney who was an expert on the Suez crisis. So I guess I was mining a vein of interest that has run deep with me all my life.

Crabtree: That’s really interesting, because Australia is so geographically isolated but to have this profound connection as a young teenager with a very specific place and people is unusual.

Brooks: Well, it’s geographically isolated but it’s not isolated culturally, because it’s an immigrant culture and people have come to make that country from all over the world. I actually grew up on a street that looked like the United Nations. And we had neighbors who were Serbs and Greeks and Turks and Chinese and Italians, so it was very culturally turned out to the world. I think Australia is a very good place to prepare yourself for engagement with the rest of the world. And the country really does pay a lot of attention to what’s happening elsewhere in a way that I think we don’t have to in America because we’re so involved in trying to sort out the complexities of a big country. I would come back from a big assignment and say I’d been in Eritrea and people’s eyes would glaze over. But if you’d say that in Australia, someone would say “Oh! My neighbor’s from Eritrea.”

Crabtree: What is your religious background and how did that inform your tackling of religion in the novel?

Brooks: Such a long story! I was raised in an Irish Catholic tradition. My mother’s family were pretty recent Irish immigrant stock, and our neighborhood was predominantly Catholic. So it was Catholicism of a very traditional, baroque kind with incense and lace mantillas and Children of Mary in blue cloaks. You know, the whole shmear. And then I kind of, as a teenager, fell out of love with the church over the role of women. At that point, I felt the whole thing was a big plot to deny women’s autonomy and to keep people contented with a pretty unjust social system because they were going to get their rewards in the afterlife. So I just kind of washed my hands of the whole thing, cruised through about a decade and a half as a happy atheist.

But then when I was about to get married to a Jew, the whole business of Jewish history that had so absorbed me all my life started to impose its imperative on me. That I didn’t want to be the end of the line for his family’s long heritage that had survived the sack by the Romans and the Inquisition and the pogroms of Russia and the shoah. So I converted to Judaism at that point more as an act of historical solidarity than perhaps religious belief.

Crabtree: Once you converted, has that changed your spirituality in any way?

Brooks: I’m a praying atheist if that makes any sense. (laughs)

Crabtree: Actually, I talk to a lot of people in that category who have an affinity for the spiritual but don’t believe in God per se. Or let me rephrase that, how would you define what a praying atheist is?

Brooks: Yes, that’s exactly right. So we go to shul not that regularly but occasionally, and I must say I feel very at home in Judaism because the whole ritual is about worshiping a book really. (laughs) When they open the Ark and you bow to the Torah, I’m perfectly comfortable bowing to the idea that books are what makes us special in creation.

Crabtree: The novel’s central character, Hanna Heath, has such a visceral, electrical reaction when she first lays hands on the Sarajevo Haggadah. How close did you get to it while doing research and how did you respond to it?

Brooks: It was kind of funny actually. It was pretty much as described in the fictional account. I was able to talk my way into the room when a real conservator was working on this book. And it was very soon after the end of the war and things in the city were still pretty strained and tense, and there was a lot of anxiety about security and so the room was absolutely buzzing with all kinds of security people and UN people and museum and bank staff. It was a very crowded room. And we’re waiting and waiting and finally this flying wedge of yet more security guards comes into the room and in the middle is the librarian holding the Haggadah. And it’s in a box and it’s tied up with string and wax stamps and they have to be meticulously taken apart and they open the box and you still can’t see it, so the suspense at this point is absolutely breathtaking. (laughs) And it’s wrapped up in silk paper so they’re unwrapping it, and I’m trying to peer over the shoulders of these Vikings from the UN. And then finally the conservator gets the Haggadah and she lays it down on this cradle of foam that she’s made and you look at it and you go, huh? All this for that?

Until you open it, it’s just a daggy little book that you wouldn’t look twice at, you know, scuffed and discolored, ordinary looking thing. You could just pass by it in a used bookstore. And of course that would be a big mistake because it’s been valued at some ridiculously high 700 million dollars or something. (laughs)

Anyway, then she opens it and then boom the colors just leap off the page. It’s like it was made yesterday. The bright blue of the lapis lazuli and the gold leaf is gleaming and the little miniature illuminations are just breathtaking in their detail. So it’s a gorgeous thing really.

Crabtree: So you felt that instant shock when you saw it?

Brooks: Oh, yes! And then you think how much more so for the people in the Middle Ages who weren’t bombarded with as much input as we are, you know, had perhaps never seen an illuminated book. It just must have taken their breath right out of them.

Crabtree: Where did your reverence of books come from?

Brooks: That came from my family. Books were everything when I was growing up. My parents were both constant and enthusiastic readers and they read to us and we read voraciously. It was the glue that bound the family together.

Crabtree: You talked about your father and his experiences during the war. What was his reaction when you converted to Judaism?

Brooks: Oh, he was very excited about it. He always said he thought his attraction to Israel and everything must have come from a Jewish forebearer he didn’t know that he had. So he said maybe it’s not a Jewish forebearer but a Jewish descendant (laughs).

Crabtree: You describe growing up in a close-knit Catholic family, what was your parents’ reaction when you became an atheist?

Brooks: My dad wasn’t Catholic, and my mother had kind of raised us that way because that’s what she thought she should do but she didn’t have any great conviction about it. And she felt she had the same misgivings about it that I had because this was the time that the birth control encyclical came and we had a neighbor who had to get a divorce from her abusive husband and she wasn’t allowed to take the sacrament. And it just seemed outrageous that this incredibly religious woman had to make a choice between ever marrying again or giving up the thing that was so important to her. So I think that my mother was pretty irritated with the church also, so was kind of relieved when my sister and I got out of it. (laughs)

Crabtree: It’s interesting your talking about your personal conversion because there are several instances of personal conversion in your book. I’m not making a personal analogy, but those seem to be much more tortured experiences, like the Jewish brother who marries a Christian woman or the priest who had this tortured past of remembering that he is Jewish. Did your personal experience in any way shape those descriptions?

Brooks: No, they were much more out of historical reading because there was so much pressure in Spain on the Jewish community and there were so many families that had one convert. And how families dealt with that, you can see it in the wills. Wills are an amazing resource because you get the whole material culture described as people used to account for every meager possession that they had. But you also get this tortured, how am I going to deal with your brother for whom I sat shiva, but I’m still giving him a third of my worldly goods because he is my son after all. So the human heart is not a legalistic thing. So I read a lot of that and that’s what gave me the idea for the character of Renato.

And the priest came from looking at, well, who were the priests who worked as censors for the Office of the Inquisition? And the ones with the language skills, you know, it’s common sense they were converted Jews. So I used that germ of historical fact to create my priest character.

Crabtree: What has the reaction to the book been so far among Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities?

Brooks: So far, so good! (laughs) The thing that I was most concerned about perhaps was how Bosnians would read the book. And it’s kind of presumptuous to poke around in somebody else’s recent history in that way and my characters are based on people who are still alive in some instances and in living memory in others. I just didn’t know how it was going to go over, but it’s really been embraced. And everybody who was tangentially connected, was giving me the creative ideas, they’ve all been quite pleased with the outcome so that pleases me.

Crabtree: Do you think most Jews know about the Sarajevo Haggadah or it is only known among European Jewish communities?

Brooks: Oh no, I think it’s pretty famous among Jews. A lot of people have facsimile copies of it. A lot of people have come to readings and brought their treasured facsimile copy.

Crabtree: Given how central haggadahs are to Jewish culture and ritual, do you have one in your household? And if so, what does it look like?

Brooks: We have a bunch of them. We have sort of our warhorse one that we use at the table with the kids. But then we have the beautiful Moss Haggadah which is my favorite one, it’s really an exquisite thing and so thoughtfully put together. And then I’ve got a facsimile of the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Crabtree: People of the Book has been described as “the next DaVinci Code.” What do you think of that comparison? Was that the genre you were aiming for when you wrote the book?

Brooks: Oh goodness me, no! Again, I don’t really aim at anything, it’s all about story telling for me. I just tell the best story I can. And so I don’t think it through that it has to be this way or it has to be that way. So well, I would like to have every one of Dan Brown’s readers, let’s put it that way. (laughs) I can see why people make that comparison because they’re both literary mysteries, but mine’s got a lot less action than his. (laughs)

There Are 3 Responses So Far. »

  1. I learned recently that Geraldine is a convert to Judaism. fascinating. This book sounds just as interesting. it seems like a unique take on Al-Andalusia.

  2. Being called the next DaVinci Code sounds more like aspirant optimism than anything else. It’s akin to being called the next Buffy or the next Harry Potter or whatever. If the book were being spoken of as the next Bible then perhaps the suggestion might have some merit. That’s a very big “perhaps” though.


  3. Do you know if there is one of the 613 copies of the Sarajevo Haggadah on handmade parchment in Australia? If so where? Is it available for public view? Thanks K

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