It all started with a chance encounter at a Manhattan Jewish bookstore.
Back in 1984, Chicago Jewish attorney Stephen Durchslag happened upon an antique
for sale. It was written in the medieval Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino. Intrigued, he bought it.
Four decades later, Durchslag has amassed more than 3,500
*, the largest private collection in the world.
He has always cherished Passover, even as a boy, despite being tasked every year with lugging the Passover dishes and cookware up from the basement to his family's apartment. "It was a fairly husky activity, and not a particularly pleasant one," he said. "But, certainly, the [holiday's] concept of family and belonging to a larger community was always very important to me."
A lifelong scholar in Jewish studies, he says "the
is a capsule of what Judaism is all about"--history, freedom, and family.
--lining the massive wall of bookshelves in his northside Chicago condo--hail from around the world, are penned in 31 different languages, and span from 1485 to present day. He buys them at auction, through private sellers, and from his world travels.
He opens his home for tours, particularly for students, because "I see this collection as a message to the future."
Now retired from intellectual property law, he is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish studies at the University of Chicago, focusing his research on how
reflect the issues of their day.
, he explains, sheds light on the time and place where it comes from. "The
is a mirror of where we've been and where we're going," he said. "As we get into the modern period, it adopts issues like gay rights, feminism, and vegetarianism."
As was the fate with so many Jewish books throughout history, many
were destroyed during the Catholic Reformation, pogroms, and the Holocaust.
Others, in less dramatic fashion, were ruined just because they were used during a meal. But a multitude have made the journey to Durchslag's shelves. Some in his collection are in pristine condition, while others contain tattered, wine-soaked pages.
means to "tell" the story, and each one in his collection has its own story to tell. In the reciting of the original Jewish liberation story-the exodus from Egypt-many of his
incorporate subsequent examples in history of Jewish oppression and struggles for freedom.
One, for instance, published in Amsterdam in 1687, was used by Jews who survived the Spanish Inquisition to reintroduce themselves to Judaism, and includes a prayer to say in memory of people burned at the stake.
Another dates to the Reformation. The pages are sprinkled with redacted text, where any reference to the Talmud--thought to be anti-Christian--was blackened out to avoid censorship.
He also owns a World War I army manual for German Jewish soldiers that contains a
within its pages.
And a 1943 parody
used during the time of the Allied invasion of North Africa. The "Four Sons" are represented by Churchill as the wise son, Hitler as the evil one, the Americans as the simple son, and Mussolini as the son who "is not worth asking."
Durchslag hosts an annual Seder in his home. The multi-generational gathering, among them his two grown daughters, celebrate at times with costumes and a rousing reenactment of the 10 Plagues.
Instead of using just one
at his Seder, he blends excerpts from several to offer a richer retelling of the story, including the
considered one of the most artistically significant
of the modern era, and the
Santa Cruz Haggadah
, which emphasizes spiritual cleansing.
But Durchslag's favorite
is none of the above. Rather, the one he loves most is the one his artist girlfriend wrote. The meet-cute story goes that someone fixed them up over their shared love of Passover literature.
will he acquire next? That's easy, he says. "The one I don't have."
*Plural of Haggadah