UChicago Library to preserve ‘unique portrait’ of Jewish history in Passover Haggadot collection

Divinity School grad student bequeathing collection of more than 4,500 books for Passover

Stephen Durchslag’s family began teaching him to love Passover practically from birth, when they gave him the middle name of Pesach—the Hebrew word for the Jewish holiday. Throughout his childhood, his relatives would gather around a large table, each holding a Haggadah—the book that guides participants through the rituals of the holiday and tells the biblical story of the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.

“The evening was magical—a time of family support, warmth and tradition,” Durchslag, AM’14, recalled. “The Haggadah encapsulated it all.”

Those memories formed the foundation of what has become a decades-long intellectual labor of love. Since 1982, Durchslag has obtained more than 4,500 Passover Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah, or “the telling”) from across the world, with the oldest dating back more than five centuries. Now, he has established a bequest that will leave the vast majority of this remarkable collection to the University of Chicago Library.

“The University of Chicago has been such an exciting place intellectually and so informative to me in all aspects of my Jewish scholarship,” said Durchslag. “It seemed to be a logical place to continue my legacy.”

Shortly before retiring in 2013 from a 46-year career as an attorney—having led the intellectual property department at Winston and Strawn—Durchslag enrolled as a graduate student at UChicago’s Divinity School. He is planning to write a dissertation on parody Haggadot, created by writers to explore the political, economic and social conditions of their times. His studies inspired him to preserve his collection at UChicago Library’s Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, where they will be accessible to future generations of scholars, students and the Jewish community.

Durchslag is also bequeathing funds to support the care, curation, study, exhibition and expansion of the collection.

“Stephen Durchslag’s exceptionally generous and very substantial bequest includes the largest known collection of Haggadot in private hands,” said Brenda L. Johnson, Library Director and University Librarian. “It will be a treasure trove for faculty, students and visiting researchers seeking to explore Jewish religion, history and culture and will significantly enhance our important academic collection in Jewish studies. We could not be more pleased that he has chosen us as the right home for his collection.”

Recited at the Passover feast (Seder), the Haggadah is meant to encourage reflection and commentary on the meaning of the Exodus story and liberation from oppression. It can explore the theme of freedom through many facets, including labor, housing or the basic desire for a better life.

For celebrations in his own household, Durchslag typically makes copies of pages from his rare Haggadot as supplements for the main Haggadah used at the dinner table and Seder: The Order of Retelling, by his partner Annette Turow. This year, he is planning an online Seder focusing on refugees in the United States and Africa.

Durchslag’s collection holds immense scholarly value, containing Haggadah texts in 31 languages—from medieval Italian, Hebrew and Yiddish to Marathi, Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Tat, spoken by the Jewish community in the remote Caucasus Mountains.

“His collection also includes commentaries representing multiple Jewish theological traditions as well as a wide range of modern secular interpretations, from socialists and Israeli kibbutzim,” said Paul Mendes-Flohr, the Dorothy Grant Maclear Professor Emeritus of Modern Jewish History and Thought. “The Durchslag Haggadah collection may thus be said to represent a unique portrait of the spiritual biography of the Jewish people.”

The earliest Haggadah in Durchslag’s collection, printed in 1485, was published as part of a larger prayer book in Soncino, near Milan, Italy, and documents the rites of the region. Other copies from across the centuries offer scholars a way to trace the development of literary innovations, and to examine the tensions of life in the Jewish diaspora. A Haggadah published in 1546 in Venice, for example, responds to the demands of the Counter-Reformation.

Also among Durchslag’s treasures is a lithographic manuscript of the Deventer Haggadah, published in Holland in 1940. At their Seder, a group of young Jews preparing to emigrate to the Land of Israel used the Haggadah, which features a map of where they planned to settle and farm. This copy was saved from destruction by the Nazis when it was mailed out of Holland before the German occupation.

“The Durchslag collection is impressive for its scope and depth, containing Haggadot from the incunable period of Western printing to modern and contemporary works,” said Elizabeth Frengel, Curator of Rare Books at the University of Chicago Library. “The range of Haggadot hold important evidence about traditional iconography and printing and illustrating practices.”

The collection also contains more personal connections for Durchslag: One Haggadah protesting sexual exploitation was written by his daughter, Rachel Durchslag, AM’05, an alum of the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.

Several other members of the family also attended the University of Chicago. Durchslag’s parents, Elizabeth (Betty) Durchslag, PhB’29, and Milton L. Durchslag, PhB’28, JD’30, got married on campus. His father and uncle, Harold Durchslag, PhB’32, JD’34, both received scholarships that allowed them to attend the University of Chicago Law School during the Depression. Stephen Durchslag stewards the Harold and Milton Durchslag Endowment Fund, which provides scholarships and loans to Law School students. When Stephen married his former wife, Ruth Mayer, they established a scholarship fund for the Divinity School to support the study of Judaism.

“My family has long ties to the University of Chicago on many levels in terms of scholarship and care,” said Durchslag. By leaving his collection to the University of Chicago Library, he said, “this bequest will allow a legacy that will continue to breathe in future generations.”

Durchslag’s bequest will also include financial support for a number of programs at the University of Chicago Library, including the organization, cataloging and preservation of the books in the Haggadot collection; an endowed curatorship in Jewish Studies; an endowed collections fund for Jewish Studies focusing on Haggadot and similar materials in Jewish Studies; and an endowed fellowship to support visiting researchers coming to the Library to consult materials in the Durchslag Collection.