ith A Strong Hand'
A collector's passion for the Passover Haggadah: medieval to Maxwell House.
SHELL' LIEBMAN DORFMAN
11:11 n a designated wall in the library of Irwin
Alterman's Bloomfield Hills home are eight
built-in wooden shelves holding hundreds
and hundreds of copies of the same book.
Outwardly, they appear very different. Some are tiny,
pocket-sized books, while others are large, coffee-table
editions. They come shaped like everything from scrolls
and chamsas (hand amulets) to half a matzah.
Languages include Hebrew, English, Russian, Italian,
French and Spanish. Yet all are Haggadot, and inside
they tell the same story of the Jews' exodus from Egypt
"I have a great interest in books," Alterman said.
"The Passover seder was a time when we always had a
large group in our home and I was constantly looking
to supplement the se-der experience. So collecting
Haggadahs was a perfect fit."
The 25-year-old collection is a site of interest and
awe for guests to the Alterman home.
Perhaps that's because there are so many of them —
more than 700. Or maybe because most visitors have
never seen a Haggadah in comic book form with the
Beatles on surfboards atop the parted Red Sea, or a
copy of the text of the Haggadah used by the Dalai
Lama while attending an American seder, downloaded
from a computer Web site.
"I grew up using a Haggadah with no pictures in it,"
said Alterman, a Troy-based attorney. "Now there is so
much more opportunity to get attractive books with
extra readings and pictures that enhance the experi-
But most of what is displayed-on his shelves is not
the kind you would take to the seder table.
Seders Alterman participates in are conducted from
the Conservative movement's Feast of Freedom Passover
Haggadah, edited by Rachel Anne Rabinowitz. On one
of his shelves sits the first edition of the book, the one-
time-only version published before changes were made
to bring it to its present state.
Alterman's Haggadot come from a wide range of
sources, including those received as gifts as well as those
purchased on e-Bay. Yet every year between Purim and
Passover, he goes power shopping.
"I call this time of year, 'Haggadah Sunday season,"'
he said. "Most Judaica and mainstream bookstores have
some Haggadahs all year round, but this time of year,
most get in new ones. So every Sunday between the
two holidays, I make a swing, visiting all the stores."
And it's often worth the trip because different stores
get in different stock. "On one Sunday last month, I
found a book I didn't have at each of three different
stores," he said. 'And none of them had the orie the
Alterman is known to Chaskel Borenstein, manager
of Borenstein's Book and Music Store in Oak Park
"He is a serious collector, but there are very few others
in town," Borenstein said. "Most people who shop for
Haggadahs are looking for the kind they can use at the
While Alterman typically doesn't venture out of
Michigan for the sole purpose of shopping for
Haggadot, he rarely misses the chance if he's traveling
anyway, often visiting Judaica stores in the suburbs of
Chicago, New York, Boston and Toronto.
'And I bought several last summer in Italy," he said.
"A few years ago, I broke my suitcase coming home
with the 15 I bought in France."
When he's at home, Alterman may sit down at the
computer and peruse a rare book Web site or one
devoted solely to Haggadot.
Sharing The View
Alterman's collection includes everything from valu-
able, out-of-print Haggadot with extensive commen-
tary and beautiful art to those that are usual and inex-
His rule for purchase: "I'll take anything I don't
Alterman acquires about 50 new Haggadot each
year, and none receive a place on the shelves until he
Examples of Alterman's unique Haggadot, from comic-book style to vintage Maxwell House
give-aways, from El Al Airline . Haggadot to artistically bound and decorated volumes.
has made the time to properly review them. He has
them organized, some by size and publisher, others by
country of origin or even stream of Judaism, as in his
sub-collection of Orthodox Haggadot, including the
writings and commentary of such scholar-sages as the
18th-century Lithuanian leader the Vilna Gaon.
Alterman is interested not only in inviting guests to
view his collection, but he occasionally meets with oth-
ers who have acquired their own noteworthy
"I hope to one day see the premier private collection
I've heard about owned by a lawyer in Chicago who
has in excess of 5,000 Haggadahs," he said.
"That could very well be the fellow who came into
our store many years ago," Borenstein said. "He said he
had the day off and came to Detroit to shop for
Haggadahs and ended up buying eight from us. He
knew his collection so well, he knew these were books
he didn't already have."
Among the nearly 25 linear feet of Haggadot in
Alterman's home are reprints of books from as far back
as medieval times and as recent as those published just
in time for Passover 2004. Alterman even has the one
he used when he was a child.
He has several Haggadot in both hard-cover and
soft-cover — and even some purchased in their original
version and in later their gender-neutral edition.
The collection also includes many no longer in print,
one in very large print created for the visually impaired
and one with the center of each page cut out to reveal
the burgundy-liquid-filled plastic wine cup glued inside
the back cover.
Alterman's shelves hold six Christian Haggadot used
by non-Jews as a teaching tool and for those looking to
adapt the holiday of Passover into Christianity.
There are Haggadot with themes, such as freedom,
including one whose red, white and blue illustrations
depict American independence. "There are those that
honor a particular strand of Judaism, such as customs
in Yemen or Sephardic," he said. Many are geared
toward women, the land of Israel and the Holocaust.