A Place at the Table: On the “New American Haggadah”

By Erika MeitnerMarch 24, 2013

New American Haggadah by Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer

IN MY CHILDHOOD memories of Seder, what looms largest are the rituals: my grandmother attaching her squeaking meat grinder to the side of the kitchen counter to pulverize whitefish or carp into gefilte fish; my aunt opening the door to the empty Queens street to usher in Elijah the prophet; the way the lace of my grandmother’s tablecloth cascaded onto our heads like veils when my cousins and I would dive under the table to search for the afikomen. I grew up celebrating Pesach with family and extended family, in an area of New York that was so Jewish our bagel places and pizza parlors closed for the entirety of Passover. Many people we knew had separate Passover kitchens in their basements. I have, however, been in exile from New York for more than half my life now. Because I’m an academic, because I live far from home and travel mid-week during the semester is close to impossible, it has been over 20 years since I’ve spent Passover with my family.

In that time, I’ve participated in massive Hillel Seders, radical feminist Seders, queer Seders, vegetarian Seders, chocolate Seders, and piecemeal graduate student Seders. This year I helped organize a Seder for 25 people (nine of whom were kids under the age of six). I currently live in rural Southwest Virginia, in a town that has only a lay-led Jewish Community Center and a relatively new Chabad house. Our Jewish community is a motley crew of Israeli expats and refugees from Jewish hometowns married to non-Jews, all of us employed by the large state university in town: physicists, economists, liberal arts professors, administrators, business school faculty, and school teachers. 

The one thing all of my Seders have in common since I’ve left New York is the ubiquitous photocopied Haggadah, the manual for the Passover Seder. Because I’m a poet and English professor moonlighting part-time as a doctoral student in religious studies, I’m usually in charge of the Haggadah. For the past two years we’ve been using a hacked-up-and-amended version of the free-to-download The Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach, assembled by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Her politics resemble those of most of the liberal egalitarian academic Jews at our Seder, so it’s an easy fit. 

Enter the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, with translations by Nathan Englander. I should preface any discussion of this Haggadah by saying that I am huge fans of both authors — their novels and short stories are among my favorite things to read for pleasure. My initial question for the New American Haggadah is this: would I use it for Seder? Could the New American Haggadah replace our photocopied version? Would I want it to?

There are many editions of the Haggadah — literally “the telling” — from around the world, but each generally has the same core Hebrew text composed from a pastiche of Jewish sources: biblical text, blessings, instructions for the conduct of the Seder, rabbinic commentary originally found in the Mishnah and the Talmud, and liturgical poems and songs (many of which were added in the Middle Ages). The main text recounts the story of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt, and Seder participants are meant to narrate this history as if they themselves had been liberated from slavery. Commentaries were added, and a large portion of the current version was completed by the end of the Talmudic period (500–600 CE). The original Haggadah was a section within the Jewish prayer book, but the earliest stand-alone Haggadah can be traced back to 13th-century Spain; the earliest printed version appeared in 1486. Since the 15th century, more than 4,000 printed editions of the Haggadah have been published.

In the United States, the Haggadah is the Jewish book with the largest number of copies in print. The first Haggadah printed in America, officially (and snappily) titled Service for the Two First Nights of the Passover in Hebrew and English, According to the Custom of the German and Spanish Jews, was published in New York by S.H. Jackson in 1837. The first rendition of a distinctly American Haggadah was the 1879 Liberman-Chicago edition; while other illustrated 19th century American Haggadot used European drawings, this Haggadah contained contemporary drawings that represented Jewish life at that time in Chicago. In 1908, the Reform movement issued the Union Haggadah, which included added content: English poems and hymns, and transliterated Hebrew blessings. The most popular American Haggadah, however, has been the Maxwell House version, which was first published in 1932 as a promotion for Maxwell House coffee. Copies came free with a coffee purchase, which made it easy to give each Seder-goer their own Haggadah. More than 50 million copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah have been printed, it is still free with a coffee purchase, and it remains in use today in many Jewish homes. Paperback and small, it’s easy to toss onto, or under, a dinner plate. 

A quick glance at New American Haggadah reveals two practical stumbling blocks. The first is cost; at $29.99, outfitting my entire Seder with copies would cost almost $500. The second is its size; clocking in at eight inches by 11 inches, in hardback, there’s no way this book would even fit on an already over-crowded table. The book is extremely unwieldy to handle. To read the timeline at the top of nearly every page, running perpendicular to the book’s main text, you must turn the book 90 degrees counterclockwise. That said, the timeline, created by Mia Sara Bruch, is extremely compelling, as it locates various Jewish figures and communities in actual history (in a diachronic way) running alongside the telling of the Exodus (which takes place synchronically, in every time). Spanning from 1250 BCE to 2007, it includes everything from Jewish population statistics to film trivia about The Ten Commandments, tidbits from literary works to facts about historic cases of Jewish persecution. The timeline also recounts various Haggadot through the ages and serves as a breath of diversity — we hear about women, Muslims, Buddhists, Rastafarians, lesbians, and gay men. We hear from Edward Said and Paul Celan, James Joyce and Martin Luther King Jr. We hear about feminist Seders and interfaith, interracial Seders. These additions provide a broader sense of historical community for seder-goers as well as connections to cultural representations of the Passover story in real time. But in order to read the timeline, we have to physically disrupt the main text and turn the book sideways — the marginalized as marginalia.

The same logistical issues with the commentary, inserted betweeen the traditional text, force the reader to turn the book vertically — this time, 90 degrees clockwise — to read them. The commentary tackles topics (like “Four Sons” or “Ten Plagues”), rituals (like “Afikomen”), or textual bits of the Seder (like “Next Year in Jerusalem”), and uses four subheadings for the musings of four separate authors: Nation (Jeffrey Goldberg), Playground (Lemony Snicket), Library (Rebecca Newberger Goldstein), and House of Study (Nathaniel Deutsch). The commentary provides the sort of humorous musings, scholarship, and philosophical asides your Seder guests might deliver themselves if you happen to have an award-winning journalist, a best-selling children’s author, a brilliant philosopher-novelist, and a Guggenheim-winning Jewish Studies professor at your Seder. 

Excessive book-flipping and neighbor-elbowing aside, the book itself is physically beautiful. The design is clean and a little whimsical, the typography pleasing to the eye for both the Hebrew and English text, and the designer Oded Ezer’s abstract letterforms add captivating texture and color to the book without distracting focus from the primary text. Ezer’s work is what might happen if a medieval tattoo artist-calligrapher met a MOMA installation. Passover is a sentient holiday, and, like all rituals, is oral, aural, visual, tactile, and intellectual, all of which lead us (on good days) to the spiritual. 

The artwork in the New American Haggadah felt both intriguing and uplifting to me (and the freeform designs offer great camouflage for errant wine and haroset stains). In my family, we always alternated between two Haggadot, neither of which were especially visually appealing to me when I was young. There was Rabbi Nathan Goldberg’s mustard and rust-colored Passover Haggadah, which featured extremely literal artwork — WPA-esque black and white block prints of ritual Seder items, and scenes from Exodus, like Egyptians whipping Jewish slaves. We also used the vaguely terrifying The New Union Haggadah, with calligraphy and extremely creepy watercolors by visual artist Leonard Baskin. Which is to say that artwork matters, sometimes as much as text.

Because the Haggadah is meant as an educational tool — particularly one that should be appealing to children — it became acceptable to illustrate Haggadot. There are many famous illuminated and illustrated versions, like The Sarajevo Haggadah (which dates back to the mid-14th century), and The Prague Haggadah (1526). In a piece he wrote for The New York Times Opinion pages, Safran Foer muses that fatherhood was perhaps partially the inspiration for this project, and goes on to tell us how much his six-year-old loves stories — especially the story of Moses. But this is not a kid-friendly book. From the lack of English transliterations for even the four questions (meant to be recited by the youngest Seder-goer in Hebrew) to the tastefully abstract artwork, this is squarely a book for an all-adult Seder. This adult-focus isn’t a failure of the Haggadah, after all, there are plenty of kid-friendly Haggadot, like Sammy Spider’s First Haggadah (truncated, rhyming, colorful, heavy on the songs), or even adult Haggadot with kid-friendly artwork, like The Agam Haggadah, which offers Seder-goers traditional content with joyful rainbow illustrations.

But the lack of English transliterations for any of the Hebrew in here not only precludes younger children with limited Hebrew skills from being able to participate — it also means Jews and non-Jews unfamiliar with Hebrew won’t be able to join in for the shorter blessings commonly chanted in unison, or the songs sung during and after the Seder. For a book called the New American Haggadah to leave out transliteration in a day and age where more than half of American Jews are married to people who are not Jewish, on a holiday that specifically welcomes strangers to the table at the start of the Seder with the words “let all who are hungry come and eat” (or in this case, “All who are bent with hunger, come and eat”) seems insular and shortsighted.

The main reason we won’t be using the New American Haggadah at our Seder next year has to do with Englander’s translation. “You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos,” begins the first, and all of the blessings in this Haggadah. God-of-Us is a lovely reworking of the traditional “our God,” and implies that God walks with us, rather than belongs to us. It makes a possessive into a spiritual statement — God is part of us, among us, in us. In the introduction, the New American Haggadah says this: “The Haggadah is our book of living memory. We are not merely telling a story here. We are being called to a radical act of empathy. Here we are, embarking on an ancient, perennial attempt to give human life — our lives — dignity.” The introduction also speaks of the new Haggadah as part of a quest to “engage everyone at the table in a time that is unlike any that has come before. Our translation must know our idiom.” But this Haggadah, in referring only to our forefathers, in referring only to the four sons, in opting in every blessing to affirm God’s maleness, is one that does not allow me, as a woman, to participate in this story as if it were mine. 

All of my Seders are egalitarian, and always have been. This is something my mother, raised in an Orthodox home, insisted on for her daughters: the right to claim a place at the table, with dignity. The introduction to the New American Haggadah claims that it “makes no attempt to redefine what a Haggadah is, or overlay any particular political or regional agenda.” But when the majority of Haggadot published in the last 20 years use egalitarian language in their translations, Englander’s choice to go back to a specifically gendered, masculine translation reads as a political act — especially in a year in America when it seems like women’s bodies and rights are under constant attack. 

Englander opts for lyricism and creativity in so many other parts of his translations: the plague of darkness becomes “a clotted darkness — too thick to pass,” while “hail” becomes “hail-full-of-fire.” A simple four word blessing, baruch hamakom baruch hu — literally, blessed is the space, blessed is he — becomes, in Englander’s translation, “Blessed is the One that is Space and the Source of Space, the One that is the World but Whom the World Cannot Contain.” Is it so hard, then, to imagine “fathers” instead as ancestors? Even the unbelievably static Maxwell House Passover Haggadah, which hadn’t seen a translation update since the original 1932 edition, chose in 2011 to reprint their Haggadah using gender neutral translations — four children, our ancestors, God the Eternal, Monarch of the Universe. “It was not our fathers alone who were delivered by the Holy One, Blessed is He,” says the New American Haggadah, and I wonder, immediately, about our mothers, about me. I become, from the first page of this new version of an old book, an exile in the story of my people. 


LARB Contributor

Erika Meitner is the author of three books of poems, including Ideal Cities (HarperCollins, 2010), which was a 2009 National Poetry Series winner, and Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (Anhinga Press, 2011). Her fourth collection of poems, Copia, is due out from BOA Editions in 2014. You can find her online at www.erikameitner.com.



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