The Good, The Bad, and The Unsettling: On the “New American Haggadah”

By Sharon BrousMarch 24, 2013

    The Good, The Bad, and The Unsettling: On the “New American Haggadah”

    New American Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander. Little, Brown. 160 pages.

    SEVERAL YEARS AGO I was invited to participate in a conversation about the Jewish future with a small group of innovators working to reinvigorate a stale conversation about ritual, learning, and community. At one point, in the midst of a conversation on the power of powering down on Shabbat, a philanthropist barreled into the room hurling grievances: “You’re all wasting your time!” he shouted. “The Jews are disappearing — and you’re sitting around talking about the same old same old. We don’t need a rehashing of something already dead. We need something new — a new narrative! Something young people can rally around. You want to make a difference? Go write that story!” “But we already have the greatest story ever written,” I said. “Yetziat mitzrayim — the Exodus from Egypt. We just have to figure out how to talk about it so that people can hear it.”

    Here’s the good news: two of the most talented, inventive figures on the American literary scene spent half a decade navigating the depths of this narrative. The one that has fueled the Jewish conversation and sustained its people through impenetrable darkness; the story that has stood as an unrelenting and unapologetic reminder that the trajectory of history — global, communal, personal — is a journey from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light. The story that has served as a reminder for generations that it is possible to move from grief to joy and from constriction to expansiveness. That Jonathan Safran Foer spent years curating interpretive voices and Nathan Englander dove into the painstaking task of translating a thousands-year-old text is a miracle in its own right. In every generation, the Haggadah instructs; each one of us is obligated to see ourselves as though we, personally, experienced the degradation, and then tasted the dignity. Why? So that we remember that it’s possible. So that we remember that the work is not yet done. Because, as the philosopher Michael Walzer famously wrote in his 1985 book Exodus and Revolution, “Wherever you are, it’s probably Egypt” — and because, as a great Hasidic commentator, the Slonimer Rebbe Sholom Noach Berezovsky, wrote a few years earlier: “It is upon every Jew to remember that it is her life’s work to leave Egypt, and […] to bring redemption to the world.”

    I have no doubt that Foer and Englander’s names on the binding of the New American Haggadah landed it in the hands of thousands of Jews who are far more at ease with Reiki than Rashi. And when they opened it, they saw beauty, depth, and humor. They wrestled, perhaps for the first time, with questions about Jewish chosenness, with what it means to invite the hungry into our homes in word but not in deed, with the difference between what is just and what is right and with the deepest fear in the collective Jewish psyche — the fear of forgetting and being forgotten. They struggled with universalism and particularism, driven home by questions like:  “Is it not a form of chauvinism to declare that the fate of Ethiopian Jews is an overriding concern of the American Jewish community, but what happens to non-Jewish Ethiopians is only a marginal concern?” Foer rightly hears in the pages of the Haggadah “a call to the radical act of empathy,” and sees the Seder as a “protest against despair.” This is precisely the point — a new narrative is not necessary — but rather, a reclaiming of an ancient one. Every honest attempt at this should be a cause for celebration.

    The Bad? Before the book even hit the shelves it was assailed as “tortured,” “pretentious,” “trivializing,” “bland,” and “uninspired.” “Hackwork,” it has been called. Not to mention repeated variations of, “The New American Haggadah is neither particularly new nor particularly American.” The alacrity and the venom of the responses it has elicited hint at a deeper and more serious problem than a troublesome translation or difference in comedic sensibility. To put a fine point on it, the Jewish community has a bit of an innovation problem. In our community, IKAR, we have held a teaching from Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook as a kind of sacred statement of purpose: The Old will be made New, and the New will be made Holy. There have been a number of innovative efforts over the past decade that see their mission as imbuing the Old with imagination and immediacy, letting it serve as the foundation of something completely New. But the established Jewish community — wittingly or unwittingly — often ends up marginalizing or dismissing the New, rather than welcoming it. At the beginning of the 19th century, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (known as the Chatam Sofer), famously voiced a fierce opposition to reform and change within the European Jewish community by arguing hadash asur min hatorah — “‘new’ is prohibited in the Torah!” That mentality has since permeated not only the ultra-Orthodox community, but even the secular Jewish establishment. I suspect that a reflexive distrust of all things new is behind a good deal of the criticism hurled at Foer and Englander.

    Finally, the Unsettling. There is one persistent problem with this Haggadah that has not garnered enough attention: the old gender thing. It manifests itself most egregiously in the translation. Unlike many, I am not aggrieved by Englander’s poetry — God-of-us replacing the standard (albeit tired) Our God, nor do I mind Barukh haMakom rendered as Blessed is the One that is Space and the Source of Space, even though it hardly rolls off the tongue. I can even imagine that while the unfamiliar language may alienate many, it just might resonate with an equal number. That does not keep me up at night. What does is when the New — explored, extrapolated upon and wrestled with in order to make the Old relevant — is time warped, mired in anachronistic language that only diminishes the power of the Greatest Narrative Ever Written. Englander explained that he set out to produce a “hyper-literal” translation, but in fact there is no such thing. Hayim Nahman Bialik famously wrote that reading Hebrew in translation is like kissing your beloved through a cheesecloth. And yet some cheesecloths are stinkier than others. Every translation is an interpretation, and to translate “avoteinu” as “our fathers” rather than “our ancestors” in 2012 is to make a choice. As one of my colleagues, Dr. Dvora Weisberg said, “What were our mothers eating while our fathers ate the poor man’s bread in the land of Egypt? Brioche?” To call God “the Holy One, Blessed is He” is to ignore the obvious simple fix of “The Holy, Blessed One,” and so forth.

    But the gender issues go beyond translation. Even in the few notes of instruction, we are told to set the dining room table in a manner befitting “free men” (is that really necessary?), and the first Jewess to appear in the historical timeline that stretches from 1250 BCE to 2007 is Glückel of Hameln in 1646, as if there was simply no sign of woman for the first 3,000 years of Jewish history. In a narrative in which acts of heroism are performed in equal measure by men and women (think of Shifra and Puah, Yocheved and Miriam), one might think from reading this Haggadah that the Exodus is a story by and about men, transmitted from one man to the next over the course of generations. Of course it is true that patriarchal assumptions permeate and even define traditional Jewish literature. But in this case it is noteworthy precisely because, as Foer indicates in his introduction, this Haggadah comes at a time when so many sitting around the table are struggling to find the interest even to engage. It is more critical than ever before that we “know our idiom,” he writes. Foer and Englander know their idiom in their novels and short stories — and they both write with stunning sensitivity to the woman’s voice and heart (see “Sister Hills” for the latest evidence of this). Our liturgy calls for just as much ingenuity and commitment to inclusiveness.

    In his beautiful New York Times op-ed posted last year just before Passover, Foer wrote: “The story of the Exodus is not meant to be merely recited, but wrestled with.” This year, sitting with this Haggadah in hand, I celebrate and wrestle — and pray that creative young voices will continue to strive to make the Old, New … and the New, Holy.


    LARB Contributor

    Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR, a spiritual community dedicated to reanimating Jewish life by standing at the intersection of soulful, inventive religious practice and a deep commitment to social justice. Since starting IKAR in 2004, Brous has been recognized a number of times as one of the nation’s leading rabbis by Newsweek/ The Daily Beast and as one of the 50 most influential American Jews by the Forward. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, David, and their three children.


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