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Writers—not rabbis— bring text to life in the “New American Haggadah”

Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer is behind a newly published Haggadah, which incorporates the work of authors, not rabbis. Credit: David Shankbone.
Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer is behind a newly published Haggadah, which incorporates the work of authors, not rabbis. Credit: David Shankbone.

Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated, remembers that when he was growing up, his parents used a homemade haggadah for the Passover seder, put together from a variety of sources. The family joke was that this night was different from all other nights because copyright laws do not apply.

It seems this spirit of creativity was successfully passed down to the next generation. Foer is the editor of the New American Haggadah, published this spring by Little, Brown and Company. In a phone interview with JointMedia News Service, Foer seemed unfazed by the boldness of giving his text the same name that Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan—founder of the Reconstructionist movement of American Judaism—took for his versions of the Haggadah in both 1941 and 1978.

According to the 1978 introduction in Kaplan’s New American Haggadah, it was meant to “inspire in the new generation the same devotion to freedom that our ancestors gained from the ancient Haggadah.”

There were no rabbis involved in the making of the 2012 New American Haggadah. This is indicative of how the new American Jewish culture—perhaps inspired by Kaplan’s philosophy of “Judaism as a civilization”—is increasingly a product of fiction and non-fiction writers, historians, and professors. A whole class of people without rabbinic training are empowered and committed to creating a new Jewish text for their own era.

Foer told JointMedia News Service that he originally envisioned an anthology format for the New American Haggadah, with contributions from 20 writers. But ultimately, Foer said the writers “came to love the book we were working on” and realized that the best way to engage readers was to present the material and “get out of the way,” rather than obstructing the text with too much overtly contemporary or political material.

Therefore, Foer—along with Jewish studies professor Nathaniel Deutsch of the University of California at Santa Cruz—chose 10 moments for a smaller group of four writers to comment on.  This format hosts sections titled “House of Study” by Deutsch, “Nation” by Atlantic magazine writer Jeffrey Goldberg, “Library” by philosopher and fiction writer Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and “Playground” by children’s author Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler).

Each commentator has short essays of three or four paragraphs that are themed around an examination of a particular theme. Goldberg asks questions like “How do we balance our faith’s demand to care especially for our fellow Jews, and care especially for the entire world, at the same time?”

Handler has an eclectic take on the seder, discussing such urgent matters as someone’s need to “check on the food”—which actually means “sneaking a few bites”—while adding that “it is the muddle and the mess around the order that represent the freedom that everyone deserves, and that far too many people have been denied.”

Deutsch writes movingly about the contrasts between the “shalem”(wholeness) that is contained in the name of Jerusalem with the necessity in the Hassidic tradition of being broken (“tsubrokhenhayt” in Yiddish) and the possibility that as Jews, we are trying to find “wholeness in brokenness.”

Newberger Goldstein writes with astounding power of the need for the “tutored imagination” to involve ourselves in the narrative of the Passover story as we collectively “sanctify storytelling.”

Overall, the haggadah’s format of highlighting different voices on a particular theme works effectively to convey both a variety of ideas and a modern outlook on the text.

The haggadah’s design is by Oded Ezer, a modern Israeli artist and historian of typography.  Ezer has not only invented a number of popular Hebrew fonts, but also produces art such as Typosperma and Typembra, which give new aspects to letters by merging them with other life forms.

Ezer describes his work as “a great journey to try to bring forms from the past into the future,” and he incorporates fonts from different eras of Jewish history in the haggadah. Mia Sara Bruch, a fellow at the University of Michigan’s Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies, wrote the timeline at the top of the page. The timeline is an interesting pedagogical device shedding light on the formation of the seder service, the languages Jews have spoken and where they have lived around the world, and what percentage of the world population Jews have constituted at any point in time.

Nathan Englander, who translated the haggadah service from Hebrew to English for the New American Haggadah, told JointMedia News Service that the task gave him a “new identity and ownership of the material.” Englander ended up spending three years on a project that he had thought might take six weeks. He found a partner to study the text with in a chavruta (one-on-one study) and examined a variety of haggadah texts. The result is a translation that conveys the Passover story’s meaning to an English-speaking audience in mellifluous, thoughtful, and fluid language.

“All who are expansive in their telling of the Exodus from Egypt are worthy of praise,” Englander reads from the haggadah.

Foer said that “the central trope of the Haggadah, ‘you yourself should feel as if liberated from Egypt,’” is a “radical” idea if taken seriously. The New American Haggadah—intended to bring Jews together around the notion of shared memory—should help any reader fulfill that obligation.

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