Arthur Miller once said that “Jews are very impatient with doing the same thing over and over again. It’s gotta be different!” The Jewish playwright’s observation seems particularly apt when applied to Passover — for, on the night that is different from all other nights, Jews fulfilling the vehigadeta mitzvah can choose from nearly 3,500 versions of the Haggadah.
Attempts to modernize the Haggadah and thereby enthuse younger generations of Jews started at the turn of the 20th century. Since then, nearly each year has seen the publication of a new Haggadah that reflects contemporary concerns. In 1907, the Central Conference of American Rabbis published “Union Haggadah,” which excised certain ritualistic practices from the Seder. During the 1970s and ’80s, there was an outpouring of political Haggadot with environmentalist, feminist and even vegetarian bents.
This year, at least in one respect, is no different from all other years: There’s a new crop of Passover publications. Four books in particular stand out by going beyond revitalization of the basic Seder. Whether aimed at children or at adults, these books manage to expand upon typical Passover-related discussion by examining the holiday as a socio-historical institution.
Tami Lehman-Wilzig, the author of several children’s books, including “Tasty Bible Stories” (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2003), has teamed up with cartographic designer Elizabeth Wolf to create an illustrated children’s guide to Passover that is ideally suited to the new global economy. “Passover Around the World” (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2006) takes a look at Seder traditions in America, Gibraltar, Turkey, Ethiopia, India, Israel, Iran and Morocco.
In Ethiopia, the village Kess (rabbi) sacrifices a lamb and then reads the Exodus story not in Hebrew but in Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopians’ Semitic language. The Jews of Cochin, in southern India, place three thick matzos on silver boxes. The top matzo represents the Kohanim (the priestly class ancient Israel), the middle signifies the Levites and the bottom stands for the Israelites. In Iran, it’s tradition to take a scallion and lightly hit the shoulder of the person sitting on your right. The slap serves as a reminder that Egyptians whipped their Jewish slaves.
For the culinary minded, there’s an afterword of sorts, titled “Passover Recipes From Around the World,” with instructions for mashed potato kugel, matzo brei, cauliflower soup and cold egg soup. The book is probably best suited for young children, who will enjoy the colorful maps and illustrations of family gatherings.
The Sholem Community Organization of Los Angeles, a 55-year-old cultural institution, has issued an updated, full-color edition of its perennially popular “Sholem Family Hagada for a Secular Celebration of Peysakh.” Written by Hershl Hartman, the “Sholem Family Hagada” is aimed at humanistic Jews. That is, Jews who, unwilling to accept the Exodus saga as literal truth, nevertheless maintain traditions in a communal-family setting. Hartman and his illustrator, Kevin Bostwick, find great significance in the social justice aspect of Passover. They stress that the Exodus story has imbued generations with a commitment to freedom.
The “Sholem Family Hagada” is accessible to children, but it avoids a childish tone that might repel adults or simply bore them. It includes all the most popular Passover songs, with transliterated Yiddish and Hebrew texts.
Jews have been celebrating their release from ancient Egypt for more than 2,500 years, and have been asking the same four questions about that release since the dissemination of the first Haggadah. For those who find the tried-and-true four a little meager, Joe Bobker, publisher and editor in chief of the Los Angeles Jewish Times, has come up with 396 more.
In “And You Thought There Were Only Four: 400 Questions to Make Your Seder Enlightening, Educational and Enjoyable” (Gefen Publishing House, 2006), Bobker probes the ritualistic, historical and philosophical aspects of the Passover tradition. He begins with a section titled “The Exodus Story and Its Message,” which contains the more historically oriented and also the most interesting questions, such as “How many Jews originally went to Egypt?” “What happened to Moses’ two sons?” and “Are there any accounts written by Egyptians that describe the Exodus?” Bobker is always thorough in his answers, but at times he is somewhat condescending to other cultures — like when he mocks the ancient Egyptians for their “bizarre” beliefs.
The next two sections, “Pesach Preparations, Customs and Laws” and “The Seder Night,” contain mainly practical questions, such as “Do I really have to buy a gift for whoever finds the afikomen?” Bobker becomes a little repetitive, with several pages devoted to wine, chametz and ritualistic technicalities. Perhaps 300 questions would have done the trick. Nevertheless, families observing a strictly-by-the-book Passover Seder will find Bobker’s insights useful.
In 1997, Noam Zion and his son Mishael published “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah” (Shalom Hartman Institute), an alternative Haggadah so popular that the Zions decided to team up once again, to write a sequel. The result is this year’s “A Night To Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices” (Zion Holiday Publications). It is an expansive Haggadah that makes Judaism’s oldest ritual feel relevant to the present day.
“A Night to Remember” contains a full traditional text interspersed with stories of contemporary social action from around the globe. Insights on slavery and liberation come from Jews of all denominations, as well as from non-Jews such as Martin Luther King Jr.
The Zions give particular attention to the phrase “All who are needy — come and join the Passover celebration.” To encourage a spirit of generosity, the Zions include statistics from a 2000 report on the global distribution of wealth, and a story about a Toronto synagogue that has opened its doors as a homeless shelter.
Juliet Lapidos is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.