Holiday Reading

A Glimpse at a Few New Haggadot

The Five Sages: An illustration in several Haggadot published between 1927 and 1930 depicts, seated from right, Maimonides, Rashi, R. Ya’akov ben Asher, R. Yosef Karo and R. Yitzhak Alfasi (whose back faces the viewer) reclining in Bnai Brak.
The Five Sages: An illustration in several Haggadot published between 1927 and 1930 depicts, seated from right, Maimonides, Rashi, R. Ya’akov ben Asher, R. Yosef Karo and R. Yitzhak Alfasi (whose back faces the viewer) reclining in Bnai Brak.

By Nathan Burstein

Published March 18, 2009, issue of March 27, 2009.
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If the Jews ever spend another 40 years wandering the desert, running out of reading material shouldn’t be a problem. They can pass the time just looking through old Haggadot.

The Haggadah “as we have it today was a text that took hundreds of years to coalesce,” Joshua Menachem Kulp reports in the introduction to “The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary,” one of the most recent additions to the canon. Despite the vast array of Haggadot created throughout the centuries, new companion materials for the Passover meal are created each year, with rabbis, academics, musicians and artists aiming their efforts at Seder tables spanning the breadth of Jewish life.The Forward took a look at three Haggadot making their debut this year, their contents overlapping in general structure but little else.

Dayenu! A Passover Haggadah for Families and Children

KTAV Publishing House, Inc., $16.95.

Created by songwriter Carol Boyd Leon, this is a Haggadah that indeed can be read by its colorful cover — and with the help of an accompanying CD. Nearly every word of this 32-page paperback is narrated or sung, mostly by the author or by the Dayenu Children’s Choir, which gives the songs a sticky, sweet sound reminiscent of “Sesame Street.” Clocking in at just under 49 minutes, the CD features traditional melodies for staple elements of the Seder (blessings, “Eliyahu Hanavi,” “Dayenu”), as well as new songs that move the storytelling forward (“Little Baby Moses,” “Across the Sea”). Brightened with rich watercolor illustrations and multicolored text, the Haggadah elides the less kid-friendly parts of the Passover story, recalling that Egypt’s ruler “was especially cruel to Jewish babies” and not going into further detail. (Later, a list of the 10 plagues, included for “older children,” wraps up by noting the “slaying of the first born.”) While most of the CD is intended for the Seder itself, two of the final tracks are devoted to helping kids learn the Four Questions.

The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening

OU Press, $25.00.

Landing at the other end of the spectrum is “The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening,” a densely written, thoroughly drawing-free guide. Inspired by the life and teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who was the head of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and a towering figure in 20th-century American Orthodoxy, the book draws on three sources for its commentary: previously published writings by the Rav (as Soloveitchik was known), recordings of lessons the Rav delivered before his death in 1993 and lecture notes taken by “Exalted Evening” editor Rabbi Menachem D. Genack, who is a former Soloveitchik student and now general editor of the Orthodox Union’s publishing house, the OU Press. At 203 pages, the Haggadah analyzes aspects of the Seder and Passover story both large and small, explaining key word choices and concepts (“ge’ullah,” or redemption), often with the help of major earlier sources of commentary. But while the Haggadah deals largely with issues that will principally interest scholars and those who are more observant, the book also contains occasional surprises for a wider audience, such as multiple entries on the Jewish people’s transformation in Egypt into a “goy gadol” (“a great nation”), and even, amid all the talk of great rabbis, a mention of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, described here as “a gentile and a very sensitive person.”

The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary

Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, $30.00.

Almost big enough to serve as the Seder table — or at least an oversized Seder plate — “The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary” is divided into three sections that don’t precisely match the subdivisions of the title. The first, a large-print Haggadah, sticks mostly to the prayers and storytelling of the traditional Seder, but arrives adorned with dozens of illustrations from earlier Haggadot, which range in origin from pre-Inquisition Spain and Renaissance Italy to 1940s New York. Creator Kulp, co-founder of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and a faculty member at the Jerusalem-based Schechter Institute Graduate School (a master’s program in Jewish studies), provides commentary for the book’s final section. And sandwiched between the Haggadah and commentary are dozens of additional illustrations — “The Schechter Haggadah” contains a total of 115 — that provide an even wider look at artistic representations of the Passover story and rituals. Justifiably allotted more than 20 pages of their own are the Four Sons — the wise child, the wicked child and so on — who are variously depicted as new immigrants to Israel, as books (the simple child is blank) and in Fimo clay. Alternately poignant and provocative, and sometimes even funny, the art, selected by Schechter Institute Graduate School President David Golinkin, seems certain to aid the authors in their goal of reminding readers that “the purpose of the Seder is not simply to speed-read an ancient book and eat a festive meal.”

Nathan Burstein lives and writes in New York City.

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