'Tis the Season for New Haggadot

Comparing the Best and Biggest Names for Passover

Technicolor Coat: One new Haggadah includes a take on Velasquez’s famed painting of Joseph’s story.
Courtesy of Mark Fisch
Technicolor Coat: One new Haggadah includes a take on Velasquez’s famed painting of Joseph’s story.

By Jay Michaelson

Published March 23, 2012, issue of March 30, 2012.
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New American Haggadah
Edited by Jonathan Safran Foer Translated by Nathan Englander
Little, Brown. 160 pages, $29.99


Wellsprings of Freedom: The Renew Our Days Haggadah
By Rabbi Ronald Aigen
Emet Press, 148 pages, $23
The Koren Ethiopian Haggada: Journey to Freedom
Edited by Rabbi Menachem Waldman Translated by Binyamin Shalom
Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 200 pages, $29.95

The Old Master Haggadah
Edited by Mark Fisch
Mark Fisch, 104, $35
Haggadah Good Feeling About This
By Michelle Slade
CreateSpace, 68 pages, $19

‘Of making books there is no end,” warns Kohelet, the preacher of Ecclesiastes. Nor, indeed, of Haggadot. Every year brings new entries to an already abundant market of mainstream and niche Passover liturgies, even as their compilers continue to rightly lament the hegemony of Maxwell House. (Indeed, The New York Times reported that the Obama Seder will still use the lousy old thing, notwithstanding a personal plea by The Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg to use “New American Haggadah,” one of this year’s crop.)

Yet there is a method to the madness. As I’ve reviewed new Haggadot for several years now, I’ve begun to notice certain trends among them — trends that, I think, say much about the fruitful fragmentation of the American Jewish community. This year is no exception.

Marquee Names. The most prominent trend of new Haggadot is that of marquee names producing marquee products. This year obviously belongs to the aforementioned “New American Haggadah,” edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, translated by Nathan Englander and with commentaries by Nathaniel Deutsch, Jeffrey Goldberg, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Lemony Snicket. That’s enough star wattage to light a ner tamid. Previous years have seen Haggadot edited by Elie Wiesel, Cokie Roberts and several from Newsweek magazine’s list of leading rabbis. But “New American Haggadah” is the Justice League of Haggadot, with a powerhouse team of wunderkinds and literary icons.

Does NAH deliver on all this promise? In part. Englander’s translations are crisp and clear, and the themed commentaries — Deutsch provides a semi-traditional “House of Study”; Goldstein a literary-themed “Library;” Goldberg a Jewish-peoplehood-themed “Nation” and Snicket a hilarious “Playground” — are excellent, multi-vocal and concise. It is, indeed, excellent work: literate, inventive and sure to win prizes.

But is NAH usable? Nah. Oded Ezer’s design is distracting and hard to follow. There aren’t clear section markers, and the way the text is laid out means you have to turn the book around and around to follow all the features. There’s no transliteration, making the Hebrew inaccessible to less-literate Seder attendees who might want to sing along. And the way the commentaries are laid out, one can’t follow the Seder and read them at the same time. NAH is extremely loud and incredibly hard to follow.

As a result, the NAH reflects its target demographic: presumably, smart, cultured Jews who aren’t that interested in following the Seder, or who go to large, beautiful synagogues that aren’t pragmatically designed for ritual. Like those edifices, the NAH is at once a brilliant achievement and a white elephant. I absolutely recommend reading it — but probably not during the Seder. Which brings me to the next Haggadah trend…

Passover for Dummies. For years now, well-meaning Jews have tried to help their confused brethren make sense of the shank bone, like a parent answering the inquisitive child’s four questions. Michelle Slade’s new “Haggadah Good Feeling About This” is everything the NAH is not: homey, unsophisticated (by design) and useful. I still prefer Noam Zion and David Dishon’s “A Different Night,” Zion’s “A Night to Remember,” David Arnow’s “Creating Lively Passover Seders” and “My People’s Passover Haggadah,” edited by Lawrence Hoffman and David Arnow, all of which have the same mission of explaining the Passover Seder, but without the cutesy “for dummies” feel of HGFAT. Then again, if you resonate more with the simple child than with the wise one, Slade’s booklet may be for you.

Coffee-table Judaism. If how-to Haggadot are meant to help the simple son, every year there are Haggadot that are not really interested in asking the questions at all, but instead in presenting (or being) beautiful Jewish artifacts. Last year alone saw a reprinting of the famous Szyk Haggadah and of the 15th century “Washington Haggadah.” The “Old Master Haggadah,” available in a limited edition, ups the ante. The text here is basic, uncommented-on and almost an afterthought (though, it must be said, it’s easier to read than NAH’s). What OMH is really about is the set of 30 sumptuously presented paintings by 17th-century painters, each with commentary on the artists and the biblical scenes depicted. Most of these scenes aren’t even related to the Passover story — though Rembrandt’s “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem” does look like my family members at the end of a marathon Seder. They’re sophisticated eye candy, meant for those less interested in a Passover symposium than in appreciating beauty.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it occurred to me, looking over the volume, that OMH would be ideal for anyone trapped at a Seder with children, cranky relatives, pedantic ba’alei teshuvah or anyone who makes tedious conversation. If you’re looking to tune out your Seder, you could do a lot worse than to look at beautiful art.

Spiritual and Earnest. At the other extreme from OMH and its ilk is the new crop of Haggadot that demands, and generally rewards, lots of attention. This year’s entry in the genre is Montreal rabbi Ronald Aigen’s “Wellsprings of Freedom: The Renew Our Days Haggadah.” As the title and subtitle indicate, this is a volume that values complexity over concision; indeed, as explained in the very necessary “How to follow this Haggadah” foreword, WOFTRODH uses five different font styles to indicate different types of text. It is spiritual in orientation, like Michael Kagan’s “Holistic Haggadah” or Debra Jill Mazer’s “Open-Eyed Heart-Wide Haggadah,” with personal and psychological reflections throughout. And of all the Haggadot reviewed this year, it’s the only one with the full traditional text, full transliteration and multilevel commentaries (some traditional, some new) in line with the text. This is Passover for Passover lovers.

If the “New American Haggadah” is a well-designed megashul, “The Old Masters Haggadah” a High Reform cathedral and “Haggadah Good Feeling” a learner’s service in the religious school, then “Wellsprings of Freedom” is an independent minyan. If you are one of those Jews who want your Seder to mean something, to involve participants and to be connected to spiritual values, “Wellsprings of Freedom” is for you. But of course, not everybody is.

Jewish Pride. Finally, there are those special interest Haggadot, of interest to that segment of the Jewish population that loves the Jewish people first and foremost. Like the “Old Masters Haggadah” but unlike the others reviewed this year these are texts that are less interested in the Haggadah’s story than in something else, only in these cases it’s not beautiful art but some aspect of the Jewish communal experience. In 2010, for example, we saw the Joint Distribution Committee’s Haggadah, which spiced up the text with photos of the Joint’s programs. Now comes the “The Koren Ethiopian Haggada,” which is not really about Passover but about the history of the Ethiopian-Jewish community: its distinctive rituals and history, its often-fraught relationship with the State of Israel and even a bit of its liturgy. As someone only passingly familiar with this part of the Jewish community, I learned a great deal from KEH, and as with OMH, I can imagine it providing much-needed distraction from kids singing “Dayenu.” It contains stirring primary texts, useful historical information and lots of photographs and art. “The Koren Ethiopian Haggada” is not going to get the attention “New American Haggadah” has gotten, but if you’ve read this far, you’re probably in its target market.

As will be no surprise to readers who know me, I liked “Wellsprings of Freedom” the most — not because it was objectively the best, but because the kind of Judaism it represents is the kind I happen to like. Clearly, “New American Haggadah” is the major entry in the Haggadah field this year, and it is indeed a major, if deeply flawed, achievement. But unless you’re going to visit Haggadot.com (or the new startup DIYSeder.com) and build your own open-source Haggadah (and please do!), editions like “Wellsprings” do the best job of placing the holiday in the service of the spiritual life.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward. His latest book is “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality” (Beacon, 2011).


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