Jonathan Safran Foer will be releasing a new English version of the Passover Haggadah, the best-selling novelist recently confirmed, speaking to a packed German audience at the American Academy in Berlin’s lakeside villa on the outskirts of the capital.
With more than 4,000 known versions of the book once or currently existing, the Haggadah—which tells the story of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt and is read by millions from cover to cover each year at Passover—has been reprinted more often, in more languages and in more places than any other classical Jewish text. Since the first poorly translated English copy appeared in London in 1770, it has evolved to include musical notations, pictures, poetry, symbols; and, above all, a language that’s in sync with the times, suiting audiences as diverse as gay, feminist and environmentalist.
Which begs the question: Do we need another postmodern version of the Haggadah? And if we do, why is Foer—a fiction writer who is not observant, who does not go to synagogue and who describes himself “as skeptical as most New York Jews of organized religion” — the man for the job?
Because according to him, most Haggadot out there lack the imaginative punch to achieve what Passover ideally should: to inspire people toward a greater commitment for social change.
“We talk about slavery every year,” Foer said. “We talk about the movement toward freedom every year. But when was the last time a Seder made you really feel those things in a deep way — when you said, ‘I want to become more active, say, in stopping what’s going on in Darfur’? Because if that’s not an example of a situation that needs this movement toward freedom, nothing is. Or, ‘I need to work harder to make mylife more energy independent,’ because we are slaves to energy right now.”
This isn’t the first leap into activism for Foer, 30, who remains best known for the original voice and inventive storytelling style that defined his 2002 debut novel, “Everything Is Illuminated.” In the run-up to the 2004 presidential elections, Foer; his wife, writer Nicole Krauss, and McSweeney’s editor Dave Eggers published a mock textbook slamming the Bush administration, which they called “The Future Dictionary of America.” And last year, Foer again turned his attention to writing with a socially responsible angle: this time in his attack on factory-farmed meat, which included an online video he released, condemning modern kosher slaughter practices (titled “If This Is Kosher…” found at www.humanekosher.com).
Over the course of 2006, Foer spoke to specialists in biology, farming, ethics and nutrition as he drove around America visiting farms of all shapes, sizes and smells, those ranging from the small-scale organic to the industrial and downright toxic. He is chronicling his road adventure and the ecological crisis he observed in a new nonfiction book that looks to be a sort of muckraking cross between Edward Abbey and a modern version of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”
The book “isn’t a case for vegetarianism,” explained Foer, who gave up eating meat when he was 9; rather, it’s a chance to hit people with distressing facts about water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions caused by industrial farming—and to convince them that “what you eat matters more than what you drive, in terms of the effect on the environment.”
Now interrupting that work, Foer (along with Krauss and their 1-year-old son, Sasha) has installed himself in Berlin to ambitiously remake the Haggadah as a tool for social change — or at least something “experimental and richly designed, and hopefully more fun to read.”
“Passover is the jewel in the crown” of Judaism, Foer said, arguing that we don’t hold “capital J” Jewish books like the Haggadah to the same literary standards as “lowercase j” books, like a Philip Roth novel, when we should.
“There’s no reason we can’t make this book as good,” he said. “The themes are so important, so relevant, so exciting. The stories — everybody knows the stories, [from] the 10 plagues to the parting of the Red Sea. They have so much resonance, and this is an opportunity for artists to do something with them. The Haggadah begs us to make it new.”
What will “new” mean? After all, 60% of the book is composed of codified rites and prayers that cannot be changed. That leaves 40% for Foer — and the 20 or so artists, photographers, designers and commentators who are collaborating with him — to produce not only a more challenging text but also a physically “beautiful book with awesome artwork, not little kitschy scribbles like so many Haggadahs.” Poverty and violence in Africa, environment and our impact on climate change at home: These are a few themes that Foer intends to discuss, giving bulk to the margins of the book. “You do a Seder at your house, it is family, it is conversation,” he said, “so the best Haggadah would be the one that stimulates the best conversation.”
“I’m not doing this as a quest to get closer to my identity. I’m doing it because I think it’s an incredible piece of art and [because] of all the issues in our world that can be seen through the lens of slavery and this movement toward freedom. The holiday is unimportant unless people end it thinking, ‘I need to bring the story into my life.’”
Which is not to say that Foer has successfully grappled with the moral dilemmas that confront the reader, and writer, of the ancient Jewish text on the Exodus. Some passages, he admits, are “just hard to swallow” — for example, when God hardens the Pharaoh’s heart to prevent him from releasing the Jews from bondage.
“Why would he harden his heart, especially when all the Egyptians are going to have to suffer for what the Pharaoh decides?” Foer asked. “Or, that we have a God that is so vengeful he kills all the firstborn Egyptians. All of the firstborn? Were there no good Egyptians? And do we really want to kill babies? You’re constantly coming up against these things that challenge your sense of what’s right and what’s wrong — but that’s good, having to talk about them, having to make sense of them.”
If social responsibility has been reduced to a fringy, out-of-date corner on today’s memoir-obsessed literary landscape, Foer is making a stab to bring it back — to re-establish, perhaps, a bit of the old moral “duty” that some writers felt bound them to the cultures for which they were writing. (An example in America is journalist I.F. Stone; in Europe, prolific reporter and novelist Joseph Roth.) Foer never wanted to impose his views of vegetarianism on others, for instance, because “that’s not really my business what another person eats.”
“But on the other hand, would you have said that about slavery — ‘Slaves aren’t for me, but if he has them, that’s okay’? Would you say that about the environment — ‘I think we should be sensitive to how we use our resources, but if he wants to chop down his forest, that’s his business’? At a certain point, you say it’s wrong for me and it’s wrong for you. And then if it’s wrong for everybody, how is it wrong — is it wrong like telling a white lie is wrong? Is it wrong like driving an SUV in a city is wrong? Is it wrong like having a slave is wrong?”
America’s most popular Haggadah has been produced and distributed by Maxwell House—to the tune of 1 million copies per year—as a promotional tool to sell coffee since the 1930s. Foer is unlikely to top that. While his book may find its way onto certain Passover tables, he knows that his Haggadah, like his novels, won’t be for everyone.
“If nothing else, my family will use it,” he said, laughing. “They’d better.”
Michael Levitin is a freelance journalist living in Berlin. He has written for Newsweek, Slate and Tikkun, among other publications.