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Confessions of a Haggadah Hoarder

You can see life in all sorts of ways — in photos, through journals, in stories told and memories shared.

But I can see mine in a large plastic storage box in my basement. There it is, on the floor behind the furnace: my life in Passover Haggadot.

Did I say one bin? I meant three. And they are more than just a reminder of the happy dance the people at the Jewish bookstore must have done each year when they saw me coming.

They are a record of change over the nearly 30 years that our group of beloved friends has gathered around the Seder table. Each Haggadah I explored was a reflection of what the Seder meant to me at that time and, to an extent, of who I was. Each year felt like a new opportunity, and obligation, to choose readings that addressed whatever point in life our close group of friends, and our various children, found ourselves.

So it couldn’t be just Maxwell House.

In the beginning, of course, it was. Growing up I had known no other. I thought the Maxwell House Haggadah was like the Torah; there was just one.

But once our children were born, and my husband and I began hosting a Seder of our own, the iconic blue booklet’s days were numbered.

When our first daughter started Jewish preschool and our second daughter followed suit, I found myself curious to learn along with them. I started studying. And the more I learned about Passover, the more I loved it. Before long, I had wangled my way into leading our Seder — and I was in the market for a set of Haggadot.

I saw how far from Maxwell House things had gone. Feminist Haggadot, secular humanist Haggadot, vegetarian Haggadot, black/Jewish Haggadot, environmental activism Haggadot — the possibilities seemed endless, and now they encompass Haggadot for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews and hip-hop Haggadot.

And it turned out that my late in-laws, who read the Forverts in Yiddish, were way ahead of me. They had been participating in a Third Seder that used its own Labor Zionist Haggadah since the year I was born.

So my biggest problem would be picking my Haggadah.

One? I was so innocent then.

I headed to my local Jewish bookstore and hurtled down the rabbit hole.

Didn’t several of us have young children? I needed a children’s Haggadah! “A Family Haggadah I” by Shoshana Silberman looked good. I took 12.

Plus the “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah,” which is packed with commentary and games. Plus the accompanying Seder leader’s guide. Also, half a dozen Passover coloring books.

That held me for a couple of years. But our group’s children grew older, and I got even more Jewishly involved. Each year found me spending the month before Passover devouring text interpretations and commentaries.

My parent-focused stage of Seder life was receding, and being replaced by my next phase: adult ed nerd.

Wouldn’t my friends like to hear what Chaim Stern, author of most of Reform Judaism’s liturgy, had to say about the fact that that the Hebrew root for the word “affliction,” as in “the bread of affliction,” is the same as for “answer”?

Of course they would. I bought his “Gates of Freedom” Haggadah so that they could.

And how about the meaning of the syntactical shift from second-person singular to first-person plural in a short prayer at the start of the Seder? The Rabbinical Assembly was all over that in the Conservative movement’s “Passover Haggadah: The Feast of Freedom.” I bought that one, too.

Then of course I had to have the Reform commentary equivalent. The Central Conference of American Rabbis’ “A Passover Haggadah” was mine.

And would I like some Reconstructionists with that? Absolutely! One order of “A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah,” coming right up.

But how to include all this commentary? I couldn’t buy 12 copies of each of these gems, unless we made up the deficit in the Seder budget by not serving food. So I picked out a few commentaries, printed them onto colorful slips of paper and stuck them into the basic Haggadot, which started to look like they were decorated with Tibetan prayer flags.

My Seder guests were starting to show signs of wear. My husband took to drawing his finger across his neck to cut me off at about hour two.

I retreated and reconsidered. My Haggadah obsession reflected my full-on fascination with Jewish theology, but did it serve the holiday? Wasn’t Passover about all of us feeling the meaning of the holiday, not exploring the scholarship?

Besides, I was yearning for the Seder to touch my heart as well as my head.

Back to the bookstore!

I fell hard for “The Santa Cruz Haggadah,” a hippie-vibe booklet that speaks to both inner and outward slavery and freedom, even though its candle-lighting ritual was so elaborate that we accidentally set one of the Haggadot on fire.

But did I really want to lose the rationalist, humanist aspect of Passover that will always be most meaningful for some of my friends?

I kept going.

The Silverman Haggadah. Elie Wiesel’s Haggadah, the Jewish Women’s Project’s Ma’yan Haggadah, Annette Turow’s artwork Haggadah, Jonathan Safran Foer’s “New American Haggadah,” North Shore Congregation Israel Sisterhood’s women’s Seder Haggadah —to name just a few.

On top of this, three full sets of different Haggadot — two versions of Silberman’s family Haggadah and the Reconstructionist “New American Haggadah” — and a small library of commentaries.

If I used all of them, the Seder would last until next Passover.

The next step was inevitable: I had to pick highlights of several of them and make a Haggadah of my own.

I made a spreadsheet comparing them in terms of elements crucial to me, like which one had the easiest-to-follow transliteration of Dayenu and whether they used the phrase “bread of affliction” or “bread of poverty.”

Then I headed to FedEx Office and its high-speed photocopier to prepare for what I took to calling “The Festival of Violating Copyright Laws.”

A little Santa Cruz, a dash of Chaim Stern, a soupçon of Jonathan Safran Foer — apologies, all, and please don’t call your lawyers! — and, voila! The Brotman-Berman Haggadah.

Was it, at last, the perfect Haggadah?

Alas, even as we used it that year, I was rewriting it in my head.

Because as it turns out, for me there is no one perfect Haggadah — just a rich, beautiful assortment of possibilities.

And isn’t that perfect itself, as a reflection both of the changes in life and the essence of Passover?

The seemingly limitless number of ways to see the story, the elasticity of a ritual whose steps are so firmly prescribed, the adaptability of this age-old tradition to thoroughly modern groups and settings — it all seems part of a miracle unto itself.

Besides, the transporting power of the Seder seems independent of which book you use to conduct it. The annual progression through the same Seder elements, even if some of the words and interpretations are changed — that’s what opens the portal and connects us to Jews throughout time and place.

And, much as I love my Haggadot, I must concede that the true magic comes not from what the Haggadah says, but from what we at the Seder say.

The unforgettable moments of our Seder have come when we have ended up in deep conversation — children and adults alike, speaking as equals —about the nature of God, the defensibility of the killing of the Egyptians’ firstborn, whether the historical reality of the Exodus story matters.

And while a Haggadah can bring up those questions, it takes someone sitting at the table to pause the Seder and ask the group to seriously engage the Haggadah.

So have my Haggadah-searching days come to an end?

Well, I just came across the “Pop Haggadah,” whose emphasis on graphic art rather than words looks like it would leave space for conversations.

Reader, I bought it.

Barbara Brotman is a former reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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