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How to choose a haggadah in the time of coronavirus

One must reach to the darkest chapters of Jewish history to think of a Passover as dark as this one. Across the world, families are in lockdown, living in fear or grief, and coping with profound uncertainty about how long this plague will last.

In such a moment, the Passover Seder may or may not be a comfort. For some, the familiarity of the ritual will be reassuring, a touchstone of normalcy. At the very least, it will be a break in the tedium; finally, one night really will be different from the others.

For others, however, the preparation required, the talk of freedom and plagues, and the absence of beloved family members may simply be too painful to bear.

Having reviewed haggadot for this publication for 12 years, I want to support you in making whatever choices are right for you and your family. So if you find yourself in the unexpected position of hosting your first Seder, or hosting your first online Seder, take heart: There are a number of resources and haggadahs that you may find to be helpful.

One of my favorites, available on haggadot.com, is “The Art of Virtual Gathering: Passover 2020.” It features everything from a guide to the Seder to technical advice on various online conferencing platforms. It also explains how to use the website’s own library of resources — more on that in a moment.

There are also likely to be a number of mass Seders conducted online, from individual synagogues’ efforts to innovative national ones. The jewishLIVE portal and Facebook group is emerging as a central hub of Coronavirus-era online Jewish programming. Check there for updates.

Now, if you’re suddenly in need of new haggadahs yourself, let me make a pitch for not buying the flimsy, inexpensive, un-annotated ones that, for many non-Orthodox Jews at least, make the Seder a bewildering, antiquated hodgepodge of rote recitation and inexplicable gestures.

I get that these haggadahs are usually cheap, whereas haggadahs with helpful notes and guidance cost money. But please, if you’re going to be leading a Seder for the first time, give yourself a fighting chance. Don’t plod through a text which, on its surface, can be hopelessly obscure. Get yourself a guide.

Here are two sets of options.

The first is to once more head to haggadot.com. There are two main ways to use the site. The first: You can choose a ready-made haggadah that suits your taste from a wide variety of options, and use that. If you’re feeling more enterprising, you can also assemble your own custom haggadah, either by using the site’s recommendations or browsing through the collection and gathering pieces of the Seder from various different sources. Just choose “add to haggadah” on each bit you like.

The result will be something that actually makes sense, feels relevant, and speaks to your particular take on Judaism, Passover, and the whole point of doing a Seder at all. What’s more, because the site is updated regularly, there are even readings and prayers available that speak directly to the horrifying, surreal moment in which we find ourselves. (Think about it: Do you really want to do a traditional reading of the “Ten Plagues” when thousands of people are dying from one?)

The second option: Purchase one or two “real” haggadahs, and have the leaders of the Seder use them. (Of course, if you’ve got the cash, buy real ones for everyone — God knows the publishers could use the help.) That way, they (or you!) can have some meaningful guidance and questions for discussion, which, after all, is what the Seder is supposed to be about.

If you’re going that route, here are some recommendations.

If you want simple, accessible, welcoming, and useful haggadot, try these: Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s “Welcome to the Seder” (2018), which is especially useful if you’re a multifaith family; Rabbi David Silber’s “A Passover Haggadah: ‘Go Forth and Learn’” (2011), if you’re into rabbinic-style textual interpretation; or Rabbi Howard Berman’s “New Union Haggadah” (2014), a great pick if you’re in the reform movement. This year brought a great new addition to this category — file under “Thank God, this is easy to use while still being informative and concise” — is Deborah Gross-Zuchman’s “The Essential Seder” (2020). It hits all the clear, explanatory notes you want, and skips the details you don’t.

If you’ve got a lot of down-time at home and are inclined to mega-prep, get Noam Zion and David Dishon’s “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah” (1997), which is full of activities, readings, illustrations and whatnot; pick and choose what calls to you.

If you’re a spiritually-minded weirdo like me, get Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s “Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah” or Michael Kagan’s “Holistic Haggadah” (updated in 2018). Both reinterpret the Seder to highlight spiritual, ecological and mystical themes in ways I find inspiring every year. And if you want some left-wing gospel, get Tru’ah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights’s new “The Other Side of the River, the Other Side of the Sea” (2020).

I hasten to add that there are many newly published haggadot that, if this were a normal year, would merit attention and praise, from Ellen Bernstein’s ecologically-minded “The Promise of the Land” to Daniel Rose’s “The Koren Magerman Youth Haggada.” (My friend David A.M. Wilensky has reviewed these and others if you want to take a look.)

But this is not a normal year. I only pray that this holiday finds you and your loved ones safe and sound, and that, should you choose to observe it, its themes of suffering and redemption can bring a little light to this darkest of springtimes.

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