Let the world’s greatest expert on haggadot help you choose your haggadah this year
For 14 years now, I’ve reviewed haggadahs for this publication. Often, I find they illuminate developments in the Jewish world, such as growing independence, creativity, fragmentation, and reassessment of ritual and liturgical forms. This year’s crop, though, showed me something about myself.
Probably the most significant Haggadah published this year is Marcia Falk’s “Night of Beginnings.“ Falk, the well-known liturgist and poet, has taken a radical approach to the Haggadah, jettisoning the Talmudic material – which, she notes, doesn’t actually tell the Passover story, even though “haggadah” means “telling.” Instead, the heart of “Night of Beginnings” is Falk’s own adaptation of the biblical narrative, with commentaries and poetry. As such, it is a radical departure from the traditional Seder text, though arguably an improvement on it.
“Night of Beginnings” is thus a substantial work, worthy of close attention. I’m not sure how practical it is: it’s very wordy, and often reads more like a series of (lovely) poetic reflections on Passover than liturgy meant to be actually used. Perhaps the best way to utilize it would be for one person at the Seder to select a few passages beforehand that can then be shared and discussed at the table. Though the Haggadah as a whole may be too sophisticated and different for most people, Falk’s poems, interpretations and selections of additional material can enrich your Seder tremendously.
That said, my favorite of the new batch is actually Zion Ozeri’s “Pictures Tell,” which juxtaposes the traditional Seder liturgy with artful black-and-white photography and short questions for reflection. What do I love about “Pictures Tell?” I can see my family using it. Gone, for me, are the days of long Seders spent in textual, even mystical, speculation and elaboration – i.e., the days in which “Night of Beginnings” would be perfect. And definitely gone are the days (or weeks) of neurotic scouring for leaven. But I haven’t lapsed into Maxwell-House tedium either.
“Pictures Tell” has just the right amount of easy-to-access imagery, smart questions and shortened text. It’s creative but not indulgent. It’s geared toward an actual Seder. And for those of us a little tired of the usual Passover themes, the questions are based on the photographs; the text is actually a bit secondary. The Haggadah isn’t perfect for me – it lacks transliterations, which are a must-have in our household. But I find its inversion of the text/image hierarchy to be refreshing.
Another wonderfully visual Haggadah, the annual, all-Hebrew, Israeli-artists-created “Asufa Haggadah” is once again drop-dead gorgeous. Truly outstanding graphic art, much of it comics-like and phantasmagorical, in a coffee-table volume. It’s not for beginners, but it is a work of art that revivifies even this jaded Haggadah-reviewer. Downside: it’s almost totally sold out in America. Come on, Print-O-Craft, craft some more!
Even more visually oriented, and politically radical, is “Moses of the City,” a collaboration between the always-innovative Lab/Shul and artist Luis Roberto Burgos (aka Louisfromtheblock). This haggadah is so 2022, it almost hurts; I love imagining some white conservative’s tears, like salt water dripping from parsley, as he contemplates its land acknowledgement, its dedication to Ahmaud Arbery, and its diverse “Cast” (egads, they/them pronouns!) who translate the Passover story into contemporary anti-racist, queer and feminist activism. Indeed, this is the woke Haggadah – so deal with it. (Example: “The Wicked One Asks: “How can I be problematic? I’m Liberal.” The child is wicked because they do not acknowledge that all white people are inherently racist by being raised in a culture of white supremacy.” Take that, Ron De Santis!)
I think, given our polarized era, you already know whether you’re going to love or hate “Moses of the City,” so contact Lab/Shul for a copy if it’s the former.
It’s interesting to juxtapose “Moses of the City” with 1971’s The Israeli Black Panthers Haggadah, published in a definitive edition this year by Jewish Currents Press. Both are focused on anti-racist activism, both have lots of photos of young people angrily challenging systems of oppression, and both speak to the resonance of the Haggadah as a focal point for contemporary movements for freedom and justice. Of course, the contexts are different: Israel’s Black Panthers were Mizrahi and Sephardic Israelis, mostly first or second generation, who rebelled against discrimination and racism on the part of Ashkenazi elites.
In 1971, the nascent, youth-led, movement put out a short Haggadah, not as liturgy but as a kind of manifesto. “If they had given us work but not built housing projects,” reads its version of Dayenu, that would be enough. “If they had paved roads but not built city parks… If we had been screwed over but not been oppressed… Dayenu.” But of course, Israel’s often racist, Ashkenazi-dominated government did none of those things. “The Black Panther Haggadah” is fascinating as a snapshot of fierce, creative leftist activism in 1970s Israel, before the nationalist Likud co-opted Sephardi/Mizrachi resentment for its own hard-right ends.
Speaking of hard-right ends and reactionary politics, popular provocateur Dennis Prager has created this year, a volume unintentionally ironically called the “Rational Haggadah.” What’s fascinating about Prager’s document is that it is the antithesis of rationality. For example, he declares (with great certainty) that the afterlife must exist because otherwise Prager would give up on God. (Quoting: “If there is nothing after this life, the Nazis and their victims have identical fates. If I believed such a thing, I would either become an atheist or hate the god who had created such a cruel and absurd universe.”) If that’s not irrationality – I can’t handle a world in which X is true, therefore X must be false – I don’t know what is.
Likewise, Prager laughably but apparently seriously declares that, “Without God as the source of an objective morality and as the moral judge of every human, the world would devolve into moral chaos.” Setting aside the obvious counterfactuals here, from evil committed by religionists to lower crime rates in atheist-heavy states and nations, not to mention Kantian moral philosophy, once again, the core principle is that X must exist because I/we need X to exist. But that is not how things actually are, certainly not from a “rational” point of view. It is not rationalism; it is fundamentalist dogmatism, which Prager has weaponized against people like me for decades now, to great personal enrichment.
Such idiotic, arrogant pronouncements appear on almost every page of the “Rational Haggadah,” so I could go on and on, but those two are representative enough. Basically, I agree with my fellow Haggadah-reviewer, David A.M. Wilensky: it is “detestable.” I’m just glad I got to juxtapose Prager — who regards me as a “Jewish Leftist fanatic,” so the loathing is mutual, though he’s a lot better at monetization than I am — with the Black Panthers and Anti-Racism. I have Marx and Adam Smith next to each other on my bookshelf, too.
Another good entry is Rabbi Shais Taub’s “The Four Cups: A Recovery Haggadah.” Passover can be a fraught time for folks in recovery, who may watch family members imbibe four cups of wine (or may just stay away) during the Seder ritual. For them and their families, “The Four Cups” may be a valuable addition to the table, not only for destigmatizing the grape-juice drinkers among us, but for drawing on the profound spiritual path of recovery for lessons that can enrich everyone’s feast of freedom.
On a lighter note, there are a bunch of new comedic, parodic Haggadahs out this year as well. Dave Cowen’s “Curb Your Haggadah” is a natural follow-up to his “Yada Yada Haggadah,” now with a ready-for-your-Seder screenplay of a Larry David Seder. My advice: don’t read it in advance, assign the parts and just see what happens. Spoiler alert: there’s some actual spiritual sustenance at this Seder and, full humblebrag disclosure, I advised Dave on putting it together. Finally! After 15 years of critic, I make it into the Acknowledgements myself! Ha!
Moving on, then, to Danielle Brody’s “Don’t Fuhaggadaboudit” (which I had to type letter by letter), which, in her words, “mixes childlike simplicity with a New York millennial’s sense of humor.” Lucky for Brody, the B.A.2 subvariant has arisen just in time for Passover, since much of “DF” is grounded in the pandemic. (Example from The Four Questions: “In all other years, I feel all the emotions. Why this year do I feel mostly bitter? In all other years, I don’t monitor the dip in numbers of a virus. Why won’t COVID-19 go away? In all other years, I sit inside restaurants. Why this year do I eat outside in wooden structures and igloos?” et cetera.) It’s also mercifully short, cute and DIY. And who knew that people are putting acorns on the Seder plates as a form of land acknowledgment? Now you do.
And lo, then there is Martin Bodek’s “Shakespeare Haggadah,” which is just what it sounds like. Example: “This is the bitter bread of banishment [“Richard II”] that our ancestors consumed in the land of Egypt. Anyone who is filthy famished [“Henry VI, Part II”] should cometh and consumeth, anyone who is in need should cometh and by and by thy bosom shall partake [“Julius Caesar”].” It’s an impressive effort, but in the revised version, Martin, could you include a way to bid farewell to those over-lingering Seder guests, such as “Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish?” Thanks.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning two non-haggadahs that came out this year – as well as, of course, haggadot.com, where you can download amazing haggadahs for free and create your own from a ton of curated sources.
One, “Pathways to Pesach and the Haggadah,” is a 601-page tome by my old friend Rabbi DovBer Pinson, which is itself the first of two volumes, the second of which, we are told, will be an actual Haggadah. I confess, I did not read every page, but as usually with Rav Pinson, “Pathways” is loaded with mystical insights, primarily in the lineage of Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism, focused on the concept of freedom and the symbolic meanings of the Passover Seder and Seder Plate. And if you’re not impressed enough by a 601-page “introduction” to Passover, don’t worry, Pinson has published 38 other books as well. By the time you finish “Pathways to Pesach,” I’m sure he will have finished another.
Lastly, and jumping from Hasidism to Neo-Hasidism, Rabbi-spouses Arthur Ocean Waskow and Phyllis Ocean Berman have created a kind of autofestschrift in (late) honor the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Seder, which Waskow co-created in 1969. Entitled Liberating Your Passover Seder: An Anthology Beyond the Freedom Seder,” it’s a wonderful collection of 30 pieces – some new, some that have appeared over the years – by two dozen contributors. Like much of Waskow and Berman’s work, it doesn’t rest on the nostalgic laurels of hippie days gone by; rather, it updates that original revolutionary spirit by exploring how the impetus to bring the Seder into contemporary freedom movements has evolved over the decades. Thus, there are sections on queer Seders, Israel/Palestine Seders, pandemic Seders and so on.
And, perhaps more than any of the Haggadahs in the 2022 crop, it unites spiritual and mystical concerns with a focus on justice and healing in this world. The ‘spirituality/social justice’ nexus is more familiar now than it was a few decades ago, but since it’s the nexus at which I’ve lived most of my adult life, it’s truly refreshing to see it developed in such a heartful, practical and elaborate way. For anyone seeking to make their Seder relevant to the contemporary moment, these essays can offer guideposts on how to do so.
And truly, that should be everyone. Obviously, I have my politics and my spirituality, and am no longer interested in closeting them in reviews like this one. But I find common ground with those I disagree with in the effort to bring those two aspects of human experience together and unite them with rituals like the Seder. For better or for worse, the Seder – like the ‘High Holidays’ and a few other Jewish occasions – is where most American Jews do Jewish together. Don’t let that valuable occasion lapse into monotony or irrelevance. Follow the leads of all of the authors I’ve reviewed here (yes, even Prager) and make some meaning this Passover.