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Understanding the Exodus Personally: The Kibbutz Haggadah

On Passover, Jews are told to read the Haggadah (literally “the telling”) as if one personally had been a slave in Egypt and then redeemed. By individualizing the text, each person confronts the narrative in new ways, in terms of his or her own life and times.

The result has been a multiplicity of Haggadot through the ages, each with its own way of viewing freedom, history and tradition. So different are they that today you can find Haggadot for feminists, for children, for families, and even for vegetarians and Buddhists.

No group, though, has taken the reinterpretation of the traditional Haggadah more seriously than the kibbutz movement, which over the years has produced an estimated 1,000 different versions. Taken together, these Haggadot offer a fascinating perspective on the still evolving social movement.

Of all Jewish texts, the Haggadah had special significance for the early kibbutz pioneers because it dealt with concepts important to their ideology: national freedom and socialist ideals.

“The Haggadah particularly resonated with the early kibbutznikim because they felt that they were like the people who had gone out of Egypt,” historian Muki Tzur said. “They saw the Haggadah as a historical text.” Tzur, a renowned ideologue of the kibbutz movement, was an editor of the seminal book “The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk about the Six-Day War.” He lives on Kibbutz Ein Gev, located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Tzur has edited a lavishly illustrated book with designer Yuval Danieli, titled “Yotzim B’Hodesh Ha’aviv” (“Going Out in the Month of Spring”), which was published in 2004 by Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the Ben-Gurion Institute, Yad Tabenkin and Yad Ya’ari. It includes extracts, designs and explanations from hundreds of kibbutz Haggadot written between the late 1920s and the ’60s. The book was a joint project of four research institutes: Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute, Yad Tabenkin and Yad Ya’ari.

The staggering number of kibbutz Haggadot can be attributed to the fact that few were actually printed; most were simply stenciled in small numbers to be used in a particular year by a particular kibbutz. It was only later that official kibbutz federations published standard versions.

Even the Orthodox kibbutzim made the Haggadah their own, though they did so more through addition than through alteration.

Tzur points out that the first Passovers in Israel were difficult and strange for the early kibbutzniks, and the traditional text didn’t speak to their new circumstances.

“The sight of the Passover tables just reminded them how far they were from their parents and their homes. Of course they knew the traditional text, but they didn’t use it, because it made them too homesick. It was a very sad evening. They would just sing, and slowly they began to add parts into the Haggadah.”

By contrast, in the cities of pre-state Israel, Jews tended to read the traditional parts of the Haggadah quickly and then congregate in the streets to sing and dance — “an unintentional return,” Tzur noted, “to the times of the Temple, when Passover was like a big community gathering. In Europe, there was always danger to Jews in the streets. When you opened the door to Elijah, there was fear that there could be a pogrom. It was a night of danger. Here, the Jews felt they could celebrate openly.”

Kibbutz Seders have been traditionally communal rather than intimate. (The reason for this is that early kibbutznikim had no families here and so the community substituted for family.)

“It’s a big evening, with hundreds of people,” Tzur said.

Of course, Seders this big do pose certain challenges. At home, if the kids are bored you can skip a part of the Haggadah. With 400 people, skipping isn’t an option.

As the kibbutz Seder matured it developed into more of cultural happening, with classical music, literary readings, music and a choir. The Haggadah became a symbol of the revolutionary vision of the people of the kibbutz and a record of their own experiences.

References to the Holocaust began appearing in Haggadot early on, often in connection with calls for revenge. (“Pour out thy wrath upon the nations.”)

Much of the Haggadah came to be seen through the prism of the kibbutz experience.

The Four Questions were recast in a new idiom. One kibbutz Haggadah asked, “When will all the Diaspora Jews come back to Israel?” (The answer was ambivalent: “That question will always be asked.”)

Another asked, “Why are there rich and poor, hungry and full, instead of giving a helping hand to others?”

At Kibbutz Ein Harod in the 1930s and ’40s, the Four Questions were: “Why do people all over the world hate Jews? When will the Jews return to their land? When will our land become a fertile garden? When will there be peace and brotherhood in the world?”

The section on the four sons, traditionally “the wise son,” “the wicked son,” “the simple son” and “the one who doesn’t know to ask,” were also altered frequently. Sometimes they became a satire of people on the kibbutz. The Wise Son, for example, became the kibbutz treasurer; the Wicked Son, the member who arranged the work assignments.

At other times they referred to ideological issues. Such is the case in the 1951 Beit Ha’emek Haggadah, in which the wise son asked, “What are all the political parties, movements and factions in our young country that interfere in matters of state at such a fateful time?”

The song “Had Gadya” (“One Kid”), which seems, on the face of it, to be a simple nursery rhyme about a dog that ate a cat that ate a kid, and so on — ending in the Holy One killing the Angel of Death — was also of particular importance to kibbutzniks, who invented many versions of their own. Not only did they translate it from the original Aramaic to modern Hebrew, but they also changed the focus of the song from the macabre to the ideal. “Had Gadya” became a song in which people cooperated with each other, instead of killing each other, in a socialist model.

“Everybody beating everyone else seemed antisocial to the members of the early kibbutzim,” Tzur said, “so they used the same characters, but the cat and dog, for example, all built one kibbutz.”

Today, Tzur said, the situation is more complex. Although communal Seders are still held, many kibbutz members choose to hold smaller, family-centered ones instead.

“It’s a sociological change. The early kibbutz members were orphans — spiritually, if not in reality. Now, they have rebuilt their families, and these families have grown large.”

Carol Novis, formerly of Canada, has lived in Israel for 30 years. She writes and edits for Ha’aretz.

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