Jonathan Safran Foer edits a new Haggadah…a review by Alan Gold

July 23, 2012 by Alan Gold
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One of the most precious and memorable moments of my year, every year, is opening the Haggadah I was given as a gift by my mother-in-law, and seeing the familiar wine stains and shadows of matzah crumbs from ages past…writes Alan Gold.

Jonathan Safran Foer       pic: Peter Rigaud

The book inevitably falls open to the pages at the end of Hallel, just before the blessings which precede the meal at the end of the first half of the narrative.  It’s that time of the night when we’ve done the most talking, exhausted our most passionate arguments and we’re all ready to eat. Smells of chicken soup and K’neidlach waft in from the kitchen, just as our discussion gives way to hunger.

More than a regularly-performed ritual, and more than the celebration of the new year on Rosh Hashanah, Seder nights for me mark a transition between one year and the next, a time of reflection of times past and the potential of times to come.

The Haggadah is the narrative for the first two nights of the Passover, and is reputed to be the oldest continuously performed ritual in the Western world. There are an estimated 7000 different editions of the Haggadah in existence, and in many Jewish houses throughout the world, new and highly personal interpretations are given during the Seder service. Some years ago, in my own household, when my daughter was going through a feminist phase, she asked us to change the text so that any reference to God was defined in non-gender specific terms; instead of ‘The Almighty, Blessed be He”, or the “Lord”, we were asked to interpolate ‘The Blessed Almighty’.

And isn’t that the beauty of the ritual of the Seder; because while its core meaning and transmission doesn’t change, it is adaptable to and appropriate for every place and every moment of the 3000 years of Jewish history since we left Egypt. Regardless of a Jew’s orthodoxy, beliefs, culture or location, for every participant, the Seder nights are a time of assembly, of community and of continuity.

For those 3-day a year Schule goers, blessings are said at the Seder table in Hebrew but then the entire text is read in their native language. For religious families, the service can go on late into the night with older participants and invited guests explaining to youngsters the meaning of slavery, of liberation, of exile and of the nature of a homeland, often citing present day examples to show that little has changed.

For me, as for countless thousands of others, the joy of Seder nights was when we invited guests to share the meal, and then entered into a philosophical discussion about ancient and modern times, about biblical dictators and those who strut the world today, and about the differences between the tribes of ancient Israel, and modern tribalism which is causing so much grief in the world.

Which is why Penguin’s new Haggadah, just released, is a time for celebration of our Jewishness. New editions of the Haggadah are not unusual, but for some of the major voices in American literature and academia to come together and give a new interpretation to this ancient work, is a special moment for our Jewish community. Perhaps best known throughout the world, is Jonathan Safran Foer, American novelist and author of the outstanding and critically acclaimed Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Jonathan is responsible for editing the Haggadah, and the invigoration of the text. Author Nathan Englander was responsible for translating from Hebrew into English for this edition. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a novelist and professor of philosophy, wrote the commentary. Jeffrey Goldberg, a journalist for The Atlantic, Nathaniel Deutsch, a professor of Jewish Studies and Lemony Snicket, the children’s author also contributed.

So it’s valid to ask the Ma Nishtana of this publication….why is this Haggadah different from all other Haggadot? Well, apart from its structural layout, the text has been carefully translated and interpreted to be part of a more modern world and there are additions to pages which make this into as much a history as it is a narrative.

Of greatest interest, and sure to generate discussion during the night, is a timeline, written horizontally across the top of each page, defining the Jew’s place both in our own world, and in the larger world beyond. For example, on an early page, the timeline identifies “33CE – Jesus of Nazareth celebrates Passover with a seder that will be known to Christians as the Last Supper”. And the ‘library’ gives clear and concise explanations to accompany the text.

Many Haggadot are lavishly illustrated, but this particular Haggadah seems to have been painted and decorated by students of modern art; there are daubs and expanded letterings in place of the traditional representations of rabbonim sitting around a table at B’nai B’rak.

But of greatest satisfaction to me were the exegetical passages written by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, where she explains in simple but illuminating ways the why of what we do.

Perhaps the best way to define the reason for the creation of a new Haggadah to refresh our Seder nights is to quote the authors themselves: “The need for new Haggadahs does not imply the failure of existing ones, but the struggle to engage everyone at the table in a time that is unlike any that has come before. Our translation must know our idiom, our commentaries must wrestle with our conflicts, our design must respond to how our world looks and feels. This Haggadah makes no attempt to redefine what a Haggadah is, or overlay any particular political or regional agenda. Like all Haggadahs before it, this one hopes to be replaced.”

Safran Foer’s Haggadah will not please everybody.  Purists will dispute the layout, traditionalists will argue with the language, orthodox Jews will feel discomforted by the translation and those with a sense of style will wonder at the splotches of art on every page. But it’s a Haggadah I’ll be using at my next Seder night. It will refresh our discussions, enlighten our minds and expand our understanding.  Yes, there will be some at the table who’ll want to go back to the Haggadot they’ve used in previous years, and which their parents and possibly grandparents used, but that’s the beauty and wonder of participating in this millennia-old ritual. Because it’s never, ever boring. Indeed, when this Haggadah is used at a future Seder night, it could lead to discussion, disputation, argument…the sorts of things which a free people can do. And isn’t that the very heart and soul of the celebration!


Alan Gold is a novelist whose latest book is Bell of the Desert

Editor’s Note: Is the day looming when we will have to learn how to remove wine stains from a Kindle?


One Response to “Jonathan Safran Foer edits a new Haggadah…a review by Alan Gold”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    How fortunate for those of us that weren’t Jewish, that Howard Nathan (the one and only), opened the doors to his home some years ago, to share his Sedar table with us.
    A memorable evening and a beautiful tradition.

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