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Richer, Deeper, Provoking, Beautiful, Moving, and a Great Addition
on March 7, 2012
I will forego making a joke on the "Foer Questions."
Several years ago, Jonathan Safran Foer said that most translated Haggadot lack the imaginative punch to inspire people toward a greater commitment for social change. He said, "We talk about slavery every year, we talk about the movement toward freedom every year. But when was the last time a Seder made you really feel those things in a deep way" about Darfur or Energy Independence (because we are slaves to energy right now.)
And so began Foer's quest to create a new American Haggadah, "American" because Haggadot, such as the Sarajevo Haggadah, are usually named for the place they were published. (This one is published in America, but printed in Singapore.) Seders have been celebrated for over 100 generations, and perhaps there have been over 7000 known versions of the haggadah, whether it is from a religious movement, a kibbutz, Maxwell House, Mesorah, a commune, Cokey Roberts, or your own family. Foer writes that a new haggadah does not imply that earlier ones are failed, he just saw a need for one that looks at current issues in today's idiom
This haggadah is an exciting new one and will prompt many seder-table discussions for years to come; the "hyper-literal" translations into English will fascinate.
But first, some information on the style: The Haggadah flows from right to left. On each page are illustrations, or Hebrew with English translations. There are NO transliterations, not even for a Kiddush or Had Gadya. The Hebrew has vowels. The Haggadah is a hardcover and delivered with a removable red paper wrapper (bellyband); when removed, you are left with a cover with Hebrew printing on a white background. The spine has the Haggadah's title and editors' names. The Hebrew printing on the front begins "B'chol dor v'dor (In every generation, a person is obligated to view her/himself as if s/he were the one who went out from Mitzrayim... interesting choice, no?). I am sure some enterprising young or old scholar at a seder can derive a drash on why the words with the largest fonts sizes are B'chol, Zeh, and M'Mitzrayim.
There are a few blank pages at the end of the Haggadah where you can write comments, thoughts, or record who was present at your sederim over the years. I highly recommend using it, since decades later, you can open it and recall family members, friends, or guests who are still present, older, moved on, or passed on. The paper stock makes the Haggadah feel a tiny itty bitty warped, but with use, it flattens out. Across the top of each page is a progressing timeline (by Mia Sara Buch), flowing like sweet malaga wine, from 1250 BCE to 2007 CE. The timeline is in a smaller font and gives a running history of Passover and Jewish communities. For example, for 1387 CE, the timeline mentions Chaucer's publication of "The Canterbury Tales," and his story of a blood libel against the Jews, even though Jews were expelled England a century earlier. At the end, you can add to the timeline as years go by. I can imagine each participant adding their own timeline to their copy each year, and seeing how attitudes and comments change over the decades. A keepsake.
The text of this Haggadah opens with the removal of Hametz and Prepping for the seder. It flows through the seder, the cups of wine, the Hallel and Nirtzah, and closes with Counting the Omer, and a few songs. There are also several discussion sections designed in a neo-Talmud style. There are discussion four sections: Library, Nation, House of Study, and Playground. They are authored by Lemony Snicket, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Nathaniel Deutsch. Deutsch, a Guggenheim Fellow and An-sky specialist, is currently a professor at UC, Santa Cruz and Co-Director of the Center for Jewish Studies. Goldberg is a journalist at The Atlantic. Newberger Goldstein is a novelist, professor, and mother of two authors; and Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) is author of a books on quotations that are bitter like horseradish; on a latka that screamed a lot; and a series on unfortunate events (like slavery?)
The design is by Oded Ezer, a master of inventive Hebrew lettering (Beit Hillel), typography and design, who wrote that the notion behind this book's design was to visually merge the history of the Jewish nation with the traditional Haggadah text. The graphic letterforms (not the Haggadah text, but the drawings around them) on the pages therefore "reflect" the timeline's period at the top of the page. The book becomes a graphic record of Jewish history. Plus it seems to have ready-made wine stains, albeit of ink.
But now for the meal: the translation by Nathan Englander. This, the translation, is primarily what attracted me to this Haggadah. Englander thought this would be an easy translation task, like it was going to be hip and sassy, but he soon realized the project's scope and intensity, and entered a havruta style, multi-year process with Baruch Thaler, to debate and decide on the translations. They refer to it as a hyper-literal translation.
Nathan Englander was an interesting choice. An acclaimed novelist and short story author, he moved to Israel as a young man and he quickly gave up on organized religion. (He may not have a mezuzah on his door, but now he has dozens of Jewish Haggadot and texts.) For Pesach, Englander used to use the Hebrew side of the traditional Maxwell House coffee haggadah. He never really looked at the English translations. He found that the Hebrew is so moving, yet the English translations he saw did not communicate this beauty well enough. The line that clinched it for him was "HaMavdil Bein Kodesh l'Kodesh." In English, many Haggadot translated it as "to differentiate between the Sabbath and the holiday." But in Hebrew what it says is, "to differentiate between holy and holy." To him, the English was missing the poetry and the metaphysical space between "holy" and "holy."
This is his chance to convey meaning -- meaning that informs future action. For example, in "Nishmas kol chai," he translates it as "Were our mouths were filled with a singing like the sea, and our tongues awash with song, as waves-countless, and our lips to lauding, as the skies are wide, and our eyes illumined like the sun and the moon, and our hands spread out like the eagles of heaven, and our feet as fleet as fawns. Still, we would not suffice in thanking you, lord God of us and God of our fathers, in blessing your name for even one of a thousand, thousand, from the thousands of thousands and the ten thousands of ten thousands of times you did good turns for our fathers and for us"
While most haggadot translate blessings as "Blessed (Praised) art Thou, O Lord Our God, King of the Universe...", Englander writes "You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos..." His translations are unique and will wake the reader up, and make them really think about what they are reciting. He uses "God of us" instead of "our God" because it's not "our God" like "our cellphone" or "our Lexus" that we own, rather it is "the God over us." "Ha Lachma Anya" is not the Bread of Affliction, but becomes "This is the poor man's bread that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt... Just as You lifted nation from the belly of nation, and piloted Your people through the deep, may it be desirous before You..." The translations are male, as in He, King, Father and Sons. The Four Sons are sons. The ten plagues are "Blood, frogs, lice, a maelstrom of beasts, pestilence, boils, and hail-full-of-fire, locusts, a C-L-O-T-T-E-D darkness -- too thick to pass. The killing of the firstborn."
I hope this has given you an unleavened taste of this haggadah. It contains a wealth of information and will be a call to action for families that use it.