By the Book

Finding the Perfect Script for the Seder

The Passover Haggadah compiled and edited by Rabbi Morris Silverman, published by The Prayer Book Press, 1972

(This is the text of my column, Ad Lib., in the April 15, 2011 issue of  The Jewish Voice and Herald.)

On a shelf in their New Jersey sunroom, my parent kept a pile of Haggadas. Several were printed in Tel Aviv in the 1950s and ’60, illustrated with old etchings so poorly reproduced it was hard to tell the hail from the locusts. One of these was in French, bought when my family lived inParis. A later edition, in Russian, recalled my grandmother’s work with the UJA. We kept these stapled booklets for sentimental reasons, but rarely looked at them.

The books we actually used were more substantial. The lime-green Glatzer Haggadah meant business, with its extensive footnotes and essays by Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and other heavy-hitter theologians.

In time, the ponderous Glatzer Haggadas were supplemented with the more user-friendly Silverman. I’m not a huge fan of the Silverman. The red-and-purple color scheme is garish. The pictures of the four sons are goofy. And the commentary tries a little too hard to convince the reader that a traditional Seder is worth the trouble.

Soon after the Silvermans came on the scene, I got married and moved toLos Angeles, where we celebrated with an Orthodox friend. I don’t remember his Haggadah — probably because he spent more time discussing the text than actually reading it. Who knew Seders could be so unscripted? So educational?

FromLos Angeles, our growing family moved toVermont. Far from my parents and with no friend to host us, I would be leading my own Seders. For the first time, I could do them my way. But what was my way? The answer, I was sure, could be found in the right Haggadah.

A bookstore in L.A.’s Fairfaxdistrict offered options from every corner of Judaism. But no one corner was exactly mine. I ended up buying several Haggadah’s. The Yeshiva University Haggada provides the sort of erudite analysis our Orthodox friend taught us to appreciate. The Telling uses non-gendered God language. Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist New Haggadah resonates with my theology.

The New Haggadah for the Pesach Seder, edited by Mordecai M Kaplan, Euegene Kohn, and Ira Eisenstein for the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation. Published by Behrman House, NY, 1978.

I rounded out the collection with a handful of Maxwell House Haggadahs, offered free at the supermarket, between the matzohs and the macaroons. They bear a striking resemblance to the stapled booklets in my parents’ sunroom.

Coordinating a seder with multiple manuals takes some doing. I charted out the corresponding page numbers in the different books, and decided which version of each section to use. It was hard to do – but not nearly as hard as getting my guests to follow the plan, especially as the evening progressed. By the time we broke the matzohs, my orderly scheme would be shattered.

That seems about right. In his essay reprinted in the Glatzer Haggadah, Franz Rosenzweig suggests that the Seder’s typical slide into silliness reinforces the festival’s liberation message. At the start of the meal, the leader speaks and the household listens. But questions and songs and four cups of wine free up the atmosphere until, as Rosenzweig puts it, “the last shred of autocracy … dissolves into community.”

When my parents died, I inherited their Haggadahs. At first I tried adding the ancestral books to my mix. But I soon realized that all my editing and orchestrating was missing the point.

For years now, we’ve been happily using the Silvermans. Yes, the art is still ugly. Yes, the commentary can be condescending. The language is no less sexist, the theology no closer mine. But the pages are stained with my mother’s haroset, the margins filled with reminders of loved ones we miss. I mean that literally.

Several of the books bear my dad’s distinctive, mangled handwriting – layers of names scratched in and crossed out as, year after year, he pre-assigned various passages. Above the Four Questions you’ll find my older sister, me, my cousin and my niece, a record of children learning to read. My Zionist grandmother repeats God’s promise to Abraham. My argumentative uncle plays the part of the rebellious son. An old family friend invites all who are hungry to come and eat.

When we read the text now, with our grown children, we add our own comments, and rephrase sexist sentences on the fly – a challenge that becomes more difficult and entertaining as we approach the fourth cup.

This mix of remembering and revising seems right, too. After all, the point of Passover isn’t how the old story is reprinted. It’s how we remember it and make it our own.

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2 Responses to “By the Book”

  1. Some Poems for Passover | Giving Up The Ghost Says:

    […] each year, our family uses the same Haggadah we’ve been using for years. The set was handed down to me in the 1990s, when my parents updated […]

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    By the Book | Giving Up The Ghost

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