April 1, 2004
Exile the So-So Seder
Some people like their Passover seders just as they remember them: the same lines recited by the same relatives with the same emphasis, the same songs, jokes and foods, the same delicate glassware that picks up the light in a certain way, reflecting past and present.
David Arnow treasures his memories, too. But for him, the seder is also about creating new memories, doing things differently each year so that each person present indeed can taste the feeling of having left Egypt. Although it's possible to use a different haggadah every year given the large number of editions now available, Arnow believes that it's not about the haggadah, but how it's used. He suggests that people follow the traditional narrative and add texts for discussion, stories, participatory activities and much that goes beyond reading what's printed on the page.
His new book "Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities" is an outstanding resource for enhancing seders. It's not a haggadah but a companion volume that's best read before the seder, with certain passages shared at the table. One of Arnow's strengths is drawing on the haggadah text, midrashim and traditional commentaries, and juxtaposing them with contemporary and historical issues. He sees this telling of the story in a creative, interactive way as very much in keeping with the Mishnah's approach.
Arnow, a 53-year old psychologist by training and a communal activist and writer, explains in an interview that he has been amending his family's seders with meaningful readings and discussion questions since 1988. In 1994, he expanded those readings into a seder booklet for the New Israel Fund, an organization he had served as president. For eight years, Arnow, who also served as vice-president of UJA-Federation and as a Wexner Heritage Leadership Fellow, produced the widely praised booklets, highlighting a different passage each year, and thought to develop his ideas further into a book.
At his family seder, which this year will be held in his Scarsdale, N.Y., home, the intergenerational group first gathers in the living room, for about an hour's worth of discussion before moving into the dining room. Once they begin the formal part of the seder at the table, they follow the haggadah text, pausing for questions and dialogue. He admits that these gatherings, although great, are far from perfect. Even at his table, people ruffle through the pages looking for the cue to serve dinner.
"One of the things I realize," he said, "is that what happens at the seder recapitulates what happens at the Exodus. We're supposed to be celebrating freedom and soon we start complaining and grumbling about wanting to eat. The seder leader gets a bit of the experience of Moses, trying to lead an unruly group that takes freedom for granted very quickly."
Arnow's family sings the Passover songs with great spirit. He noted that when most people recall seders of their childhood, they remember the singing with particular fondness. The first song mentioned in the Bible is after the crossing of the Red Sea; he explains that after having such an overwhelming experience, it was as though the Israelites took a huge breath and out came a song to God. He quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "We sing to Him before we are able to understand Him."
The author acknowledges that there's much too much information in this book for any one seder, and suggests that people might focus on a different chapter each year, selecting from the supplementary materials.
Even those readers who can't imagine their guests marching around the house, led by children singing "Let my people go" en route to the table, will find possibilities of interest here -- from discussions that tie together Passover, spring and the environment to bibliodrama to a chapter on the women of the Exodus who are missing from the traditional text. He includes a quartet of 20th century voices on redemption, with quotes from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, Martin Buber, Heschel and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, along with questions leading to dialogue.
Many of Arnow's discussion topics touch on politics and peacemaking, but he is not preaching a particular point of view.
"I am saying that one of the lessons to remember is that we were strangers in the land of Egypt and, therefore, we have the responsibility to treat strangers among us fairly."
Arnow and his wife, the parents of two sons, are members of Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations in Westchester, N.Y. He has no formal training in Jewish studies and spent a year and a half doing research, studying on his own and with others, and says that he loved the process. In talking with the author about the book and the upcoming holiday, he continues to generate new ideas, new topics and approaches, beyond what's in the book.
For more information about the book, visit www.livelyseders.com .
"The Holistic Haggadah: How Will You Be Different This Passover Night?" with commentary by Michael Kagan, (Urim) is a guide to the inner journey of Passover, with contemporary spiritual commentary, geared to individuals of all denominations. Throughout, Kagan reflects on the meaning of freedom and its relation to serving God. This volume makes for meaningful pre-Pesach preparatory reading; the traditional haggadah text is translated by Kagan, with new translations of the Hallel and other sections by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Kagan, who leads experimental workshops and lectures on holistic Judaism around the world, lives in Jerusalem and describes himself as "an Ortho-practicing, but unorthodox Jew."
"The Pesach Haggadah: Through the Prism of Experience and History" by Rabbi Berel Wein (Artscroll) features classic commentary and stories, along with background and history of the holiday. Wein is the author of several well-received books on history and Jewish texts.
"The Gurs Haggadah: Passover in Perdition" edited by Bella Gutterman and Naomi Morgenstern (Devora Publishing, in cooperation with Yad Vashem) has its origins in a detention camp in southwestern France where, in 1941, the Jewish inmates held a seder, declaring their own freedom from oppression. This volume is a significant addition to holiday literature. Included is a facsimile edition of the actual hand-written haggadah used, photographs and other materials from the Yad Vashem archives and several moving essays commenting on the haggadah and on the ordeals of life at Gurs, with a piece by the son of Aryeh Zuckerman who wrote the haggadah by hand from memory. After the seder, one inmate wrote, "Passover was but a brief respite from the fleeing and wandering, yet closer than previous Passovers to the ancient-new prayer: 'Next year in Jerusalem.'"
Of Passover Interest:
"Make Your Own Passover Seder: A New Approach to Creating a Personal Family Celebration" by Rabbi Alan Kay and Jo Kay (Jossey-Bass) is a guide that covers every aspect of making a seder and is useful for someone making one or participating for the first time, as well as for those who are veterans and want to enhance their efforts. Included is information on selecting a haggadah, tips for including children and guests from different backgrounds, personal stories, guidance on rituals and more. Rabbi Kay serves as spiritual leader of Temple Beth Emet in Mount Sinai, N.Y., and Jo Kay is director of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
"Had Gadya: The Only Kid" edited by Arnold Band (Getty Publications) is a facsimile edition of Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky's 1919 edition of lithographs. His colorful, bold prints interpret the traditional Passover song; the illustrations are crowned with architectural frames with the verses printed in stylish letters, in Yiddish, with some Aramaic text at the bottom of the page. Only 75 copies were published in the lifetime of the artist -- this work was part of his engagement with Judaica before turning to abstract painting. In this volume, a separate section includes a translation of each verse and notes on the images. Band is professor emeritus of Hebrew and comparative literature at UCLA. In her introduction, Nancy Perloff, collections curator at the Getty Research Institute, notes that Lissitzky chose to publish these artworks in their own publication rather than as part of a haggadah, indicating that he "viewed the song both as a message of Jewish liberation based on the Exodus story and as an allegorical expression of freedom for the Russian people."
"Matzah Meals: A Passover Cookbook for Kids" by Judy Tabs and Barbara Steinberg, illustrated by Bill Hauser, (Kar-Ben) includes easy-to-follow recipes for banana pancakes, gefilte fish kabobs, matzah pizza, meringue kisses and more.
"It's Seder Time!" by Latifa Berry Kropf, photographs by Tod Cohen, (Kar-Ben) documents a class of young children learning about and participating in Passover rituals -- collecting chametz for a food bank, making matzah, singing, dancing, posing as frogs. The full color photographs are full of smiles.