Passover is our holiday of words -- words to study and ponder, lines that evoke memories and also inspire hope of better times. Every year, publishers bring out a significant number of new books related to the holiday -- new editions of the haggadah, books of essays and commentary, children's books and cookbooks. This season, there's plenty to read geared to the weeks leading up to the holiday, throughout its duration and afterward. What's common among the new titles are stories, whether reminiscences about great scholars or accounts of unusual circumstances for seders. Here are stories that weave history and transcend it.
"The Rav Shach Haggadah" adapted by Rabbi Yaakov Blinder, compiled by Rabbi Asher Bergman in association with Rabbi Shalom Meir Wallach (Mesorah/Artscroll, 2003) includes the traditional text in Hebrew and English translation, along with the teachings of Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach, who was rosh yeshiva of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in B'nei Brak, Israel. This volume includes insights from and stories told by Shach, as well as anecdotes about the many people who visited him seeking his counsel. The many stories about his studies in Europe, his early days in Jerusalem, his encounters with the Brisker Rav and other events make for interesting reading beyond the seder.
The "Kittsee Haggadah 1760" (Kehot Publication Society, 2002) is a facsimile edition of a haggadah that was handwritten and illustrated on parchment by a calligrapher, Chaim ben Asher Anshel in the town of Kittsee, near Pressburg, which is now Bratislava, Slovakia. To a contemporary eye, the illustrations appear to be an appealing mix of folk art and elegance; the cover and end papers are printed to look like the original leather cover. Some parts of the text, including instructions for the seder and translations of songs, are in Yiddish. A copy of the original is part of a large collection of rare haggadahs in the Central-Lubavitch Library in Brooklyn, which was established by Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn. In 1924, he purchased a collection of 5,000 rare books, and many more titles have been added since then. Now, there are more than 2000 editions of the haggadah, spanning 450 years, in the collection.
"The Haggadah: Transliterated & Translated" (Judaica Press, 2003) is a straightforward haggadah, with clearly printed Hebrew text in its entirety, a new English translation that's easy to follow and transliteration, along with background material, seder instructions and commentary. According to the publisher, this haggadah is intended to help people with limited Hebrew skills to feel at home at the seder,
"The Historical Haggadah: A New Interpretation Celebrating the Actual Events of Passover" by Abram Epstein (TFG Press, 2002) is an unusual edition, examining the history of pre-Exodus Egypt in its commentary on seder rituals, and in a long essay, "Passover: Telling It Like It Was." Abrams' interpretive haggadah text is mostly in English, with blessings in Hebrew and English transliteration.
"Talelei Oros: The Haggadah Anthology" edited by Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rubin (Feldheim, 2003) includes many previously unpublished anecdotes, vignettes and themes from the lives of major traditional Torah scholars. The haggadah text appears in Hebrew and English, and all the commentary is in English.
"The Women's Seder Sourcebook: Rituals and Readings for use at the Passover Seder" and "The Women's Passover Companion: Women's Reflections on the Festival of Freedom" both edited by Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Tara Mohr and Catherine Spector (both published by Jewish Lights, 2003) are a pair of volumes that grew out of the decade-old women's seder at Yale University. The first volume includes readings -- poems, blessings, creative reflections, brief essays, commentary -- that might be used at a seder. Featuring more than 100 women's voices from across the denominational spectrum, bridging generations and experience, the book is organized according to the order of the seder and is intended for home and communal use.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) ties her commitment to reproductive freedom to themes of the holiday; Ruth Messinger writes of the obligation to reach out to refugees and displaced persons around the world. Also included are Marcia Falk's poetic translations of traditional blessings and a piece by an adoptive mother, Beth Gomberg-Hirsch, who provides personal insight into the role of Pharaoh's daughter, Batya, in adopting and caring for Moses, and then losing him. The author calls on readers to honor Batya's "valor and her grief."
The second volume is a sort of primer, or reader. The varied voices include that of Esther Broner, the creator of the first women's seder almost 30 years ago, and of Judith Clark, who has been in prison since 1981, writing about seders she has experienced at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. She writes: "Prison is deprivation, rigidity, and rules, but on this night we recline into the sumptuous comfort of generosity and caring. On this night, we transcend the walls and razor-wire fences to contemplate and celebrate deeper meanings of freedom-in-community."
In a section on "Telling Our Stories," Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses writes powerfully of her journey, how feminism fueled her personal exodus from the close-knit traditional Syrian community in which she was raised, to her rabbinic ordination and then motherhood. She tells of her recognition that exodus became exile, and about her search now for a "reunion of the identity I abandoned long ago for the sake of freedom with the identity that I developed in the name of liberation."
"Passover: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration, 2nd Edition" by Dr. Ron Wolfson with Joel Lurie Grishaver (Jewish Lights, 2003) is an updated paperback edition of a how-to guide, that covers practical as well as spiritual preparation for the holiday, with advice for making it meaningful in its entirety. Included are questions and answers, notes about different kinds of practice, explanations of concepts, songs and suggestions for making the seder more inclusive of all guests. The author, who has done other books in this "Art of Jewish Living" series, is a vice-president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and co-founder of Synagogue 2000.
The distinguished work, "The Origins of the Seder: The Passover Rite and Early Rabbinic Judaism" by the late Baruch M. Bokser (Jewish Theological Seminary) is now back in print, in a new paperback edition. Intended for general readers as well as scholars, the book explores the centrality of the Passover rite in the history of Judaism and Christianity. The author, who was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, analyzes the earliest full account of the Passover evening celebration, in the Mishnah, edited in then-Palestine around 200 C.E. He shows how Jews and Christians used the motifs of Passover to express hopes for redemption, and documents the historical development of the rituals.
"Kosher by Design: Picture-Perfect Food for the Holidays and Every Day" by Susie Fishbein, photos by John Uher (Shaar Press/Artscroll, 2003) is an attractive cookbook, illustrated with full-color photographs, featuring 250 sophisticated, appealing recipes.
Her matzah balls for Passover can be made in the traditional style, or, stuffed with vegetables. She includes a very useful Passover index that indicates Passover modifications for recipes made year-round. Among other Passover recipes are Beef Short Ribs with Horseradish, Rosemary Potatoes with Carmelized Shallots and Mushrooms, Flourless Chocolate Torte and Chocolate Chip Biscotti. Fishbein, also editor of "The Kosher Palette," explains the meaning of the Jewish holidays, offers advice about wine and table settings, all infused with a spirit of hospitality.
"The Mouse in the Matzah Factory" by Francine Medoff, illustrated by Nicole in den Bosch (Kar-Ben, 2003) is a sweet and informative story about the making of matzah. The entire process -- which moves from the wheat fields to a country mill to a city factory to cardboard boxes -- is witnessed by a curious country mouse. The appealing illustrations reflect the story's whimsical yet serious tone. The author is a synagogue nursery director in Port Washington, Long Island, and the artist makes greeting cards in addition to illustrating children's books.
"Four Special Questions: A Passover Story" by Jonny Zucker, illustrated by Jan Barger Cohen (Barrons, 2003) is an introduction to the story and customs of Passover, in a family setting, for young kids, illustrated with bright, expressive paintings.
"What I Like About Passover" by Varda Livney (Little Simon, 2002) is a board book for even younger kids, introducing the elements of Passover with colorful illustrations and an appealing design.