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Jewish Journal

New Haggadahs: Reform version, novelists’ take and Ethiopian flavor

by David A.M. Wilensky, JTA

March 28, 2012 | 2:49 pm

The 'New American Haggadah,' featuring the efforts of Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, among other top writers, is all about storytelling.

The 'New American Haggadah,' featuring the efforts of Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, among other top writers, is all about storytelling.

Leading a seder for the first time this year? There’s an app for that.

Entries in the annual stream of new Haggadahs this year include a Reform version that comes in hardcover, paperback and iPad app editions. Two others feature a gorgeously designed Haggadah that features an array of literary celebrity contributors and one with an Ethiopian flavor.

The Reform Haggadah, “Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family” (CCAR Press), is terrific for its introductions and artwork, bland in its content and promising in its use of technology.

“Sharing” excels as a guide to Passover for those who are new to the seder—sections help first-time leaders with planning—or need a major refresher. It covers the entire weeklong holiday, from searching for chametz before through the beginning of the counting of the Omer at the end.

But the seder itself is bland. Responsive readings—a hallmark of Reform ritual that seemed to have disappeared with the arrival of “Mishkan T’fillah,” the current Reform siddur—unfortunately are back.

Too often the surface themes of the exodus story outshine the subtler values of the seder. However, “Sharing” gets it right by taking prospective seder leaders straight from a section on leading the seder to one called “What Matters on Passover Is That Questions Are Asked.”

The highlight here is the artwork of Mark Podwal. His impressionistic illuminations in “Sharing” are a great addition to the tradition of Haggadah art. Podwal interprets one of the four children as a headless suit of armor with a book at its feet and one as a Torah with a book for a head. The other two have book torsos and heads—one open and facing us, the other closed and facing away.

A few years ago, “Sharing” might have come with a CD, but instead it suggests downloading tracks online to learn seder tunes. (Of course, iPad app version users will have them at their fingertips.)

Despite emphasizing singing during the seder, “Sharing” misses musical opportunities, such as its replacement of the psalms known as Hallel with “interpretive readings” of two psalms. (More of Hallel appears in an appendix—in English.) Meanwhile, “Sharing” goes for music that was probably best left out. Two cringe-worthy songs feature the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Coffee table art books have given birth to an entire sub-genre of artistic, if unwieldy Haggadahs, including the gorgeous “New American Haggadah” (Little, Brown and Company). Edited by novelists Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander, this Haggadah aims not just to tell a story but to be about storytelling. It is far too unwieldy to be deployed in full at your seder, but that hardly seems to be its ambition—and it’s too beautiful to pass up.

“New American” was typeset brilliantly by Oded Ezer, whose ethereal illustrations are a striking break with the concrete representations with which Haggadahs are usually sprinkled. Though design occasionally trumps usefulness, each page is a delight. A meta-telling of the story runs throughout, a timeline of the history of Passover itself strung along the top margin of the pages. The imagery is based on Hebrew letter forms that match the period of the timeline on the page.

In addition to Englander and Foer, the seder is periodically interrupted by brief essays by the likes of Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg and children’s author Lemony Snicket. The interruptions include installments in each of four streams of brief essays, each stream by a different author. The streams cover four themes: “Nation,” “Library,” “House of Study” and “Playground.”

Why didn’t anyone think of handing the seder, the Jewish narrative ritual par excellence, over to novelists before? New American indeed.

The story of the ongoing immigration of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel seems to be a perfect thematic match with Passover. As interest grows in far-flung Jews with unexpected skin tones, an Ethiopian Haggadah was inevitable.

What a shame, then, that “The Koren Haggada: Journey to Freedom” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem) is such a whitewashed letdown. It’s “The Gould Family Edition,” edited by Rabbi Menachem Waldman and translated by Binyamin Shalom. While Waldman has written a number of books on Ethiopian Jewry, it is implausible that no priests of the Ethiopian community could be found to at least co-edit “Journey.”

In his introduction, Waldman says that “Journey to Freedom” includes “the traditions of and heritage of Ethiopian Jewry alongside the story of the exodus from Ethiopia.” Sadly this is not at all what “Journey” does. Instead it tells of Ethiopian Jewry in a series of sidebars and photographs interspersed among a standard Modern Orthodox seder.

The Ethiopian observance of Passover, which they call Pasika, is given some attention, but an introductory section spends a scant page or so on the community’s actual traditions for consuming the paschal sacrifice and telling the story of the Exodus. Instead, “Journey” buries their traditions under contemporary Orthodox ones, as the Israeli rabbinate has long sought to do.

Each of the three diverse Haggadahs fills a special niche and has a unique take on the seder.

Bring the “New American Haggadah” on your journey this year. And first-timers may appreciate “Sharing the Journey” as a guidebook. “The Koren Ethiopian Haggada”? It’s best left behind in Egypt.

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