February 20, 2013
The seder of Jewish pride
Is it possible to build Jewish pride in a very short period of time, like, say, at one dinner party? Seriously, how can you instill a love of Judaism in the time it takes to watch a Lakers game? And how do you do that without being overly preachy or superficial?
There’s a man in New York who thinks he has an answer: Edgar Bronfman.
Bronfman, one of the Jewish world’s most prominent leaders and philanthropists, has an obsession with Jewish pride. I heard him speak several years ago at a dedication ceremony for UCLA Hillel, and the one thing I remember is that he couldn’t stop talking about the importance of Jewish pride.
“It was my reaction to the Holocaust,” he told me over the phone when I asked him where this obsession came from. “How can we recover and go forward if we don’t have Jewish pride?”
But Jewish pride is a nebulous concept. It’s often confused with Jewish loyalty, which is more tribal and visceral. I can be deeply loyal to a friend or family member without necessarily being proud of them.
Bronfman is aiming for something more realistic, more achievable.
To appeal to a generation of Jews who haven’t grown up with the tribal loyalty of their ancestors and who don’t feel much connection to their Jewish tradition, Bronfman knows that Jewish pride — and any hope of loyalty — must be rooted in knowledge and values rather than just membership.
This is where the dinner party comes in, or, as it is commonly referred to, the Passover seder.
Bronfman is convinced that the Passover seder is the ideal setting to ignite Jewish pride, and he and his artist wife, Jan Aronson, have spent the last few years creating the fruit of that mission, “The Bronfman Haggadah” (Rizzoli).
This is not your ordinary haggadah.
What hits you first are Aronson’s luminous and evocative illustrations. Each of the 127 pages of this coffee-table-size book has been designed as a work of art.
But if the art is meant to delight you, the words are meant to disarm and inspire you.
You can tap into your Jewish pride, Bronfman intimates, even if you have issues with “religion” or a traditional God. He speaks of a Godly “energy” that is transcendent and “does not intervene in our political, social or political affairs.”
But in its imminent form, this energy is the “Godliness within us,” expressed “when a father plays with his child or nations collaborate on the problem of climate change.”
The haggadah is written to maximize meaning and outreach. So, while it embraces the rituals and blessings of the traditional seder, it takes a few liberties.
The four sons, for example, become the four types of Jews: the wise, rebellious, simple and indifferent. The Jewish community must engage with all four types, Bronfman says, especially with the “indifferent Jew,” who must be “gently invited” back into the fold.
In this haggadah, the door is opened for the prophet Elijah at the very beginning of the seder, as this reminds us that we must “open the doors of our hearts” to the “hungry stranger.”
Elijah, Bronfman writes, represents that hungry stranger, as well as a “redeemed world — a world free of racism, slavery, cruelty, poverty and greed … that the Jews are commanded to build.”
That is the main theme of the “Bronfman Haggadah”: In the Jewish tradition, freedom is inextricably linked with moral responsibility, with the commandment to build a better world.
That’s why Bronfman includes in his haggadah the counting of the Omer, which leads to the seminal event 49 days after Passover when the Jews received the Torah laws — the laws that embody our moral responsibility.
Every section of the haggadah speaks to this responsibility and works to one end: To position the Jewish story and the Jewish tradition as an empowering source of light for humanity.
Through metaphors, poetic sayings and innovative storytelling, it weaves the key milestones of the master Jewish narrative and delves into how that narrative and its values can improve our world.
Will this be enough to ignite Jewish pride, especially among indifferent Jews?
Put it this way: If the alternative is to recite the traditional text of the haggadah in a language most Jews don’t understand, it’s certainly a major step up.
But there are plenty of other haggadot that are also user-friendly and written in English. What’s so special about this one, aside from its obvious beauty and aesthetics?
In my view, it’s how it marries modern sensibilities with old school Jewish peoplehood.
Bronfman has taken the secular and spiritual values that resonate with the new generation — such as tikkun olam, pluralism, human dignity and social justice — and rooted them proudly in the story of the Jewish people.
He’s made the seder night different by appealing to the indifferent. That alone is worthy of Jewish pride.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.