Jewish Journal

Bring something new to the table

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Apr. 5, 2011 at 7:01 pm

A Passover haggadah is something like an article of clothing — a great many styles and sizes are available, it can be tailored to suit one’s own needs and tastes, and we can always make one of our own. The readings and rituals, stories and songs that decorate the observance of Passover are as diverse as the Jewish people itself. Now, as Jewish families around the world prepare to sit down at the seder table, here are a few new and noteworthy examples.

Perhaps the most unusual one is “Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families” by Cokie and Steve Roberts (Harper, $19.99), which describes the Passover rituals that were adopted by two celebrated journalists, one Jewish and one Catholic, after they married. Steve explains that his family was not observant — “left-wing politics was their passion, not organized religion” — but he made his way back to religious Judaism of his own initiative: “I was more a Rogow than a Roberts,” he writes, referring to his family’s original Jewish name. When he married Cokie, an observant Catholic, she respected and encouraged his rediscovery of his Jewish roots: “In fact, part of the attraction between us was a shared devotion to our traditions, families, histories.” The result is a haggadah of their own invention, a unique artifact of an interfaith marriage. “My mother maintained that the first seder she ever attended,” quips Steve, “was organized by her Catholic daughter-in-law.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, in a sense, is “A Happy Passover Haggadah for the Entire Family,” designed by Monicka Clio Rafaeli with an English translation by Rabbi Marc D. Angel (Blue & White Press, $29.95). Bound and colorfully printed in Israel, fully bilingual in English and vowelized Hebrew, and supplied with selected transliterations of the Hebrew text, “A Happy Passover Haggadah” will guide the reader through the “order” of the Passover meal from Kaddish to Nirtsah. Any improvisation or elaboration will have to come from the participants, but here is a reliable benchmark for any family that favors a highly traditional seder.

“No more boring seders!” is the promise on the front cover of “Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities” by David Arnow (Jewish Lights, $24.99), a treasury that can be used to embroider and enliven a Passover seder with commentary, discussion, elaboration and celebration. Now issued in an expanded second edition, Arnow’s haggadah provides ways to introduce new symbols and new significance into the familiar rhythms of the seder: “Choose something to add to the seder plate this year that relates to a subject of special concern,” the author suggests. Or: “Ask your guests to participate in an art midrash by creating a collage that expresses the relationships among Passover, freedom, and spring.” Or “Compose your own group’s Dayenu” by coming up with new “divine favors” to add to the ones recounted in the traditional song. Arnow challenges every seder leader to go outside the box of the traditional haggadah, and provides the tools to do it.

“A Passover Haggadah: Go Forth and Learn” by Rabbi David Silber with Rachel Furst (Jewish Publication Society, $18) is actually two books in a single volume.  Eight scholarly essays on the origins and meanings of Passover are presented when one opens the book with the spine on the left, and a traditional haggadah is presented when one opens the book with the spine on the right. Silber makes the point that the seder does not consist only of following an ancient text in a prescribed order; rather, we are instructed to expound upon the text to find its “resonances and echoes,” and his book offers a path to those inner meanings. “The idea that Jewish experience and Jewish community is fundamentally founded on both practice and intellectual inquiry is a core message of the seder,” writes Silber, and he thereby describes the goal of his book.

“Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia” by Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights, $24.99) is not a haggadah, but it can be used to illuminate and enliven a seder in the ways that Jewish tradition requires us to do. The authors want us to see in Passover a thread that links us back into biblical antiquity and forward into the future and, not incidentally, an opportunity to “[weave] together the description of the Exodus itself as a moment in the utter present — hope and desire turned into action — with detailed instructions of how to celebrate the transformative moment.” Just as Exodus calls on the Jewish people to respect and protect the stranger because we, too, were strangers in the land of Egypt, “Freedom Journeys” shows how Passover can be seen and used as a call to action on issues that affect all of humankind — war, hunger, poverty, ecology and human rights.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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