The Story of Us, A People in Exile: On The New American Haggadah

March 23, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 1 5 min read

Very few religious texts ever leave the place of worship. If you consult the Kol Nidre any night other than on Yom Kippur, it sings a little less powerfully. It seems inappropriate and off-putting to read over the Passion at any time beyond Easter. The line between holy writ and popular lit is drawn in stone, pitting our reading inclinations tablet against text, and so your choice becomes one of either total secularity or total Orthodoxy. So the stories that compel us are limited to their moment of application — Yom Kippur transforms into a fast and break-fast, and Easter turns into a celebration of bunnies and chocolate. Only one form of religious storytelling is ever permitted to bleed into the secular space — the Haggadah, the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, and the book of prayer to accompany the Passover Seder.

coverThis story gains new complexity and unanticipated fluidity in The New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander. Foer and Englander’s edition is less a makeover than a workout — by opening up the Passover story, giving stiff words new flexibility, and prodding the text’s eternal questions, they have given readers, both devout and secular, a newly rich and provocative text, one that can be enjoyed long after the afikomen is found. The book is classically laid out, with Hebrew text on the right-hand page (gorgeously illustrated in texturally rich watercolor by the Israeli typographer Oded Ezer) and Englander’s translation on the left. At the top runs a timeline from Mia Sara Bruch, a scholar of Jewish history at Stanford University, charting the history of the Jews from 1200 BCE to present day, from the moment of the actual diaspora’s commencement to the reading of the Haggadah today, creating a throughline of historical relevance for the reader. Some readers may feel the text is wanting for a transliteration, but its book is an engaging read despite its absence. I found myself turning the pages in all directions, searching my years of Hebrew school for a language I’ve forgotten, and lost myself in the experience of the text.

The New American Haggadah’s strengths are especially prominent in the commentary dispersed throughout the text. Each major portion of the Seder is accompanied by four perspectives — Middle-East historian Jeffrey Goldberg (“Nation”), director of the Center of Jewish Studies, Nathaniel Deutsch (“House of Study”), novelist and scholar Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (“Library”), and novelist Lemony Snicket (“Playground”). These contrasting voices bring out the multitudes of questions and quandaries inherent in the Passover story, and by secularizing the commentary, giving it over to political, liturgical, literary, and elementary analysis, they have made this into a vitally relevant piece of philosophical inquiry. Goldberg’s “Nation” contributions are especially vital, contextualizing the Seder as a moral code that we as global citizens have tried (and failed) to uphold. (Sharp eyes will immediately scan the text for his take on the Israel-Palestine quagmire.) And Snicket’s witty asides bring the perfect amount of snark to the text — it will keep the antsy adolescent attendee entertained throughout the Seder while keeping them engaged with the evening’s message. (Especially great is the retort to that ever-condescending narration of the Four Children — Snicket offers, as an antidote, “The Four Parents.”) Ending the Seder with Snicket’s Seinfeldian examination of the bizarre Aramaic song, “Chad Gadya,” lets you leave the table with a belly laugh — made even more enjoyable after the required four glasses of wine.

What makes this volume such a pleasure to read, and what makes it the best book of modern religious thought in recent memory, is its demand that dialogue be a central part of worship. “Tonight is the night,” Goldstein says, “that we sanctify storytelling,” and nowhere is this more clear than in Englander’s translation, framed with the essence of narrative-in-community in mind: “Adonai” becomes “Lord God-of-us, King of the Cosmos.” The latter half is a bit grandiose, but the first part is spot-on. The voice of the storyteller-as-representative of the audience is central, and the translation of the Seder’s outline suddenly clarifies why each part is crucial — reading each stage as one line of dictation, “Sanctify and wash; dip split and tell; be washed and bless the poor man’s bread; bitter, bundle, and set down to eat; hide it and bless; praise it; be pleased.” Prayers are translated leniently, as if preparing for the not-so-adherent Jew, i.e. if you fail to dispose of all the leavened bread in your house, it’s no big whup. And he lets the beauty of the language flow, turning prayers into poems. In a prayer for compassion, the plea is to “rescue and recover them — delivering them from gorge to meadow, from darkness to light. Break them free of their shackles and lead them on to salvation. Do it with speed and in our days, and let us all say, Amen.”

Within each newly framed line, however, is a question — not one of the four questions, not even the major one, “Why is this night different than all other nights?” The question is the ambivalence of our worship: how, in a universe where chosen people were forgotten and made to toil under the yoke of slavery, and where their exodus came only at the price of further slaughter and plagues of suffering, do we believe and enact justice as spiritual citizens? The question of how to be good in a world that has not been good to us, colors Ezer’s powerfully violent illustrations for the 10 plagues. And yet these unanswerable questions do not defeat us as readers, but emboldens us. Ambivalence is empowering, for it demands that we debate and engage with our faith. In Englander’s translation on the Shema, the holiest of prayers; he says, “Blessed is the One that is Space and the Source of Space, the One that is the World but whom the World cannot contain…” In the complexity of our devotion are the unanswerable details of how we maintain faith. The most provocative sequence, in which a single illustrated word vibrates in pale green and which Englander translates to “With how many layers of goodness has God blessed us?,” made me run to several different books in attempting to find the exact Hebrew transliteration, all to no avail. Yet in the searching for the transliteration, I felt more connected to the Passover story than ever before.

As Foer notes in his introduction, “Here we are, as night descends in succession over all of the Jews in the world, with a book in front of us.” No other holiday is so centered on storytelling, so focused on the power of narrative and the responsibility that narrative bears. And so this night becomes a living narrative, and so each time we gather around the Seder table to tell it, we imbue it with new possibility. “Here we are,” Foer says, “individuals remembering a shared past and in pursuit of a shared destiny. The Seder is a protest against despair.” Though we may wish to parcel out our moments of religious contemplation, leaving the big questions for the synagogue, The New American Haggadah makes worship a radical act of intellectual inquiry. Goldstein says, “It is the intimate spaces that the unwelcome and necessary revelations come, and we withdraw from those intimate spaces at our peril.” By bringing old stories and new questions together at the Seder table, we ask the unwelcome questions, and the revelations come in multitudes.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

has written reviews and commentary for Full Stop, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and Specter Magazine, among others. She lives in Morningside Heights.

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