New Amer­i­can Haggadah

  • Review
By – March 20, 2012
With the introduction’s com­mand­ing state­ment, Here we are, gath­ered to cel­e­brate the old­est con­tin­u­al­ly prac­ticed rit­u­al in the West­ern world,” the New Amer­i­can Hag­ga­dah takes its place in the very long line of Hag­gadahs. Fol­low­ing wide­spread prac­tice, this Hag­gadah is named for the place where it was writ­ten. With tra­di­tion­al lan­guage and con­tem­po­rary and often provoca­tive com­men­taries, the New Amer­i­can Hag­gadah brings the ancient text into today’s world. The book’s design under­lines the con­tin­u­al­ly chang­ing sen­si­bil­i­ties of Hag­gadahs through his­to­ry, illus­trat­ed with Hebrew cal­lig­ra­phy that match­es the let­ter­forms of Hebrew in dif­fer­ent peri­ods of Jew­ish his­to­ry.

While doing his trans­la­tion of the Hag­gadah, Nathan Eng­lan­der under­took tra­di­tion­al hevru­ta study, work­ing over each word with his study part­ner. The result is a close and vig­or­ous read­ing, often reflect­ing the Hebrew word order. The God lan­guage is expan­sive, enlarg­ing the con­cept of divin­i­ty. Above all, the text is high­ly read­able, flow­ing eas­i­ly through all the steps of the seder.

The com­men­taries, print­ed side­ways as two-page spreads at crit­i­cal points in the text, fall into four cat­e­gories, or points of depar­ture — House of Study, Nation, Library, and Play­ground. Here are tack­led the issues that enrich and illu­mine any seder: Lemo­ny Snick­et imag­ines Four Par­ents, a rever­sal of roles as reveal­ing as the ques­tions of the Four Sons; Rebec­ca Gold­stein reminds us that the Passover sto­ry is not a dis­mis­si­ble dis­trac­tion” like many sto­ries but one which we must live inside”; Jef­frey Gold­berg calls on us to face the inten­tion of Next year in Jerusalem” and its mean­ing in the Dias­po­ra; Nathaniel Deutsch reminds us that on this night of telling and reveal­ing, con­ceal­ing is some­times impor­tant as well. Through the mul­ti­ple paths down which the com­men­taries lead us, dis­cus­sion is invit­ed, stim­u­lat­ing new thoughts on time-hon­ored top­ics. The com­men­tary sec­tions may be used before­hand to frame a sec­tion of the Hag­gadah or may be read selec­tive­ly as part of the seder.

Run­ning across the top of the pages is a time­line that puts the many edi­tions of the Hag­gadah into their his­tor­i­cal con­text, pro­vid­ing the back­ground that influ­enced Jew­ish thought — and often Hag­gadahs — at the time. The chang­ing his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion is rein­forced in the design of the Hag­gadah, with its great vari­ety of ele­gant and orig­i­nal Hebrew let­ter­forms, based on tex­tu­al research, that mean­der through the book, inten­si­fy­ing the text.

The cre­ators of this Hag­gadah — a team of some of the most inno­v­a­tive and promi­nent young Jew­ish thinkers and writ­ers — are iden­ti­fied only by name in the book. The edi­tor is Jonathan Safran Foer, nov­el­ist and writer; the trans­la­tor is Nathan Eng­lan­der, nov­el­ist and short sto­ry writer. Rebec­ca Gold­stein, nov­el­ist and pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy; Lemo­ny Snick­et, children’s book author; Nathaniel Deutsch, pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture; and Jef­frey Gold­berg, author and jour­nal­ist, are the com­men­ta­tors. Oded Ezer is a ground­break­ing Israeli design­er, and Mia Sara Bruch, who wrote the time­line, is an award-win­ning his­to­ri­an. Intend­ed to be used at the seder table, with ink and wine stains incor­po­rat­ed into the design, the New Amer­i­can Hag­gadah offers a view that is at once famil­iar and con­tem­po­rary, a fresh addi­tion to the dis­tin­guished line of Hag­gadahs. Col­or design through­out.


by Maron Wax­man

With clas­sic cal­lig­ra­phy run­ning across its crisp white cov­ers and a bright red bel­ly band cir­cling it, the New Amer­i­can Hag­gadah makes an imme­di­ate impres­sion — a com­bi­na­tion of tra­di­tion and bold design. The Hag­gadah brings togeth­er a team of cre­ative young writ­ers and schol­ars under the edi­tor­ship of Jonathan Safran Foer, who talked with me about its ori­gin and intent.

Maron L. Wax­man: Among all the projects you could have turned to, what attract­ed you to the Hag­gadah?
Jonathan Safran Foer:The orig­i­nal inspi­ra­tion was per­son­al. I’ve been going to seders all my life. Seders have always been a big event in my fam­i­ly. Every year they got big­ger and big­ger and more inclu­sive. Even­tu­al­ly they were moved down to our base­ment, and we used every avail­able table in the house. I always knew Passover was com­ing when my par­ents took the net off the ping-pong table.

I always look for­ward to the seder, but I’ve nev­er found a Hag­gadah that was whol­ly ful­fill­ing. We don’t have a fam­i­ly Hag­gadah, but my father doesn’t fol­low the Hag­gadah text. My par­ents put togeth­er parts from lots of Hag­gadahs, but even then the sto­ry always seems to have an unre­al­ized poten­tial. The Exo­dus sto­ry is incred­i­ble, the char­ac­ters are incred­i­ble, and the sto­ry should be told in an incred­i­ble way. I’ve always been a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ed that the lan­guage nev­er seemed to match the pow­er of the sto­ry. After one seder I looked around at all the guests and real­ized how many of them were writ­ers. I’m a writer, my broth­ers are writ­ers, my father is a writer, and my moth­er writes a lit­tle. I thought we should have a Hag­gadah where the lit­er­ary aspect of the text was equal to the pow­er of its sto­ry. If it isn’t, the Hag­gadah won’t move us.

I also think the Hag­gadah should look impres­sive, and I’ve always been dis­ap­point­ed with how the Hag­gadah looked. It should have visu­al pow­er. The Hag­gadah isn’t a pas­sive book. It trans­mits val­ue; at its best, it makes us ask ques­tions. Through words and design, it has to be sure that, on this night, we our­selves are at Sinai.

So I want­ed to make a Hag­gadah for my fam­i­ly. For a long time I’d been think­ing about what would work for them, what might work for your fam­i­ly. It had to be a Hag­gadah that was writ­ten well, that had the best writing.

MLW: The intro­duc­tion to the Hag­gadah says, Our trans­la­tion must know our idiom.” I found the lan­guage strik­ing but a lit­tle for­mal in places, and I noticed that the words are some­times in the Hebrew, rather than the Eng­lish, order. What went into the deci­sions about the tone and style of the trans­la­tion?
JSF: There’s a good rea­son for the for­mal­i­ty. The lan­guage of the Hag­gadah should be removed from con­ver­sa­tion­al lan­guage. It should lead to a reli­gious or rev­er­en­tial atmos­phere; there should be a sep­a­ra­tion between it and every­day lan­guage. On the ques­tion of the word order, we some­times fol­lowed the Hebrew order in the trans­la­tion to show how the text sounds in Hebrew.

MLW: I noticed the lan­guage of the Hag­gadah isn’t gen­der-neu­tral.
JSF: We talked a lot about that and exper­i­ment­ed with it. We didn’t want the Hag­gadah to sound as if it were sup­port­ing a par­tic­u­lar point of view or polit­i­cal posi­tion. And it’s hard to play around with the pro­nouns [in an inflect­ed lan­guage] with­out call­ing atten­tion to them. Where do you want to focus your atten­tion — on the val­ues of the Hag­gadah or on the sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion of God? Also, the Hag­gadah is a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment. We want­ed to trans­late it as it was in its tra­di­tion­al lan­guage. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be dis­cus­sion about the lan­guage — that’s the job of the peo­ple around the table. That’s what a Hag­gadah is sup­posed to do. And the com­men­ta­tors sug­gest you can read the book in many dif­fer­ent ways and from sev­er­al points of view.

MLW: The God lan­guage is unusu­al or at least not com­mon — Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cos­mos” for Baruch atah Adon­ai Elo­heinu, melech ha-olam.”
JSF: The God lan­guage is con­sis­tent with the Hebrew. When Nathan Eng­lan­der began the trans­la­tion, he decid­ed that the best way to engage with a tra­di­tion­al text was in tra­di­tion­al form,” so he worked with an Ortho­dox study part­ner. The God lan­guage came from Nathan’s study part­ner. I was sur­prised by how tra­di­tion­al it was.

MLW: Did you and Nathan Eng­lan­der start the project togeth­er?
JSF: The project was my idea. I took it to the pub­lish­er and had the publisher’s sup­port through­out. From start to fin­ish the Hag­gadah was nine years in the mak­ing. I asked Eng­lan­der to be the trans­la­tor, and he start­ed work on the project two years in.

MLW: The for­mat of the com­men­taries — the con­tent and the lay­out — real­ly catch the reader’s eye. Can you talk a lit­tle about them? How did you select the com­men­ta­tors? Why are the com­men­taries and the time­line print­ed side­ways?
Putting the com­men­taries togeth­er was a strange process. The num­ber of com­men­ta­tors grew and shrank; at one point there were twen­ty. But I was afraid that lots of com­men­taries would make the Hag­gadah look like a ref­er­ence book rather than a book to be used, so I final­ly set­tled on just four commentators.

We print­ed the com­men­taries side­ways for two rea­sons: (1) the lay­out would make it clear what was com­men­tary and what was canon, and (2) it would allow for more flex­i­bil­i­ty — what com­men­taries to read, whether to read part of a com­men­tary, and so on.

The com­men­ta­tors came up with the names for their own cat­e­gories — [Nation, Play­ground, Library, House of Study]. We want­ed to have a cat­e­go­ry for younger peo­ple — Play­ground; Nation is polit­i­cal, how peo­ple act. We worked togeth­er as a team on the com­men­taries to avoid rep­e­ti­tion, but the com­men­ta­tors had a free hand in what they wrote.

The time­line con­tex­tu­al­izes the Hag­gadah through­out Jew­ish his­to­ry and shows how it was used in the peri­od high­light­ed on the page. The let­ters of the dis­play type on each page also reflect the his­tor­i­cal peri­od; they’re illus­tra­tive of the Hebrew let­ter­forms used at that time. The design­er stud­ied the Hebrew let­ter­forms of each peri­od to cre­ate the let­ters for the text.

MLW: The design is clear­ly a major com­po­nent of this Hag­gadah. Why is the design so cen­tral?
JSF: Design was a major com­po­nent from the begin­ning of the project. At first we thought we might have mul­ti­ple artists, but we final­ly decid­ed on one. We want­ed the design to be the best expres­sion of the Hag­gadah while being faith­ful to the text. We want­ed the empha­sis on the words, not images.

We didn’t want one sen­si­bil­i­ty to pre­side over the book. The Ben Shahn Hag­gadah is beau­ti­ful, but it’s Ben Shahn’s. We didn’t want this Hag­gadah to have one point of view.

MLW: Attri­bu­tion is pret­ty strict in tra­di­tion­al com­men­tary, so I was sur­prised that the names of the con­trib­u­tors are list­ed only on the title page, with no brief bios or any oth­er infor­ma­tion about them any­where in the Hag­gadah.
JSF: This shows the humil­i­ty of the con­trib­u­tors, and it was a point we all agreed on. We didn’t want any names on the cov­er either, but there are pub­lish­ing demands, so we worked out a com­pro­mise. The names appear on a band around the cov­er, but with a lit­tle effort you can detach it and get rid of it.

MLW: There are no des­ig­na­tions for the pas­sages to be read by a leader and those to be read by par­tic­i­pants. Did you intend to have a leader?
JSF: We assumed there would be a leader, but we thought the parts for the par­tic­i­pants would work them­selves out. We did try out some test pages.

MLW: Is your fam­i­ly going to use the Hag­gadah this year?
JSF: They bet­ter, but I won’t be there. My sis­ter-in-law in Israel is hav­ing a baby, so we’re going there for Passover this year. I won’t have to hear any com­ments at the seder!

Sam­ple Pages

Designed by Oded Ezer

Time­line cre­at­ed by Mia Sara Bruch

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions