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?
JSF: 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!
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.