Jew­ish Text

Our Hag­gadah: Unit­ing Tra­di­tions for Inter­faith Families

Cok­ie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts
  • Review
By – September 13, 2011
Spring has arrived, and with it the lat­est crop of hag­gadot, prompt­ing the first ques­tion: Why anoth­er hag­gadah?

The hag­gadah is the most pub­lished Jew­ish book, with more than 3,000 ver­sions, which speaks not only to the cen­tral­i­ty of the seder in Jew­ish life but also to its vital­i­ty and capac­i­ty to embrace the ever expand­ing inter­ests and back­grounds of the guests gath­ered around the seder table.

So how are these hag­gadot dif­fer­ent from all oth­er hag­gadot?

The three hag­gadot dis­cussed here address three clear­ly dis­tinct groups of seder par­tic­i­pants, and each is designed to add sig­nif­i­cance to their par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence and enrich the mean­ing of Passover for them. It is unlike­ly that any one of them would serve the guests choos­ing one of the oth­ers.

Don­ald B. Suss­wein, a lawyer and stu­dent of Jew­ish stud­ies, address­es his hag­gadah to new­com­ers who are per­haps unfa­mil­iar with the sto­ry of Passover or guests who are trou­bled by the nar­ra­tive — Did the Exo­dus real­ly hap­pen? Did God actu­al­ly talk to Moses? — or just want to dis­cuss anti-Semi­tism begin­ning with Pharaoh. The Hag­gadah for the Fifth Child tells the sto­ry of Passover through Exo­dus 1 – 20 rather than the tra­di­tion­al Mag­gid, along the way ask­ing ques­tions, invit­ing answers, sug­gest­ing con­tem­po­rary par­al­lels. Through its ques­tions and obser­va­tions, the val­ues of Passover are made strik­ing­ly con­tem­po­rary, but the text is some­what stiffly script­ed, a con­trast to the open dis­cus­sion it hopes to start. The final sec­tion of the book is a series of brief, wide-rang­ing essays that explore the top­ics raised in the hag­gadah. The hag­gadah includes all the tra­di­tion­al rit­u­als, in Eng­lish, Hebrew, and translit­er­a­tion. Peri­od pho­tographs enliv­en the text. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, notes.

For decades Cok­ie Roberts, jour­nal­ist and NPR cor­re­spon­dent, and Steve Roberts, jour­nal­ist and pro­fes­sor at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, have gath­ered a group of large­ly inter­mar­ried fam­i­lies at their seder. Their hagad­dah, based on the 1942 Recon­struc­tion­ist hag­gadah but much revised and updat­ed, is com­fort­ably tra­di­tion­al but retains the uni­ver­sal out­look of the orig­i­nal; par­tic­i­pants may join in We Shall Over­come and Michael, Row the Boat Ashore as well as chant Hal­lel. One par­tic­u­lar­ly attrac­tive fea­ture that empha­sizes the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of Passover is the oppor­tu­ni­ty, after the sec­ond cup, for guests to read quo­ta­tions from non-Jews that under­line the mes­sage of Passover. Our Hag­gadah also tells the Passover sto­ry through Exo­dus rather than the tra­di­tion­al Deuteron­o­my Mag­gid, but this hag­gadah also has all the tra­di­tion­al rit­u­als in Eng­lish, Hebrew, and translit­er­a­tion. Per­son­al intro­duc­tions by both hus­band and wife open the hag­gadah and set the tone. Com­ments, recipes, and help­ful hints make this hag­gadah a use­ful guide for both inter­faith fam­i­lies and any­one host­ing a large multi­gen­er­a­tional seder. Illus­tra­tions, sources, web­sites.

A Passover Hag­gadah is based on the lec­tures of Rab­bi David Sil­ber at Drisha Insti­tute, founder and dean of Drisha Insti­tute for Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion. Tak­ing the Mishnah’s instruc­tion that engage­ment with midrash is the major activ­i­ty of the seder, A Passover Hag­gadah uses rab­binic method to expand and enrich the seder text, but the strength of the book are the eight open­ing essays. Rab­bi Silber’s midrashic method is deeply knowl­edge­able but nev­er freight­ed with exces­sive ref­er­ence. The expla­na­tion for the tra­di­tion­al Mag­gid is orig­i­nal and con­vinc­ing; the essay on the plagues shows how var­i­ous numer­i­cal group­ings can illus­trate an equal vari­ety of bib­li­cal points. This is a hag­gadah to study, slow­ly turn­ing over the lit­er­ary links that allow one part of the Tanakh to talk to anoth­er. Robert Alter’s trans­la­tion is used for the Torah and the Psalms. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, sug­ges­tions for fur­ther read­ing.

None of these hag­gadot are gen­der neu­tral.

Addi­tion­al books fea­tured in this review

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