New American Haggadah: A Review

I’ll confess that when I first picked up my copy of New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer with translation by Nathan Englander, I was most excited to crack open another book with Jonathan Safran Foer’s name on the cover, and the fact that I was about to read through an actual haggadah was, well, secondary.  Up to this point, actually sitting down and opening up a haggadah outside the familiar parameters of the Passover table was a first for me.

Initially, I was skeptical.  Despite my documented love for Jonathan Safran Foer, as I flipped through the pages of the book, it looked to me like…just a haggadah. From the outside though, the book is not your run-of-the-mill haggadah in that it is large, hardcover, and more resembles a coffee table book than the flimsy pamphet of a Maxwell House haggadah that I grew up with.  This presents the logistical issue of how a copy of the large and in reality slightly cumbersome New American Haggadah could be provided to every attendee at the Passover table, or even every other attendee.  And this is not even considering the $29.99 a pop list price.  I plan to bring a copy home with me when I visit my parents’ house in Pennsylvania for the seders this year.  I can already envision the family using the Maxwell house pamphlets during the actual seder (beloved as they are) while the New American Haggadah takes its esteemed place…on the coffee table in the living room.

Logistical questions aside, as I started to read through the New American Haggadah, it became clear to me why this haggadah was special.  The English translation was simple and beautiful, and the text was laid out on the pages, sometimes more sparsely and sometimes more densely, in a way that was pleasing to the eye and that was almost zen-like.  In reading through the pages, the layout also provided something of a rhythm to the text, a clean and beautiful backdrop to the rituals of the seder embedded within.  I could quickly tell that reading this hagaddah was more of an experience than merely reading the text on the pages, that even went beyond the imagery of the Exodus from Egypt evoked by the text.  The actual layout of the book itself carries you on an independent experience and personal journey.   A high feat for a haggadah, if you think about it.

I went to hear Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander speak about the New American Haggadah project at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue this past Monday (and was probably accompanied by many of you, since the place was packed).  From their descriptions, I actually learned that much of the layout of the book was deliberate.  Something that stands out most when you read through the haggadah is the colorful, abstract, watercolor-looking patterns that are somehow fittingly interspersed throughout the pages.  The images aren’t so overwhelming that they detract from the seriousness of the seder, but are enough provide some backdrop of beauty to the important words on the page.

What I learned at the talk, though, was that what I thought to be abstract art on the pages actually is actually a depiction of Hebrew lettering throughout time.  Additionally, running along the top of each page is a timeline, starting with 1250-1200 BCE and running to the present, that chronicles how the story of the Exodus appears throughout history.  An interesting added dynamic, if you feel like turning the book sideways and reading the fine print.  I also learned that the time period of the colorful artistic text on the pages matches the date on the timeline running along the top.  Kinda cool.

A theme of the talk was that the New American Haggadah was created as an open space for the reader, the seder-goer, to engage in their own individual experience of the story of Passover, which is in effect an experience of the Exodus.  I already mentioned what the structure and layout of the haggadah itself managed to conjure up in the way of an individual journey.  But to me, what makes this haggadah truly different from – you know, all other haggadahs – are the pages of commentary that are sprinkled throughout the book and its seder story experience.  These pages, which highlight different aspects of the Passover story, including elements like “Kiddush,” “Poor Man’s Bread,” and “Ten Plagues,” are where the true meat of the haggadah lies.  Each series of pages of commentary – which are printed horizontally on vertical pages, in relatively digestible bites of wisdom – includes categories, the descriptions of which I learned from the talk: Nation, which addresses political questions; Library, which presents literary/psychological questions; House of Study, which brings the traditional Rabbinical perspective, and finally Playground, which is targeted toward younger readers.

These pages of commentary, for me, took the experience beyond just the book, beyond just the text, beyond the story itself, and even beyond my own personal experience in reading it.  The commentary more broadly raised important questions regarding the rituals that we perform on Passover, spirituality in general, the state of Jews in the world today, and other pressing and political world matters that can be related to the experience of the Jewish people in the story of Passover.  As an example, the first page of commentary describes the importance that Judaism places on laws, but then goes on to say that not all laws are holy, but rather must be tested to assess whether or not they conform to moral law.   In reading this, my mind immediately jumped to abhorrent laws that have existed over time – anti-miscegenation laws, for example, that in the (disturbingly recent) past in our country criminalized marriage between spouses of different races, and the current laws, or lack of laws, that prohibit gays and lesbians from legally marrying in most places in the US.  After my mind went on this civil rights tangent, I saw that, sure enough, the commentary included a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. (another moment when I realized that this haggadah was not your ordinary haggadah, and was actually pretty cool).  Part of the MLK quote, written from the Birmingham city jail, was “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.  Any law that uplifts human personality is just.”

The point is, within its first 12 pages, the New American Haggadah had me looking and thinking outside the haggadah-box.  It had me contemplating basic questions about law and morality that both directly related to the Passover experience and also more broadly to my own personal experience and the world around me.  So, if you are someone who does not like to merely take the information that is fed to you at face value – in this case, the story of Passover and the seder rituals – but would rather put that information in context — personally, historically, and globally — then you should pick up a copy of the New American Haggadah.  Or, at the least, bring a copy to whoever hosts you for seder, understanding that it may or may not end up on their coffee table.  Then, when you are lounging after the large seder meal, flip through to the commentary and ask yourself the difficult questions about why we do what we do as Jews, as well as why that night is truly different from all other nights.