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Liberation, Then And Now

Liberation, Then And Now

Humanistic Haggadah celebrates ancient, modern message of Jews seeking freedom.

In the memorable seders of my childhood, which rotated among relatives’ homes in New York City and Westchester, we used “The Seder Service for Passover Eve in the Home” Haggadah, first issued in1904, arranged by Mrs. Philip Cowen, a descendant of a family of Jewish-Irish scholars. It was a small, thin book, 5-by-7 inches, with a section of notated music at the back.

I always cherished our Haggadah as a treasured family heirloom. I thought it very rare; I have since learned that it was, in fact, the most popular Haggadah in the first quarter of the 20th century; its popularity started to wane in 1932 when the Joseph Jacobs Advertising Agency published the first Maxwell House Haggadah.

The copy of the Haggadah we used was printed in 1910, already the eighth edition. It was probably the oldest book I had ever seen, let alone touched. It linked me to my great-grandfather, Louis Marshall, a prominent attorney who was a founder of the American Jewish Committee. I imagined him using the book and leading a rather formal seder.

His son, my great-uncle, James Marshall, led our seder. He had his own copy; the rest of us each shared one. The copies all bore the wear and tear of generations, with vintage wine stains and matzah crumbs, witness to years of use.

Our seders were attended by about a dozen to 20 or so people and lasted about an hour. One memorable year we opened the front door for Elijah and a cat walked in!

The Haggadah used lofty language — “Wherefore is this night distinguished from all other nights?” — and it called the holiday by the charming name, “The Feast of Unleavened Cakes.” Its recitations and rituals were strictly Orthodox, but none of us at the table were. We were all secular or Reform. Our seders were mostly in English. But we all knew the traditional Hebrew music.

Though we got the gist of the Haggadah’s message, the Talmudic language in the text was generally too obtuse for us. Still, we loved straining our eyes over the small type, and had fun deciphering some of the biblical citations, listed as footnotes, aloud (e.g. Exod. i, 7; Deut. xxvi, 6; I Chron. xxi, 16). Our tradition was to infuse the celebration with laughter and some silly, made-up songs that connected us to our family.

As I proceeded along my own theological journey — from Reform to Humanistic Judaism — I decided to write my own Haggadah. My first attempt, in 1995, was printed at the local copy shop, with double staples in the corner. I drew inspiration from “various and sundry Haggadahs,” but virtually all the writing was original.

Over time I began to feel that this text needed updating and expansion, and particularly needed to address some new questions beyond the basic four of the seder: If, in the face of modern scholarship, we no longer accept the Exodus narrative as historical, but as legend, why do we continue to tell the story? Do we adequately acknowledge that our ancestors first observed an annual celebration of spring long before it became linked to Passover? And lastly, what are the messages for today that connect the story to our own lives? How do we adapt old rituals to current times?

This gave rise, in 2003, to “The Liberated Haggadah: A Passover Celebration for Cultural, Secular and Humanistic Jews,” printed with a glossy cover and published by The Center for Cultural Judaism, which my wife directed at the time. Since then we have gone through several thousand copies. Rather than reprint a new edition, we have gone digital and converted the text into a PDF version that can be downloaded.

I titled the book “The Liberated Haggadah” to make a clear statement that I was freeing myself from the traditional text’s questions and answers. The language is non-theistic and consistent with a secular-humanist perspective that focuses on the human journey, independent of a belief in or reliance on the intervention of a supernatural deity.

As Humanistic Jews, we choose to tell the Exodus story as a human drama that recognizes how our ancestors survived suffering and oppression by virtue of their fortitude and resilience. We tell the story because it celebrates the idea that slaves can become free people, and it reminds us to work for equality, freedom and social justice in our own day.

We also tell the story of the journey of our own families to America. I celebrate the streams of my family who came first in the 1850s from Germany and then in the 1880s from Lithuania. My story continues with the arrival of my father, at age 16, from Berlin in 1937, and with other family members who arrived after World War II. Each year, as we remind ourselves of our own stories, we see the need to reject the frightening rhetoric and intense vitriol aimed at today’s immigrants.

In our Haggadah we note that the origins of the traditional foods, which lie in an ancient spring festival that antedates the Exodus story. At my seder table, we like to make up batches of different varieties of charoset, which represents the mortar that held the bricks together for Pharaoh. Using recipes from around the world — from Italy, Greece, Persia and, of course, America — that include everything from apples and walnuts to figs, dates, mango, bananas and grapefruit, we remind ourselves that Jews have and continue to live all over the place, that we are universal people, and that we can be very creative with our recipes!

Several years ago I started to grind my own horseradish. It’s a dangerous enterprise — because noxious fumes are released that arouse the tears of slavery. But it is worth it, and has become expected in our home. Indeed, the one year I didn’t make it, I was berated by my guests for leaving it out!

This year, in the midst of the presidential political cycle, we will undoubtedly divert ourselves from the Passover story to discuss the current climate of demagoguery, xenophobia, racism and misogyny — today’s modern plagues — that threaten our hard-won freedoms.

With the advent of YouTube, we have, on occasion, incorporated fun Passover videos that enhance our seder. We have also Skyped with members of the family who were away.

In his day, my great-grandfather was an ecumenical Jew who transcended borders. He was president of Temple Emanu-El (Reform) and also the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), and at ease with Orthodoxy.

I would like to think he would have found room to support, and maybe even ultimately embrace, my secular, humanistic convictions. At the very least, I am confident he would have been pleased that I share his love of our Jewish teaching, celebrations and heritage, which was shaped in no small part by the Haggadah he purchased for the family over 100 years ago.

Rabbi Peter Schweitzer is spiritual leader of The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan, and author of “The Liberated Haggadah: A Passover Celebration for Cultural, Secular and Humanistic Jews.”

A PDF version of “Liberated Haggadah” is available at or at