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Modern Plague, Ancient Story Retold
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Modern Plague, Ancient Story Retold

New Haggadahs for a very different Passover.

The annual seders that commemorate the ancient Israelites’ deliverance from slavery, in which the biblical Ten Plagues play a prominent role, take on special poignancy this year in the shadow of a modern plague, the coronavirus. As families gather (six feet apart) at their Passover tables next week — many in virtual seders through Zoom technology — they will use a combination of old Haggadahs and new ones that reflect contemporary social and political themes.

Here are some members of the new crop.

The Promise of the Land: A Passover Haggadah. By Rabbi Ellen Bernstein. Artwork by Galia Goodman. (Behrman House)

Rabbi Bernstein’s Haggadah is the latest in a series of Passover texts that focus on “the land” rather than the Promised Land. It’s a text for the environmentally and ecologically minded, and it is in step with modern feminism, including in its pages Miriam’s Cup and an orange on the seder plate.

“For every story about peoplehood, there is a back story about land and the natural world,” Rabbi Bernstein writes in the introduction. “Our biblical holidays commemorate the harvest and the land, the very soil out of which Judaism grew.”

Her Haggadah, “traditional in some respects, and modern in others,” Rabbi Bernstein writes, offers an abridged version of much of the standard Haggadah text; it omits many words and uses only the opening words of some paragraphs. It also reintroduces two biblical verses in the “wandering Aramean” reading about “a land flowing with milk and honey” and “the first fruits of the soil” that do not appear in many Haggadahs. All the extended commentary and interpretations, the rabbi writes, “restor[e] the environmental significance of Judaism’s central story.”

Featuring beautiful full-color nature-oriented illustrations by Galia Goodman, a specialist in ecological Jewish art, offers readings from an ecological perspective, Rabbi Bernstein’s Haggadah offers discussion questions, suggestions for understanding the text and explanations for the uninitiated of some of the readings and rituals.

The rabbi, founder of the Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth) national Jewish environmental organization, also offers a page of readings about Pesach and Pesach-related topics.

The Essential Seder: A Contemporary Haggadah. Text and artwork by Deborah Gross-Zuchman. (Behrman House)

Issued by the same publisher as “The Promise of the Land,” this Haggadah, though abridged, covers all the Haggadah basics, with attractive illustrations by the author, a Philadelphia-based painter and former public school teacher.

The Haggadah offers the standard Hebrew blessings (with transliterations), brief explanations of its rituals, some additional social justice readings, a few discussion questions and a path through the text that can be covered in an hour or less.

This is ideal for someone whose seder includes many non-Jewish guests or Jews who are not familiar with the Passover traditions.

The Passover Haggadah: An Ancient Story for Modern Times. Brought to You by Tablet Magazine. (Artisan)

A project by the folks at Tablet, the online Jewish magazine, this is a Haggadah that manages to be tradition-friendly, innovation-friendly and LGBT-friendly; it gears the familiar Pesach text and accompanying readings and explanations to the needs of a seder participant who is thoroughly familiar with the holiday — or of someone attending his or her first seder.

Eminently useful, it stands out from the series of edgy Haggadot that have come out in recent years. It is educational without being patronizing, irreverent without being disrespectful, cute without being trendy.

“Passover is transcendent precisely because it manages to be traditional — Jews read the same story that our ancestors have been reading for millennia — and personal, with each of us making the Seder our own by incorporating our own interpretations and interests into the timeless tale of the exodus,” the authors write.

Like a growing number of recent Haggadot, it presents a few lengthy essays, thoughtfully at the end of the book, not interfering with the flow of the night’s standard narrative. Then, there are such features as “How to Host a Seder: Five Commandments for doing it just right,” “10 Deadly Cocktails” to accompany the Ten Plagues, and “Charosets of the World” for the palate bored by the usual wine and apples concoction.

The charming illustrations by Israeli artist Shai Azoulay, many of them in shades of brown or sepia, add to the somber notion that the story told in the seder is an important link in Jewish-history.

Everything required for a full seder is contained in this Haggadah’s 144 pages, but it is different enough from other Haggadot to make it a worthwhile addition to this or any year’s seder. A soft-cover book, it is aesthetically beautiful, but one need not fear getting stains on it — it is meant for the seder table, not the coffee table.

The Passover Haggadah: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books series). By Vanessa Ochs. (Princeton University Press)

This is to be read before the seder.

Not an actual Haggadah, it is, as the title indicates, the story and history of the Passover book, the latest in the series of Princeton University Press’ distinguished series of profiles of “Great Religious Books” of various faiths, like the Koran, the New Testament’s Book of Revelations, and “The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

It’s “The life of the Haggadah … how the Haggadah lived in a distinctive way,” as the author writes.

This is a small book, (214 pages, including such addenda as index, glossary and additional background notes), academic but accessible, reflecting Ochs’ “personal, partial and eclectic” tastes.

Ochs, an ordained rabbi and professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, provides a wealth of background that the seder leader can use to explain the Pesach night’s various readings and rituals: the development of the seder; its sources in the Torah and Talmud and other rabbinical texts; its textual differences in different societies and parts of the Jewish world; its expansion from a section of traditional prayerbooks to what it is today; its appeal in illuminated versions; its growing popularity as the most-published book in the Jewish community; the appearance and cultural significance of Haggadot geared towards particular political or sociological or individual orientations; and a focus on such noted past examples as the Sarajevo Haggadah and the Bird’s Head Haggadah. “Celebrity” Haggadot are also mentioned. She cites abridged versions. Kid-centered versions. And, of course, the ubiquitous Maxwell House Haggadah.

A Haggadah is good business, Ochs writes. “Manufacturing a Haggadah could be a savvy investment in time and money for a printing house” because of the near-guarantee that sales will ensue, she writes — witness the large number of secular and academic publishers, like Princeton’s, which have turned out Haggadot in recent decades. The latest count of the number of published Haggadot: “5,000 and counting.”

But, the author stresses, the Haggadah’s primary value is as a tool to be used and treasured at one’s seder, not as a text to be studied by scholars. “While an individual Haggadah may be collected and cherished for its historical or artistic merits, it lives as its most authentic self when it is used, especially on a family’s Passover table,” Ochs writes. “A Haggadah comes to life when it leads those who have gathered to use it to ask hard questions about slavery, exile, redemption, and freeing the oppressed.”

Ochs’ book is a good guide to asking these questions.

Koren Youth Haggadah. Developed by Dr. Daniel Rose. Illustrations by Rinat Gilboa. (Koren Publishers)

This is for a child from a strong Jewish educational background. It is clearly a pedagogic tool, accompanied by an 83-page parent-educator companion.

Both the Haggadah’s language and assumptions about level of Jewish observance suggest a child familiar with the laws and practices of seder night; this is to be expected of Koren, which largely serves an Orthodox readership. With an easy English translation, the book is equally useable for adults who wish to take part in a traditional seder but do not require erudite, verbose explanations of what takes place on seder night.

With an egalitarian nod, the Haggadah speaks of four “Children,” not the Four Sons, which have been the norm in Orthodox circles.

The latest member of the Koren Haggadah collection, it is hardcover, lavishly illustrated by Israeli artist Rinat Gilboa with full-color drawings that are designed to serve as their own commentary; the book was “developed” by Daniel Rose, a British-born educator who has a background in informal and formal Jewish education and serves as Koren’s director of educational projects. It is the next generation of Haggadot aimed at young readers, building on the earlier works of such publishers as ArtScroll and the CCAR Press.

The Haggadah offers the text in Hebrew and English, instructions in “age-appropriate language,” an icon navigation bar, questions on every page, “reflection text,” suggested experiential activities and quotes and stories that explore a particular page’s themes.

The fonts and graphics are inviting, and all the readings are short, designed for readers with short attention spans.

steve@jewishweek.org

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