The Old Story, Forever New

The Old Story, Forever New

This year’s crop of Haggadahs features old commentaries and original artwork.

With all the changes in many aspects of Jewish life and observance in recent decades, one constant remains: the Passover Haggadah is the most-published book in Jewish life. And new ones crop up every year. Some are traditional in form, with the 2,000-year-old text virtually untouched. Others add passages, or subtract them, to reflect the leanings of some Jews. Still others feature modern translations, with creative commentaries and political-theological-historical readings. Sometimes they appear with original artwork; sometimes they are reprints of centuries-old illuminated Haggadahs.

Publishers in foreign countries, especially in the formerly communist world, which in earlier years had to depend on Haggadahs in English or Hebrew — often not a comfortable language for the readers — are now producing versions of the Passover text more geared to the linguistic and sociological needs of their Jewish communities.

Among the new offerings is “The Union Haggadah Service for the Passover” (Forgotten Books), a reprint of the book that was issued by the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1923. This “Home Service for the Passover” reflects the time in which it was published, with instructions for “the mistress [to] kindle the lights,” musical scores for some of the blessings, and no accompanying commentary.

Here is a look at some of the other Haggadahs, and related Passover books, which are coming out this year, or which appeared last year too late to be used at most seder tables.

The ‘Brother’ Haggadah: A Medieval Sephardi Masterpiece in Facsimile (Thames & Hudson)

This is a coffee-table book, definitely not designed to be used at your seder table unless you want wine stains on it as permanent mementoes.

Originally commissioned by wealthy patrons in 14th-century Catalonia and reproduced in a facsimile edition with accompanying essays, it is 184 pages of impressive art and liturgical poetry; it is the finest Haggadah the Middle Ages Jewish community could produce. (The title comes from its close relationship to the equally beautiful, medieval Rylands Haggadah in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England.)

The full-color drawings illustrate such biblical figure as Moses and Aaron, Pharaoh and his advisors, the plagues and the Exodus, bringing to life the words of the Haggadah, which appear in large, impressive calligraphy.

This Haggadah, writes Marc Michael Epstein, chair of religion and visual culture at Vassar College, in the preface, “is among the most consummately elegant of the genre. The extraordinary careful construction and execution of the calligraphy and illuminations represent a supreme effort both of love and artistry. It represents the integration of hand, heart, eye and mind in a way that enables us to glimpse the true genius of the medieval illuminator’s workshop.”

The full-color drawings in “The ‘Brother’ Haggadah illustrate such biblical figure as Moses and Aaron, the Plagues and the Exodus, bringing to life the words of the Haggadah, which appear in large, impressive calligraphy.

The New World Haggadah (Ilan Stavans, art by Gloria Abella Ballen, Gaon Books)

Despite its title, this is, strictly speaking, not a Haggadah. Rather, it is a beautifully illustrated (by Ballen, veteran artist) and thoughtfully composed (by Stavans, Mexican-born professor at Amherst College) commentary on and artistic interpretation of some Haggadah themes, with many standard readings absent and many contemporary readings and poems and songs present. There’s a distinct bilingual flavor, reflecting Stavans’ Spanish-speaking upbringing, and some Yiddish.

Among the additions: works by Emma Lazarus, Yehuda Halevi, and many poems by Stavans, as well as some black spirituals.

How is this Haggadah different from all other Haggadahs?

Moses, traditionally a no-show in a standard Haggadah, shows up here, “My intention … is to make Moses emblematic of today’s complex world,” Stavans writes in the introduction. “Like Moses, each of us is a symbol because others see themselves reflected in us. “I want to bridge the gap between North and South and between East and West, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and between Africans, Europeans and mestizos [people of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry],” he writes. “I have reconfigured the liturgy to be more embracing, inserting voices seeking freedom through renewal,” he writes.

As If We Were There: Readings for a Transformative Passover Experience (Rabbi Gidon Rothstein, Kodesh Press)

This is actually two small books under one cover, by one of the most honest and incisive commentators on the Orthodox community.

Rabbi Rothstein, rosh kollel of the Yeshiva University Community Kollel based at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, in Lawrence, L.I., has written a series of essays that deal with some of the themes of the seder. And he’s added some remembrances of his family’s childhood seders.

Though the rabbi is part of the Modern Orthodox community, with ordination from Yeshiva University, his essays are accessible to a non-Orthodox readership — with one caveat. Rabbi Rothstein assumes a familiarity with the commentators and sources that he frequently cites.

He discusses, from multiple angles, the imperative that the goal of the seder “is to relive the events [of the Exodus], to walk away from our seder having rejuvenated our sense of the Exodus as a personal experience, not a piece of history”; challenges some assumptions about accepted understandings of the Haggadah text; and makes clear the relationship between the biblical characters and eternal aspects of people’s personalities.

The rabbi’s primary question — were the biblical characters so different from us? Would we have handled the ancient challenges better than they did?

He leaves the answers up to the reader.

Exodus in the Jewish Experience: Echoes and Reverberations (edited by Pamela Barmash and W. David Nelson, Lexington Books)

The authors have produced a book whose usefulness is not confined to the seder night. Barmash, associate professor of Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis, and Nelson, chair of the department of Religion and Ethics at the Groton School in Massachusetts, have brought together essays that illustrate the ubiquitous role that the ancient Exodus experience plays in the contemporary Jewish community.

Excerpts of the essays would make fitting reading material at a seder.

“No other event in Jewish history has so captured the emotions and thoughts of Jews throughout the millennia like the Exodus,” Barmash writes in the introduction. “The Exodus has served as a crucial source of identity for both Jews and Judaism and has inspired new reshapings and iterations of Jewish identity.”

The contributors, she writes, “probe how the Exodus has functioned as the primary hermeneutical model from which Jews have created theological meaning and historical self-understanding.”

The covered topics range from Jewish law to Zionist philosophy, from art to liturgy, from historical interpretations of the Exodus experience to ways that the Jews’ founding story of freedom has influenced subsequent generations of Jewish freedom seekers.

“The religion of Israel and the Judaism that emerged [from the Exodus from Egypt] are inconceivable without the experience of the Exodus,” Reuven Hammer, founding director of the conservative movement’s Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, writes in his essay, “The Impact of the Exodus on Halakhah (Jewish Law).”

“Whether or not the story as told in the Torah is an exact record of the events, the influence of the myth of the Exodus from Egypt on Judaism in general and on Halakhah … was immense and profound, both on halakhic ritual practice concerning the observance of certain holy festival days and Shabbat and, most importantly, on civil law, the relations between human beings, mitzvot ben adam lehavero [man-to-man commandments].”

What Every Christian Needs to Know about Passover: What it Means and Why it Matters. Rabbi Evan Moffic (Abingdon Press)

A young spiritual leader of a congregation near Chicago and a veteran leader of model seders for Christian audiences, Rabbi Moffic noticed several years ago that Christians have a great interest in Jewish Passover traditions but little authentic knowledge about them.

He says there was no good guide for Christians who want to experience Passover from a Jewish perspective — Rabbi Moffic discounts so-called Messianic Haggadahs or similar books that approach the subject with Christological interpretations of Jewish holiday rituals — so he decided to write one.

His book is part primer on the background and meaning of Pesach practices that are familiar to most Jews, and part abridged Haggadah, for use in Christian homes or churches or interfaith seders.

“I kept the core elements; it’s not a full Passover experience,” Rabbi Moffic says in a telephone interview. “I see this as part of my service to Jews and Judaism.

“I passionately believe that religious and spiritual people can learn from traditions other than our own,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “Passover in particular holds spiritual invitations that can speak powerfully to Christians.”

Rabbi Moffic has also written two other books that bring Jewish wisdom to a non-Jewish readership: “What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus” (Abingdon Press), and “Words of Wisdom: From the Torah to Today” (Washington Avenue Press). His next book will be about meditation, from a Torah perspective.

His goal of his Passover book — to teach Christians the message of the seder, a message of freedom and responsibility. “You can see yourself in the Passover story, whether you’re a Jew or non-Jew,” he says. “God is on the side of the oppressed — it’s a very powerful story.”