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The Telling, And The Retelling

The Telling, And The Retelling

New Haggadahs for an old story boast hip lit and Ethiopian drama.

New American Haggadah. Edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, with a new translation by Nathan Englander. (Little, Brown and Company, $29.99)

Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family. Alan Yoffie, illustrations by Mark Podwal. (Central Conference of American Rabbis, $18)

The Old Master Haggadah. Illustrations by Rembrandt and other artists. (Limited edition, published by Mark Fisch, $45, available at Michael Shamasky Booksellers and

Journey to Freedom: The Koren Ethiopian Haggada. Edited by Rabbi Menachem Waldman, translated by Binyamin Shalom. (Koren Publishers, $29.95)

The Passover Haggadah has traditionally ranked as the most-published book in the Jewish world, several new versions appearing each year with a unique theological or historical or artistic perspective on the millennia-old freedom story. This year has brought the smallest number of new Haggadot in recent memory, only one offering a non-traditional take on the traditional textual commentaries, but all are valuable additions to the growing collection of Haggadot and deserve a place at the family seder table.

The economy — along with the burgeoning self-publishing trend, a general move away from interest in printed books and the increasing lack of enthusiasm among parts of the Jewish community for standard parts of Jewish life — is probably the cause of this year’s sharp decrease in the number of new Haggadot.

The 5772 crop is a reflection of the diversity in Jewish life and the way it expresses its Judaism. Among the new Pesach publications are one with a decidedly eclectic and literary bent (one of only two issued by a major publisher), one that presents a new angle on the culture of Ethiopian Jews (stressing a contemporary road to the Promised Land), one published by a major rabbinical organization (that boasts a beautiful, innovative layout), and one with little original insight into the text but a great deal of inspiring art (the comparatively small amount of text manages to illuminate Jewish tradition in surprising ways).

Clearly, the most eagerly anticipated of the new group is Foer and Englander’s book; it is clearly worth the wait. A gorgeous production, it is distinctive in every way, starting with the red cardboard band around the cover that contains the title and authors’ names.

Foer and Englander rank among the most feted of the country’s young writers who deal with Jewish themes, and their joint Haggadah — the former did the editing; the latter, the translating — brings a particularly American point-of-view and sensibility to a book that has appeared in scores of lands over the centuries. A few commentaries by other writers, who include Jeffrey Goldberg and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, are a valuable addition.

The translations are elegant, and the accompanying remarks thoroughly fitting for a contemporary, questioning, open-minded member of American Jewry. Surprisingly for a Haggadah that bends convention, it speaks often in decidedly non-egalitarian terms, of “four sons,” not four children (the Hebrew leaves itself open to alternative renderings) and of “God of our fathers,” not our parents.

It’s like sitting down at the seder table at a writers’ workshop, the person at your side steeped in Jewish thought but respectfully questioning of established practice.

“The Torah is the foundational text for Jewish law, but the Haggadah is our book of living memory,” the introduction states. “We are not merely telling a story here. We are being called to a radical act of empathy.”

With Hebrew in a modern font on the right-hand page, and English translation on the facing page, the “New American Haggadah” is a combination of a Haggadah tradition (the blessings and readings, with directions at the side) and the strikingly unusual (nearly text-free pages dominated by graphics, and paragraphs in small print and narrow columns that read up-to-down, rather than across, the page).

One note: this Haggadah is so good looking, it should be used with caution at the seder table lest it be stained.

Koren Publishing, which has established its reputation in recent years with a series of groundbreaking books by England’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has added an immediate classic, “Journey to Freedom,” to its list. The Haggadah includes no commentary on the text, but it does boast a stunning aggregation of essays and photos and artworks that convey the history and beliefs of Ethiopia’s Jewish community that reached Israel in the 20th Century after centuries of yearning. It will fascinate anyone with or without prior knowledge of that African community or with no prior knowledge.

Besides an addition to one’s seder table, the book can also serve as an education about the Ethiopian Jews, who have often seemed distant and exotic to Western readers. Rabbi Waldman, a veteran advocate on behalf of the people who once but no longer are known as Falashas (the name is as pejorative as “Marranos”), makes the Ethiopian Jews seem familiar to Western Jews as any Jewish community from Europe’s Old Country.

“The creation of a Passover Haggada that would include the traditions and heritage of Ethiopian Jewry alongside the story of the exodus from Ethiopia represents the fulfillment of a dream that was years in the making,” Rabbi Waldman writes in the foreword. “There is nothing like the Haggada and the Seder night to unite all the Jews of the world around a singular experience of their Jewishness.”

“Sharing the Journey” similarly brings a new perspective with breathtaking art by Dr. Mark Podwal (a physician best known for his illustrations on The New York Times op-ed page) and accessible translations, to the seder table.

Produced by the Reform movement and written by a Reform scholar, the Haggadah unambiguously speaks to readers not comfortable with classic approaches to Jewish tradition. Its audience, the preface states, is “every member of the contemporary Reform Jewish community, wherever you may be in your religious commitment or observances … So that all family members and guests feel welcome to the joyous celebration of freedom, new inclusive language has also been added. In order to encourage participation in the whole seder, some sections and material have been shortened or omitted. To capture the full meaning of the text, some Hebrew passages have been translated creatively … rather than literally.”

Hence, “Four Children” instead of Four Sons, “Sovereign of the universe” instead of “King,” a very abbreviated blessing after the meal, the complete omission of the Shfot HaMotcha paragraph that calls on God’s revenge upon nations that reject Him, and the reminder that “Passover is celebrated for seven days,” not eight, as it is by Jews who accept the yom tov as an eight-day period and the end of the holiday as two days. (Some of the missing text does appear in an appendix that follows the body of the Haggadah.)

A nice touch: the chance it provides to welcome each other in Hebrew or English.

Of special value to the individual who comes to the seder with little Jewish education or none at all are the explanatory and background notes; they include hints for preparing the seder plate, explanations of the holiday rituals (including, not unexpectedly for an unapologetically progressive Haggadah, the feminists’ orange on the seder plate and Miriam’s Cup, and the vegetarians’ red beet), readings about the Holocaust and explanations of the four biblical passages from which the Four Cups are derived.

For those who follow tradition, one section deals with the search for chometz and the removal of leavened products from one’s home on the eve of the holiday, as well as the insight that “The Rabbis of the Talmud use leaven as a metaphor for the evil or unruly impulses in our hearts … which we need to guard against.”

“The Old Master Haggadah” is more suited for the coffee table than for the seder table, but for the aesthetically inclined, it’s a perfect yom tov addition.

Mark Fisch, a real estate developer and art collector, has brought together, in a limited-edition book he published himself and is distributing in a limited number of venues, the Jewish-themed artworks with Jewish themes of Rembrandt and several other 17th-century painters.

From Rembrandt’s “Moses Destroying the Tablets of the Law” on the front cover, to his “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem” on the back, the Haggadah adds a visual element, in color, to Torah stories that usually are limited to columns of text and are imagined in black and white.

The paintings in the book don’t always correlate directly with the Haggadah text, but they depict scenes from the Torah that inform the Exodus chronology and the Israelites’ subsequent entry into the Promised Land.

“It is critical to understand this entire historical sweep to grasp the meaning of Passover and the purpose of the Seder,” Fisch writes in his introduction. “But many of those stories are now only vaguely familiar to most participants.”

The background notes on each artist emphasize the influence of Jewish scriptures on the creations of non-Jewish artists.

Caution: Keep this Haggadah away from the seder table, or from people likely to damage it.

These four new Haggadot, like those that preceded them, are a testimony to Jewish creativity and to the times in which they were created. What will 5773 bring? A greater number of Haggadot than this year? Different creative approaches?

There’s no telling. •