Books

A Subversively Traditional Passover Retelling: 'New American Haggadah'

The English, the Western, the larger world, rubs up against the Hebrew, the Semitic, the narrower place, the Egypt from where the slaves dare to flee. The text presents the conflict.


The New American Haggadah

Publisher: Little, Brown
Length: 160 pages
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer (ed.) Nathan Englander (translator)
Price: $29.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-03
Amazon

"Our translation must know our idiom, our commentaries must wrestle with our conflicts, our design must respond to how our world looks and feels." So Jonathan Safran Foer as editor and Nathan Englander as translator preface their ambitious version of "the oldest continually practiced ritual in the Western world."

Certainly their choices of phrasing will spark a lively discussion at this virtual seder table. Concentrating upon Englander's choice to follow male-gender "faithful" translations ("Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos") forces readers and users of this handbook to rethink their relationship with thousands of years of this venerable account. Many readers will be surprised at this linguistic fidelity from a hipster-era tale teller who writes from the complicated position of a former Orthodox student turned critic of the culture he once participated in.

It starts off with verve. The opening call to all participants previews the seder table as it is made holy, Kadesh. This is rendered: "Sanctify/ And Wash/ Dip/ Split/ And Tell/ Be Washed/ And Bless/ The Poor Man's Bread/ Bitter/ Bundle/ And Set Down to Eat/ Hide It/ And Bless/ Praise It/ Be Pleased." One problem looms large for many who will follow along at a possibly more hipster seder: no transliteration. While juxtaposing Hebrew with English alone makes, as in the example quoted, a dramatic presentation enhanced by Oded Ezer's graphics (of only the letters, no images, as if faithful to traditional commands not to venerate images), the power of the page layout all the more prominent. This lack of phonetic equivalents, training wheels for the uneasy, does shut out many in the New America after which, as is customary, this handsome Haggadah or seder guide to the "order" of Passover that must be recited in each generation anew "as if it happened" is named for. Jews title an Haggadah from its community of origin, as "our book of living memory".

As compromise with the elimination of textual assistance for those not brought up as Englander and many Jews have been schooled, the commentary can prove intriguing. Here, those less familiar with Hebrew could enter and ask questions. The commentary allows room for all to hear from four Jews, four (at least) points of view. For, Foer as editor embeds nuggets of intrigue similar to the way his novels join typographical daring with narrative innovation. "Eating Animals" (see my PopMatters review) did this too, and the way that certain sections such as the Four Sons and Ten Plagues split into four areas of tilted type makes this a modern revision of a Talmud with commentary boxed in around a core text.

There, however, the core vanishes, at least to another two page spread. Key sections segue into passages labeled Nation, Library, House of Study, and Playground. These blocks of text have been included from contributors Nathaniel Deutsch, Jeffrey Goldberg, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Lemony Snicket [Daniel Handler] in turn. More Jews, more opinions. They prove welcome guests.

Innovative remarks meet your wandering eye. The Wicked Son turns into a meditation on the universal versus the particular, part of the Jewish predicament. "The tale of the Jews is not my concern" paraphrases the usual meaning, but Goldberg sets this into a fresh context. How would a Jewish college student in the 1980s pick which cause to support: ending South African apartheid as part of greater movement, or liberation of Soviet Jewry as part of a smaller campaign? Both rallied Jews, both were necessary, but one showed a connection with a continent's revulsion, the other with an insider's activism.

Similarly, the Ten Plagues again by Goldberg find memorable comparisons. The power God that hardened the heart of the evil Pharaoh grows mysterious. Lincoln, FDR, and Truman all are shown as presidents who took the lives of many innocents in their determination to bring about a greater good. If emancipation ends or fascism succumbs, do the ends justify the means?

Any Passover commemoration that raises questions adults can debate, and which families can discuss, invites a mature respect for this bold project. Debates will and should continue over the language, but Englander forces audiences to react to the Hebrew as it was written, not as it is interpreted by most liberal Jewish readers in other texts and rituals. I find this subversive, and this fits Englander's own approach as he sets before progressive audiences the difficulties of traditional Jewish life as supposedly perpetuated by his former Orthodox community today--much to the disdain of liberal Jews, and vice versa.

The design of the timeline by Mia Sara Bruch tilted down from atop some pages disorients us to "look" at a book which "feels" familiar if you've held other haggadot. The pages go right to left in numbering but a faint ghost of our language, our habit, seeps through as the enumeration peeps through of conventional page markers.

The English, the Western, the larger world, therefore, rubs up against the Hebrew, the Semitic, the narrower place, the Egypt from where the slaves dare to flee. The text presents the conflict. English wins with small print, but as untransliterated, the ancient Hebrew dominates. In Oded Ezer's design, the letters wander. This reminds me in its watercolored calligraphy of Leonard Baskin's work. It flows and halts, a tribute to a narrative about repression and escape, control and flight. This element of drift and stability adds impact to the uneasy reception this haggadah has received, as those who thought they would find its message most comforting wind up debating, as Jews, into the night.

The same questions repeat for a hundred generations. The answers continue to perplex, as they should. A people seeks to restore its own dignity, and faces its own difficulty as the table reminds Jews of suffering they inherit, even at a meal full of plenty. At a time of comfort, those at the seder are commanded to talk about hunger, anguish, despair, and the death by divine decree of the guilty and the guiltless. Participants must enact the plagues, the escape, and the break into an uneasy freedom.

The team bringing us this Haggadah may have cleverly succeeded in perpetuating a very old conversation--at least until the next generation, probably not next year in Jerusalem and certainly not Gen X, Y, or Z-- but surely a hundred and one.

6

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

9
Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane
Music

Mobley Laments the Evil of "James Crow" in the US

Austin's Mobley makes upbeat-sounding, soulful pop-rock songs with a political conscience, as on his latest single, "James Crow".

Music

Jordan Tice's "Bad Little Idea" Is a Satirical Spin on Dire Romance (premiere)

Hawktail's Jordan Tice impresses with his solo work on "Bad Little Idea", a folk rambler that blends bluesy undertones with satiric wit.

Music

Composer Ilan Eshkeri Discusses His Soundtrack for the 'Ghost of Tsushima' Game

Having composed for blockbuster films and ballet, Ilan Eshkeri discusses how powerful emotional narratives and the opportunity for creative freedom drew him to triple-A video game Ghost of Tsushima.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

Love and Cinema: The Ruinous Lives in Żuławski's L'important c'est d'aimer

Żuławski's world of hapless also-rans in L'important C'est D'aimer is surveyed with a clear and compassionate eye. He has never done anything in his anarchic world by the halves.

Books

On Bruce Springsteen's Music in Film and TV

Bruce Springsteen's music in film and television captured author Caroline Madden's imagination. She discuses her book, Springsteen as Soundtrack, and other things Springsteen in this interview.

Music

Alt-pop's merci, mercy Warns We May "Fall Apart"

Australian alt-pop singer-songwriter, merci, mercy shares a video for her catchy, sophisticated anthem, "Fall Apart".

Film

Tears in Rain: 'Blade Runner' and Philip K. Dick's Legacy in Film

Blade Runner, and the work of Philip K. Dick, continues to find its way into our cinemas and minds. How did the visions of a paranoid loner become the most relevant science fiction of our time?

Music

London Indie-Poppers the Motive Impress on "You" (premiere)

Southwest London's the Motive concoct catchy, indie-pop earworms with breezy melodies, jangly guitars, and hooky riffs, as on their latest single "You".

Books

Vigdis Hjorth's 'Long Live the Post Horn!' Breathes Life into Bureaucratic Anxiety

Vigdis Hjorth's Long Live the Post Horn! is a study in existential torpor that, happily, does not induce the same condition in the reader.

Music

Konqistador and HanHan Team for Darkwave Hip-Hop on "Visaya"

Detroit-based electronic/industrial outfit, Konqistador team with Toronto hip-hopper HanHan for "Visaya", a song that blends darkwave and rap into an incendiary combination.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.