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.

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