In Search of the Perfect Haggadah

I am behind schedule. On pretty much everything: blog posts and Web code and returning phone calls and replying to email. This is partly because my husband is out of town and I have three children with a shocking number of social commitments; partly because my son is, as ever, sick (if someone within a fifty-mile radius comes down with something, he catches it); partly because I can’t stop reading despite the fact that I do not have time to read; but mostly because Passover is coming. I am not perfect at being Jewish—I turn on lights and check email on Saturdays and I’d rather read than go to shul most weeks—but when it comes to Passover I do it up right. My kitchen sparkles, all crumbs of chametz are swept away, my everyday dishes are packed up in favor of my special Pesach ones. I make three kinds of charoset and prepare gefilte fish from scratch. I start writing up menus and schedules and shopping lists a month in advance. Once a year, every year, I become a woman obsessed with ritual, Hebrew, and the number of hours I have to soak my glassware before it can be used during the holiday. (It’s 72 hours, if you’re curious. Change the water every 24 hours.) This is why I am behind schedule.

Possibly you are wondering what on earth this has do with books. Well, you see, it’s the haggadah. A haggadah—for those of you who are not frantically cleaning out your cupboards—is the book used during the Passover seder. There are, of course, hundreds of translations. You can find funny ones, and really serious ones; traditional ones and humanistic ones and feminist ones. I’ve spent fourteen years searching for the right one: one that is not too hot and not too cold, not too soft and not too hard, but just right. I’ve never found one that I was wholly satisfied with: the Maxwell House one that the Obamas use is uninspiring and pedestrian; A Different Night is hard to follow; The Liberated Haggadah is a little too out there and makes my husband’s head hurt. So the haggadah that appears at our seder is a crazy quilt with passages snagged from several different books and other bits I wrote myself. I like the way it reads for the most part, but it is decidedly unlovely; I typed it myself, and since I have no eye for graphic detail at all, it mostly looks like a typed manuscript.

I am fond of my patched-together haggadah, in the way that one is fond of an old, frequently repaired car, but I was really hoping that the New American Haggadah would be the haggadah I’ve been looking for my entire Jewish life. Translated by Nathan Englander, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, punctuated by commentaries by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Jeffrey Goldberg, Nathaniel Deutsch, and Lemony Snicket, it seemed like a can’t-miss.

And when I opened it, my initial thought was that I finally understood love at first sight. This is a beautiful book. Nearly every page is a visual delight, with Hebrew letters dancing across the page. But then I examined it more closely. It might be a little too beautiful, I realized; it’s such a lovely book I can’t imagine subjecting it to the threat of spilled wine and horseradish-soaked matzah crumbs. Another, more serious strike against the practical use of this Haggadah: no transliteration! That omission surprises me greatly, as I can’t imagine that many seders in the United States today include only people who are comfortable reading Hebrew. Between this omission, and Englander’s choice not to use gender-neutral language or provide alternate rituals—no Miriam’s cup, alas—this haggadah seems strangely backward-looking, rooted in a different time when everyone at the seder table was fluent in Hebrew and tolerant of the most traditional, least flexible interpretations of Jewish ritual.

But, oh, it reads beautifully. I’ve read so many haggadahs, and yet I could not stop reading this one.

What I love about reading is that it makes for an eternal conversation between the reader and the writer, a conversation unbounded by time. And that is the same thing that I love about the Passover seder. In her commentary on the Maggid, the retelling of the central story of Passover, Goldstein writes, “Stories are easily dismissible as distractions, the make-believe we craved as children, losing ourselves in the sweet enchantment of ‘as if.’ . . . tonight is the night that we sanctify storytelling.” What I realized as I thought about the New American Haggadah is that my search for the perfect haggadah is really a perpetual participation in one particular conversation: what do I believe about this holiday—the most commonly observed of all the many Jewish holidays? What do I believe—not just about Judaism, or about God, but about knowledge and memory and freedom and about the eternal conversation that the haggadah represents? What I realized is that the reason I’ve never found the ideal haggadah is that the haggadah I need and want to share with my children changes every year because the conversation is always going on.

So I’m returning to my makeshift, unlovely haggadah. I’ll include parts of this haggadah, but not all of it. I’ll keep my Miriam’s cup. On the second night, I will definitely read Lemony Snicket’s commentary to the kids, to keep them awake and make them laugh. The words of this haggadah will be some of the words that my children will associate with Passover, but not the only ones. And that seems to be exactly what the author and editor intended. In his introduction to the volume, Foer writes:

As you read these words….new Haggadahs are being written. And as future Jews at future tables read those Haggadahs, other Haggadahs will be written. New Haggadahs will be written until there are no more Jews to write them. Or until our destiny has been fulfilled, and there is no more need to say, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

(For a different take on the New American Haggadah, see this review at The Millions.)

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3 Comments to In Search of the Perfect Haggadah

  1. March 26, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    Gayla, that’s simply marvelous.

  2. Gayla's Gravatar Gayla
    March 27, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Oh, thank you, Debi!

  3. March 28, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Yes, I love this one.

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