The New American Haggadah

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I was very surprised. I was expecting something much more self-indulgent and perhaps a little cute. But I was wrong. This is a bare, naked Haggadah. The Hebrew text, Nathan Englander’s gorgeous English translation, and the graphic design work of Oded Ezer are the main show.

A peculiar creature, The New American Haggadah. The typography is incredibly crisp. Luminous use of white space highlights the black ink text. All the decorative elements are based on line and letters, which meander across the page spreads. I grew up with the Leonard Baskin’s illustrations in A Passover Haggadah, published by the CCAR Press of the Reform movement in 1974. In contrast, the aesthetic in The New American Haggadah is watery and wavy. There are no figural subjects here, no dusty old men with beards. Just spindly, spidery lines of flight on the move, like Hebrews out of Egypt.

I had heard that The New American Haggadah was going to include the remarks of Jeffrey Goldberg, Rebecca Goldstein, Nathaniel Deutsch, and Lemony Snicket — posted, respectively, under the rubrics “Nation,” “Library,” “House of Study,” “Playground.” This led me to expect that The New American Haggadah was going to be loaded down and mucked up by lots of sententious, internal commentary set into the main body of the text. This is the norm in modern and contemporary Haggadot. I can’t say I was helped much by the interviews with Foer and Englander launching the publication.

Frankly, I thought the Haggadh would be a mess, focused on such contemporary phenomena as politics, non-belief, aesthetic disorder, conflict, the spirit of questioning, and whatnot, i.e. the stuff of sharp conversation that turns into liberal dogma when set into print. Probably, I was off (and misled) by all the external media commentary and marketing hoopla surrounding the book. 

But I’m repenting of my first evil eye on The New American Haggadah. Instead of forcing a “meaningful” experience (psychological and political), Foer decided to cordon the commentaries off into separate double page-spread commentary sections. These appear only intermittently, meaning that the “meaning of the text” is basically left to take care of itself. If you don’t want to bother with the wordy commentary, just flip the page, and keep moving. Visually, nothing is allowed to mar the crisp beauty of the page.

As for the translations themselves, it’s not my intent to give a full scale review here. Some are kind of peculiar. The formulaic blessing “Blessed are You Lord, King of the world” has been turned throughout into You are blessed, Lord God-of-us, King of the Cosmos,”  I’m not sure what point there is in calling the wicked son “the evil one,” or the simple son “the artless one.”

Others translations are quite stunning. While my old Reform Haggadah, with which I grew up, wisely chose to translate the literal biblical “My father was a wandering Aramean,” Englander eschewed literalism for tradition. His translation is remarkably coy “The Aramean disappeared my father.”  I still prefer “My father was a wandering Aramean,” but this is a thought provoking translation.

I also liked, very much, “And the Lord lifted us out of Egypt in the mighty hand of an outstretched arm.”

And also, from the ten plagues: “a maelstrom of beasts…hail-full-of-fir…a clotted darkness –too thick to pass”.

And also, “With how many layers of goodness has God blessed us?”

The translation of the Hallel that comes after the main meal is too handsome for words. The layout of the psalms that constitute the Hallel along lines reminds us that these are words or poetry, not prose. Consider “From the tightening straits I called to God/He answered me with Godly expanse.”

What remains to be decided:

–My mother was annoyed by the need to turn the book on the side in order to read the commentary pages and the historical timeline, included in the text.

–Is this a usable text? Won’t most American readers need more editorial direction, more commentary to guide them in the main body of the text?

–It’s not entirely clear for those less familiar with the ritual when it’s time to break from the Seder at the half-way point and eat dinner!! If you ever sat through a Seder, you’ll know this is a big deal.

–The most important challenge to The New American Haggadah will be the problem of gender, which Foer and Englander simply decided to ignore. My mother called this out immediately. It’s all Lord, and King, and He, and fathers. I’m not entirely sure what they were thinking. I understand the desire to create a hyper-literal translation. But this aesthetic choice comes at a steep cost to gender neutrality.  I think my mother’s right. Contemporary readers may very well be unwilling to overlook or forgive this.

The liberal Passover public is going to find itself caught in a conundrum.

These are some of the problems  —  And this is a smart, simply beautiful Haggadah.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to The New American Haggadah

  1. Gail says:

    Great post, and a lovely text–the NPR report on this said nothing about the images, so thanks for that part.

    Ignoring the problem of gender? Hmmm. How unusual…

  2. alex says:

    His Aramean translation is accurate. The “wandering Aramean” is literal, but not what is meant (according to all traditional commentaries)

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