Okay, it’s true the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander came out about the same time as Englander’s recent collection of stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, which has met with mixed critical reviews. But one cannot help not note that Leon Wieseltier’s brutal review of Englander’s translation appeared in The Jewish Review of Books at practically the very same time as Robert Alter’s also unforgiving, but at least reasonably argued review of Englander’s stories. Alter’s review appears in The New Republic, whose literary editor is…Leon Wieseltier.
One understands the impetus to go-over the translation in the New American Haggadah with a fine tooth comb. Alas, Wieseltier left the comb in the bathroom. Instead, he takes out the hatchet from the woodshed and dutifully gets down to work. He carps about this translation choice, and then that one and then this one, and then goes on to insult, ad hominem, several of the commentators. Wieseltier is one of the sharpest blades on the contemporary Jewish scene, but something cuts a little dull about this one.
In graduate school, I was taught to combine hermeneutical suspicion and charity as the best way to get at a text. I learned first and foremost to respect the text and its composition, to give authors their due and to call them up short. I was disappointed to find that nowhere does Wieseltier offer any insight as to how this new Haggadah is put together and why it might work for many American Jews at Passover. What does it do well and what does it do less well? As a self-appointed gatekeeper with no real responsibility outside his own critical reputation, Wieseltier is not going to let this one through, certainly not at the Jewish Review of Books.
It’s one thing to complain about this translation and that translation. There are any number of translations about which I too might have quibbled and where I too might have cringed. Some of the translation choices tagged by Wieseltier struck me as harmless; others struck me actually thought provoking. So I found it hard to suss out Wieseltier’s furious rebuke of the project as a whole.
I’ll admit I finally threw up my hands and almost stopped reading at that point in the review when Wieseltier faults the New American Haggadah for not translating Hebrew words like mitzvah into English. About Englander’s translation choices, one can argue one way and another. But there’s something unreasoning here. We begin to approach the core of Wieseltier own worldview, his problem with the text, and the worldview that drives this review.
That Wieseltier has such problem with the word mitzvah in the New American Haggadah means that it’s not just the English of the text that bothers Wieseltier. It’s also the Hebrew. Why? What’s wrong with keeping the Hebrew word? Wieseltier explains, “This preservation of a few Hebrew words in English discourses on Jewish subjects is an American Jewish characteristic, the compromise of a community that is delinquent about its linguistic patrimony…[resulting] in an argot that is neither English nor Hebrew, and is perennially ripe for parody.”
In other words, Wieseltier objects to the mishmash of English and Hebrew in this early twenty first century American Jewish argot. In much the same way, German Jews once despised Yiddish as nothing other than “jargon.”
I don’t think there was anything the translator could have done to spare him from his critic. Wieseltier is the jealous husband of two wives, not one, of Hebrew and of English. Poor Nathan Englander. Caught at the door, he never had a chance.
With these lines, we now see the real object of Wieseltier’s jeremiad is American amcha, not this New American Haggadah. American Jews don’t meet the mark, unworthy of the “linguistsic patrimony” whose honor the critic defends. “No Jewry has ever been as pathetically dependent upon translation as American Jewry” or so Wieseltier claims.
Is it true, then, that no Jewry has been so dependent upon translation? As for the difference between “dependence” versus “pathetic dependence,” I just don’t know. My guess is that most ordinary Jews in geonic Babylonia or medieval Ashkenaz may have recited the Haggadah in Hebrew, understanding the “sense” of the text without understanding a word.
I don’t believe Wieseltier is able to make sense of the why and the how with which Foer set out to remediate what he himself identifies as the sorry state of his own Jewish fluency. Ironically, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Foer makes much of the same claim as does Wieseltier about the state of contemporary Jewish culture among Foer’s generations of Jews. This is the difference between the destructive criticism versus constructive self- criticism. I am sure Wieseltier would not have liked the sentimental conclusion to Foer’s NYT opinion piece. Maybe I don’t either. But that’s not really Foer’s problem, is it?
With the new Haggadah, Foer and Englander sought to learn something. In contrast, I’m not sure what Wieseltier has actually offered. I wish he would have told us something interesting about two classical texts mentioned in the review –Abravanel’s commentary to the Haggadah, Zevach Pesach (Passover Sacrifice), and the Maharal’s Gevurot Hashem (The Mighty Deeds of God). Wieseltier is very erudite and very smart, and I’m sure he has lots of insightful things to say about these two texts. I would have liked to see a little something here other than invoking these storied names as a fetish-weapon. A scintillating critic, Wieseltier is a terrible teacher. I’m not sure I learned a single thing from the review except that Leon Wieseltier doesn’t like the New American Haggadah, American Judaism, and American Jewry. That’s it.
Who chose to illuminate Wieseltier’s critique of the New American Haggadah with “The Seder Table” from the Szyc Haggadah, a classic modern Haggadah from the 1930s by painter Arthur Szyc? Was it Wieseltier himself or the editors at The Jewish Review of Books? The scowling, patriarchal illustration captures in an unerring way what’s wrong with Wieseltier’s review. It’s also what I think is wrong with the general cultural conservatism over at the Jewish Review of Books, about which I have written in Zeek Magazine. With the garish color and backwards look to still-in-the ghetto-Jews, the invitation in The Jewish Review of Books by Wieseltier is not to a contemporary American Seder. In what kind of world is this the way American Jews are supposed to look at Seder?
Wieseltier is a brilliant critic and a fabulous mind, but I’m put off by the combination of learnedness and churlishness in this review of The New American Haggadah. When you add acid, the milk curdles.