Kind of newish, not so Jewish ‘New American Haggadah’ updates Passover story

Pre-soiled pages tell how ‘King of the Cosmos’ delivered his peeps

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Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg was summoned to the White House last month to interview President Obama about Iran and the rogue state’s nuclear ambitions. He came bearing a gift for the leader of the free world: “New American Haggadah,” translated by one young Jewish literary luminary, Nathan Englander, and edited by another, Jonathan Safran Foer.

Mr. Goldberg, according to his own retelling at theAtlantic.com, gave the “commander-in-chief [permission to] use whatever Haggadah he liked” but recommended the “New American Haggadah,” which also features commentary by Nathaniel Deutsch, Rebecca Newberger, Lemony Snicket and Mr. Goldberg himself, because it “might add some depth and meaning and aesthetic charm to his seder.”

The Passover Haggadah, read aloud every year at the Jewish holiday’s ritual meal, or Seder, recounts the story of how Moses — with some timely enemy-afflicting interventions from God — liberated Jews from slavery in Egypt and led them to the promised land of Israel.

The Hebrew and Aramaic text is the same in every Haggadah. What distinguishes one Haggadah from another is the translation, which is itself an interpretation of the text, and the commentary that Haggadahs often include.

“Jews have a special relationship to books,” reads the introduction to the new Englander-Foer Haggadah, “and the Haggadah has been translated more widely, and reprinted more often, than any other Jewish book” — 6,999 editions by Mr. Foer’s count.

An excerpt from "New American Haggadah," translated by Nathan Englander and edited by Jonathan Safran Foer. (Photo courtesy Little, Brown & Co.)

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An excerpt from “New American Haggadah,” translated by Nathan Englander and edited ... more >

“The need for new Haggadahs does not imply the failure of existing ones,” the “New American” update magnanimously allows, “but the struggle to engage everyone at the table in a time that is unlike any that has come before.”

As for the name, “It is called New American Haggadah not because there is anything uniquely American about it, but in the tradition of naming a Haggadah” after the place where it was made, the introduction notes in a parenthetical aside.

The new version, it is explained, “is not a work of history or philosophy, not a prayer book, a user’s manual, timeline, poem, or palimpsest — and yet it is all of these things.” It is, that is, all of the things it isn’t any of. Don’t try to make sense of that after your Seder’s fourth glass of wine.

One other thing this edition apparently is — the culmination of a process of self-exploration.

“About five years ago, I noticed a longing in myself,” Mr. Foer wrote in the New York Times, explaining his interest in this project. “Perhaps it was inspired by fatherhood, or just growing older. Despite having been raised in an intellectual and self-consciously Jewish home, I knew almost nothing about what was supposedly my own belief system.”

What better way to remedy his near-total ignorance of Judaism than to edit his own Haggadah?

The result has been met with skepticism. “[T]his is a project that can be done only by people who are properly skilled in Hebrew and Aramaic,” said one Jewish scholar, who requested anonymity. “These two writers have nothing in their CVs to suggest that they even come close to having this, despite the fact that they are distinguished writers in their own fields.”

Mr. Foer explained in the New York Times article that his 6-year-old son’s captivation with biblical stories was another motivation for his participation in this project, thereby revealing what would appear to be the target audience for the “New American Haggadah.”

Elements of the translation lend credibility to the theory that it’s the PBS Kids demographic the “New American Haggadah” is trying to reach. God, for instance, is not translated as “God”; instead, He takes on some new appellations — nicknames, you might say — such as “God of Us” and “King of the Cosmos.”

The art in this new edition is sometimes reminiscent of a new pair of “distressed” jeans — but instead of the pre-ripped denim of jeans found at a place like Abercrombie & Fitch, the pages are printed with fake ink blotches and even imagined wine stains. (Whereas books are not typically present at meals, Seder nights — being different from all other nights — require them, leaving favorite Haggadahs vulnerable to smearing, staining and warping of every description.)

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