“New American Haggadah”: Read it, Discuss it, Gift it

There is nothing uniquely American about The New American Haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and newly translated by Nathan Englander,”but the tradition of naming a Haggadah after where it was made.”

I was not finished with the second page of the introduction to The New American Haggadah (Little, Brown, and Co., March 2012), and already I was immersed in it. I am drawn in first, I admit, because of sheer curiosity: what will Jonathan Safran Foer do with a Haggadah? I collect Haggadahs and I am sure from the start this will be a nice addition and help me enhance my seder.

Before I even got to ‘removal of the hametz’ I have found tidbits I want to add to my seder this year. Take something as simple as this: “The Haggadah has been translated more widely, and reprinted more often, than any other Jewish book.” That makes sense when you think about it. My guess is that as most families sit down to their seders, they will have referred to numerous versions of this wonder-filled book in preparation for their celebration and may even have a variety for their guests to choose from as they sit down at the table on this night that is indeed different from all others.

Haggadah photo 224x300 New American Haggadah: Read it, Discuss it, Gift it

Some of the amazing artwork from this book.

No Haggadah is complete without artwork and this one does not disappoint. Most of the artwork takes as its theme the Hebrew letters. According to Oded Ezer, the designer, “…the letterforms on each page reflect those used in the period reflected in the timeline at the top of the page. In this way, the book is a graphic record of Jewish history.” My favorite are the pages that spell out Pesach, Matzah and Maror, in Hebrew, of course. I like the choice of color, which reminds me of the matzah, and the way the letters seem to move in and out of time intrigues me.

For those who may feel a bit hesitant to stray from the familiarity of the time tested Maxwell House Haggadah or whatever their family favorite, rest easy (while you are reclining). The design and layout have a nice flow. No one need be intimidated by this version. On the right side is the Hebrew, and on the left is the English. The directions are clearly laid out in small type on the left of the English pages and obvious, both for the leader and those who want to see what is coming. The 4 cups of wine are in bigger bold print and you can find the seder’s order fairly quickly by flipping through the pages.

There are some things that are unique to this Haggadah’s design. On almost every page is a timeline, starting with 1250-1200 BCE when ‘the telling begins’. It would be completely appropriate to pick up the Haggadah and read just the timeline portion for items to incorporate into your own recounting of the story. You could chronicle the Jewish population from place to place throughout history, or learn about when the oldest known Haggadah was written. Or perhaps you are intrigued with the origins of sayings like “The Wandering Jew” or “Jews in Exile.” These, too, can be found in the timeline. There is no doubt that there are many interesting facts here that could embellish your seder just by introducing these pieces of Jewish history along the way. And for the creative-minded who are looking for ways to get people involved in a more participatory seder with very little advance planning, the timeline could be just the thing.

If, however, you want to sink your teeth into something a bit deeper, and you are among those who like to delve into real conversation and discussion at your seder, then skim through the timeline and go right for what I call the discussion pages. There are 10 of them. You can spot them instantly because you have to turn the book sideways to read the 4 sections that are divided under each topic into ‘House of Study’, ‘Nation’, ‘Playground’ and ‘Library.’

Maybe you are not leading the seder this year. Instead, you have been asked to prepare one part of the seder to bring to someone else’s house. Look no further. Choose one of the topics below and read that page. I guarantee you will find exactly what you need to facilitate a wonderful conversation. Or, break your seder guest list into small groups and rather than pick one of the topics, assign each group a different section, have them discuss and then share with the whole group. The challenge will be narrowing it down and not including all of the topics in your seder. You could easily be there all night! Inserting these commentaries that are ripe for further contemplation and sharing is clearly one of the strengths of this Haggadah. It not only offers new insights, but it gives us the opportunity to take a fresh look at an ancient story as we think about the many ways that the Exodus is still very relevant to us today.

The Discussion Topics include: Kiddush; Poor Man’s Bread; Four Sons; ”And the Lord heard our voices”; Ten Plagues; ”In every generation each person must look upon himself as if he left Egypt”; Afikomen; Elijah the Prophet; Next Year in Jerusalem; and ”Chad Gadya”.

To give you just a taste: for the Kiddush, under the section, ‘House of Study’, it begins with these words: “On this night that is different from all other nights, it is fitting that we begin by recalling our own difference. But how ae we Jews different from all other peoples? We are chosen, the Haggadah tells us. Unlike salvation, chosenness is a question, not an answer; the beginning of a journey, not its end.”

I can hardly wait to start my seder with this conversation of what it means to be chosen. Different. Are we better than other people? Or not?

And this is just the first of what I call the ‘discussion pages.’ In the ‘Playground’ section of the “And the Lord Heard our Voices” topic, it’s clear that this Haggadah has managed to find a way to engage everyone at the seder. Young people could easily relate to this conversation about breaking promises and the need to wail when we feel let down, yet the need to sometimes stop wailing and listen instead.

You will have to explore the rest of them on your own. And then you should let me know if you think the 4 sections parallel the 4 sons. We can discuss which section goes to which son.

But don’t wait.

Pick up your copy of this Haggadah today.

And if you can’t manage to read it all in time for this year’s seder, buy it as a gift to give your host. They will surely be excited to add it to their collection. And you can get an early start on next year’s preparation. Frankly, I found it an excellent read, just for the reminder of the story, the history found in the time line and the ideas and commentary presented that I enjoyed struggling with. For me, this is everything a good book should be, and all the better because it is a Haggadah.

I will end at the beginning with a quote from the introduction:

“As you read these words – as our people’s ink-stained fingers turn its wine-stained pages – 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….Like all Haggadah’s before it, this one hopes to excite the mind and heart. Like all Haggadahs before it, this one hopes to be replaced.” As for me, I will hold onto this one as a valuable new addition to my Haggadah collection. I encourage you to do the same.

*The FTC made me do it: Disclosure of Material Connection: TC Jewfolk received a free copy of ”The New American Haggadah” in the hope that we would mention it on TC Jewfolk. But getting the book for free doesn’t mean we were obligated to give a glowing review. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Blah, blah, blah…

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About Sarah Routman

A Leadership Instructor at the University of Minnesota, and a Certified Laughter Yoga Leader, Sarah once harbored dreams of combining photography, writing and traveling the world to record her experiences. For the moment, she is settling on traveling through the pages of the books she is reviewing for TC Jewfolk. When not traveling, Sarah likes to create things, appreciates all of the arts, listens to music and grows plants (which she is happy to share). She can be found around town leading others in a good belly laugh just for the health of it.

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2 comments

  1. This review certainly made me want to look further at the New American Hagaddah. The reviewer motivates with her snippets and observations. “Conversations” have always been a big part of our Seders, so this portion of the text seems especially intriguing.
    My own disclosure: Sarah Routman is my daughter.

  2. Thanks sarah! You have intrigued me into ordering the New American Hagaddah asap. I love to collect different hagaddahs and try to find ways to hold my guests’ attention.