‘The Dry Bones Passover Haggadah’

A slim book with a wealth of knowledge and humor

March 21, 2018 18:31
Illustration by Pepe FainbergYaakov Kirschen at home in Herzliya

Yaakov Kirschen at home in Herzliya. (photo credit: SALI ARIEL)


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IT’S AMONG the slimmest and most widely used of Jewish books. People who may not set foot in a synagogue all year round, nonetheless congregate around the Seder table for Passover to read the Haggadah and to retell the story of the exodus from Egypt.

There are several Biblical references to the exodus, and there are also several Biblical injunctions to diligently tell one’s children. The telling of the story is a kind of insurance policy for Jewish continuity. It also emphasizes the value of moving from slavery to freedom and self-determination.

In large households to which many guests are invited to join the Seder, there are usually several different kinds of Haggadahs – some with large print, some with small compact print, some with numerous interpretations, some with no interpretations, some with illustrations and some with no illustrations, some bilingual and even trilingual, and some without translation. But what they all have in common is the absence of an important name – Moses.

Just as Moses was denied entry to the Promised Land, he was also denied entry to the Haggadah, and that omission has for centuries been an annual conundrum over which scholars have theorized, and come up with plausible reasons, but no one actually knows why Moses got the cold shoulder from the sages who compiled the Haggadah.

Philosopher/cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen, originally from New York, in January 1973, nearly two years after his arrival in Israel, began publishing cartoons in The Jerusalem Post. His characters served as commentators on the news of the day, with one-liners often saying more than a long editorial article.

Because Kirschen had always been fascinated by the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones, he called his cartoon comic strip “Dry Bones.”

Just as the Children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years, Kirschen wandered in the ever-changing, yet somehow never changing environment of Israel for forty years before deciding that his legacy to future generations would be “The Dry Bones Passover Haggadah” that would both appeal and entertain.

There may have been a subconscious desire to nip in the bud ignorance camouflaged as expertise. Though not particularly observant, Kirschen is very knowledgeable about things Jewish, and it makes his hackles rise when he hears someone ask a question with regard to any random Jewish issue and a know-it-all who answers has it all wrong.

To get the project off the ground, Kirschen and his wife, artist Sali Ariel, launched a crowdfunding campaign to kick-start production and received an encouraging response.

To Kirschen’s fans, this was not exactly surprising. He has been widely syndicated abroad, and has also been in demand as a public speaker in Israel and the United States, so he was far from being an unknown quantity. Notwithstanding the proliferation of Haggadahs around the world, there were people who believed that Kirschen could come up with something just that much different – and he did.

As a cartoonist, the layout was very important to him. He wanted the English to balance the Hebrew and Aramaic texts, side by side, and not on another page or below as is so frequently the case.

He also wanted the explanatory cartoons to act as a frame to the traditional Haggadah text.

The main cartoon character is Shuldig, who has always been featured as the central character in Kirschen’s cartoons and represents Kirschen himself. There is less of him in the Haggadah, as Kirschen gives way to other characters who are more relevant to the story. “Shuldig,” by the way, is the Yiddish word for blame.

The above-mentioned are not the only differences between “The Dry Bones Passover Haggadah” and all others. The English is modern and simple. The four sons become four children so as to avoid gender discrimination, possibly because Kirschen was born on March 8, which is International Women’s Day. In fact, this year he celebrated his 80th birthday. But what is essentially different is that Kirschen opened the covers of his Haggadah to Moses, depicting him briefly as a baby in a floating basket and later as an old, white bearded man pleading with a nasty Pharaoh.

To make life easy for the uninitiated, Kirschen has provided a 15-point guide to Seder rituals, presented in a visually pleasing and user-friendly manner, with the Hebrew word in large black type accompanied by the page number, the English transliteration in smaller type, and what actions such as making Kiddush , washing hands, dipping vegetables and breaking matza, are preceded by the verse that begins with each of the words in the guide-cum-index.

This is an absolute boon for people who have difficulty in following the rituals, and prevents the embarrassment of having a knowledgeable neighbor sitting alongside frequently flipping pages for the person trailing behind.

The cartoon ‘conversations’ taking place around the text of the Haggadah are so amusing that they may sometimes distract some of the people sitting around the table from the actual Seder service.

The cartoon characters all speak colloquial English, so much so that with a little imagination, one can almost hear them.

A couple of sections include transliteration as well as translation, so even non-Jewish guests will not feel excluded. Even without the transliteration, anyone with a basic knowledge of English can follow the gist of the story.

This is an extremely inclusive Haggadah that turns the browser into a reader. Al- though it is customary in many households for everyone sitting around the table to read a verse or two aloud, those who skip the traditional text in favor of the cartoon and comic strip dialogues will come away with more knowledge about the festival and its background than they had when they first sat down.

It’s the type of Haggadah that one wants to look at throughout the year and not just on Pessah. It’s not only beautifully illustrated, it’s funny too! In the US, UK and EU, “The Dry Bones Passover Haggadah” can be purchased from Amazon and at many Jewish bookstores and online direct from Koren or Menorah Publishers. (http://amzn.to/2HnSSaJ)

In Israel, it can be purchased at most Tzomet Sfarim Bookstores and in Jerusalem at Pomeranz books and direct from Koren Publishers. (https://www.korenpub.com/koren_en_ils/koren/holidays/pesah/the-dry-bones-passover-Haggadah.html)

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