Free expression

‘The JDC Haggadah’ aims to bring the text out of the historical realm and into the present.

jdc haggadah (photo credit: .)
jdc haggadah
(photo credit: .)
In Every Generation: The JDC HaggadahCommentary by Ari Goldman and Joseph Telushkin | Devora Publishing | 96 pages | $19.95
Illustrating the Pessah Haggada has always required a stretch of the imagination. Lacking photographic evidence of the Exodus from Egypt, or the mishnaic personalities whose words enhance the text, artists through the ages have found myriad media to help the reader visualize the epic story.
In Every Generation: The JDC Haggadah matches photos from the archives of the the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a 96-year-old worldwide rescue and relief organization, to the traditional text, theme for theme.
The spread devoted to the Seder’s first hand-washing, urhatz, shows a child washing his face at a JDC-supported kindergarten in Teheran in 1946; a young man in the Soviet Union ritually washing his hands before a meal at Agro-Joint Colony 36 in 1929; a boy at the sink of a Norwegian sanatorium for families brought from Germany by the JDC in 1952; morning cleanup at a Jewish summer camp in Hungary in 1935; a soaped-up young North African émigré assisted by the JDC in France in 1959; campers washing up at a program for Jewish youngsters from Algeria in 1963; and a woman getting water from a JDC-sponsored tap in Ethiopia in 1988.
This particular spread is among the favorites of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor Ari L. Goldman. With aid from his research assistant, Rebekah Costin, Goldman blended JDC photographs and other archival material with the Haggada text, and added commentary explaining the links between the ancient narrative and stories of modern rescue and relief.
“We were wondering how to illustrate urhatz, because although there are lots of water metaphors at the Seder – the salt water on the table, infant boys being thrown into the Nile, the plague of water turning into blood, the splitting of the sea, the miracle of Miriam’s well – what does that have to do with the JDC?” said Goldman. “Then we came upon this treasure trove of images showing children washing and bathing in places where there wouldn’t have been hygiene facilities if not for the JDC. We actually had too many pictures. You might say we were flooded with them.”
The water-themed collection included many images of adults, not all of them Jewish. Although he chose ultimately to use only photos of children, Goldman mentions the context of one of the unseen pictures in his commentary: “When the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean caused death and destruction in 11 countries, JDC raised over $19 million for relief and rehabilitation efforts, and getting fresh drinking water to survivors was part of its initial emergency aid.”
During his 20-year career at The New York Times, Goldman had covered this and other more recent relief programs depicted in the Haggada. Jewish Book Council director Carolyn Starman Hessel, on behalf of the JDC, therefore thought he’d be the ideal commentator for the project. She also tapped Rabbi Joseph Telushkin to write the foreword, which includes a JDC-centric rendition of “Dayenu” (“If the JDC had only supported 58,000 orphaned Jewish children in Eastern Europe and Palestine after World War I, dayenu, it would have been enough...”).
“As a serious practicing Jew, I continually struggle with making my Judaism relevant to myself, my students and my children,” said Goldman, who lives in Manhattan with his wife, Shira Dicker, and their three children. “How do you make old stories and rituals become alive and contemporary?”
In this book project, he endeavored to “take the Exodus out of the realm of history or myth and make it very concrete by showing how it is not just history but part of our contemporary life. This idea of the rescue of Jews, of taking people out of bondage and terrible circumstances and giving them new life and freedom and hope, is a timeless story.”
Goldman joked that, in preparing his manuscript, he did not feel a need to research the Seder itself; at 60, he’s been to 120 of them. But he did read up on the JDC, the world’s largest Jewish humanitarian assistance organization, to convey a sense of the breadth of its work since 1914.
“JDC was founded very much in the spirit of the Exodus story,” he writes in the introduction. “Its founding mission was to free modern-day Jewish slaves. These slaves weren’t building pyramids in Egypt, but were enslaved by poverty, ignorance, injustice, dislocation and discrimination.”
“The international scope of the rescue and relief efforts really struck me,” he said. “There were pictures from Cuba, Hungary, Norway and Shanghai; Ethiopia, Yemen and Italy; the Dominican Republic, Vienna and Iran. What a rich and diverse community we are, reaching across borders to help one another.”
One of the most poignant sections of the book includes photographs and excerpted first-person accounts regarding JDC’s work in various times and places to supply Jewish communities with the crucial Pessah staple, matza. There is, for example, the story of Clara, a Soviet senior citizen, who showed JDC program director Asher Ostrin the carefully wrapped piece of matza she kept in her communal kitchen’s cubby. She explained that she no longer knew when Pessah was, but one week each spring she would unwrap that stale matza and leave it on her table to remind her of the holiday. Upon receiving a fresh kilogram of the unleavened bread from Ostrin, she said, “And now, you angels from the Joint have come and brought me something I could never have dreamed of. I can be part of my people once again.”
Goldman is partial to a spread showing rabbinic envoys readying a shipment of Torah scrolls for World War II refugees resulting from a JDC campaign encouraging every American synagogue to donate a Torah to replace those destroyed by the Nazis. “Across the page, there is a picture of a girl [in postwar Berlin] getting shoes, and another of [Jewish children in 1921 Palestine] waiting for food. This shows that both physical and spiritual needs were being addressed by the JDC. It also points up the stark difference between American prosperity and European deprivation during that time.”
Goldman said he feels In Every Generation is appropriate for Sederparticipants on all points of the Jewish spectrum. “It sheds new lighton a story that people either don’t know or think they already know,”he said, suggesting that few people are aware, for example, that theDominican Republic issued 1,000 visas for European Jews during the warto come to the island nation and set up an agricultural community. Suchinformation, Goldman said, “provides another way of looking at yetzi’atmitzrayim and gives the reader the opportunity to bring something newto the Seder beyond Moses and the 10 plagues.”