People of the look

“The Pesach Seder is the only theatrical storytelling moment that we have in Judaism,”

All members of the family enjoy the playful cards of the Unbound Haggadah (photo credit: Courtesy)
All members of the family enjoy the playful cards of the Unbound Haggadah
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Though the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt is one of the most dramatic in the Bible, when it was transformed by the sages of old into the Haggadah for Passover, the one thing that seems to have been left out was the drama. Telling about the event was the essential mode promulgated by the rabbis. Even though the Seder meal itself is apparently based on Greek and Roman models (examples being resting on couches and drinking four cups of wine), there is very little opportunity for would-be thespians to express themselves.
Enter Eli Kaplan-Wildmann, a 35-year-old graduate of NYU’s department of design for theater, who saw an opportunity to turn the Seder into a dramatic as well as a religious happening:
 “The Pesach Seder is actually the only theatrical storytelling moment that we have in Judaism,” he observes. “A lot of experimental, experiential theater is like that. A director will think: ‘We’ll have everyone sitting around a table, they will be served food, some of which they’ll lift up during the feast, and at one point they’re going to open a door for an expected visitor who doesn’t appear, and so on.’ If you were to describe that as an off-off Broadway show it would sound really cool.”
Thus began Kaplan-Wildmann’s search for a Haggadah that would best express his desire to integrate his two passions – theater and Judaism.
“The idea was first suggested to me some three years ago,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I sketched a rough model immediately and began to fill in the blanks. I love order in my work as a designer and in the Seder I saw such an order. That, after all, is the meaning of the word. So, first of all, I thought of breaking open the idea of a book, by placing the text of the Haggadah on separate cards.
“I chose the number 12 (the 12 tribes of Israel as a model of community and diversity) and then doubled it in order to fit the text. I then proceeded to fit each page with a design and a question. I supplied my answers but did not restrict it to them. The whole point of this Seder is collective participation among the ‘actors.’ It is their production as much as mine. And the questions that accompany each of the pages call out for improvisation in the shape of their own responses, and further questions and answers.
“What makes this Haggadah even more a communal statement is that there is only one copy on the table. It would too expensive for everyone to buy an expensive art work – which is what this Haggadah is also meant to be. But mainly because the idea is for each participant in the meal to have only one card which he or she shares with the rest of the assembly and then passes it around for others to expound on. In this way the whole process of telling the story becomes dynamic and communal.”
To add to the sense of theater, Eli ties the 12 laminated cards together with a red cord.
 “This red cord is very theatrical, like the cord that opens the curtain on a stage. It’s very much about Passover since the story begins with God passing over the doors of the Israelites. Those doors were marked with the red blood of the paschal lamb; hence the red cord. The particular door that I designed is very Jerusalemite. It’s painted blue and the decorative elements are very Jerusalemite.
“In addition, the door is the central symbol of the Seder. We open the door, which symbolizes our house. But you also open the door to invite poor people into your house to eat. This is an example of how one visual image can contain all these ideas and also be tactile. It’s something you can touch and feel.”
As for the content of the cards, Kaplan-Wildmann shares some of the meanings behind the various page designs. For example, the list of the Seder itself, which appears at the beginning of the book, is usually chanted throughout the Seder as a simple list, telling the participants where they are in the order. But here a different dimension has been added by printing the list from the bottom of the page going up with each line printed smaller and smaller. “As I explain in the accompanying booklet,” says Kaplan-Wildmann, “that this is to emphasize the fact that the Seder is about going up; it’s about increasing in holiness.”
It starts with Kadesh (sanctification of wine) at the bottom, in big letters, as if it’s near the viewer. Then the letters diminish and rise higher and higher as they go towards the end of the Seder. This shows visually that there is a theme of rising up and moving toward redemption in the Seder, without verbalizing what that process is.”
One of the most illustrated pages in every traditional Haggadah concerns the four sons. In Kaplan-Wildmann’s interpretation, the sons surround a spinning wheel, since “each of these types can be each of those children.”
Deviating a little from tradition, his sons include a soldier, an artist, a smartphone and a Talmud scholar. He explains his choice: “The soldier in traditional Haggadahs is usually the bad son, but today a soldier might be a hero or maybe someone who does not know what to ask, or perhaps a simple person. The same goes for the scholar. Or the smart phone – you can see it as the smart son or see it as evil, or just being innocent. The artist – whom I would place as the ideal son! – is conceived as the wise man. But some people would see him as evil, while others will see him as a simple person. So if we ask: ‘How do you see these sons?’ You might say, ‘Well, it’s obvious that the Talmud scholar is the wise man.’ But is that true today? Are people who study Talmud necessarily good people?”
In his trial run with a group of friends, he observes, “People had a lot of fun with this page as they discuss what these four sons represent, and how they can change ‘in every generation.’”
When he came to present the ten plagues, Kaplan-Wildmann makes a conscious turnaround. “I’ve never seen a Haggadah, which shows that the ten plagues are our plagues. Most Haggadahs simply show that these plagues effected the Egyptians and were far away from us. I wanted to view these plagues as ours, too.
“There is a hint of this in the fact that we flick wine from our cup, as though to empathize with the Egyptians who died. But what are our plagues? I came up with a page of icons. These are things in our society that need to be fixed. Thus, the first plague is blood. In my version it is transformed into cancer or HIV, that is issues of blood that we as humans have not yet been able to solve.
“The frog stands for the conservation of species, animals that are no longer in this world because of us. Lice hints at our obsession with beauty. Wild animals reminds us we are closer to the animal kingdom than we like to think. The plague that affects animals refers to the meat industry and what we put into our food; I’m not vegetarian but it is obvious that the meat industry is not good for the world. Boils is about advertising and how we are being told all the time that we lack for something, and more generally that our culture makes us feel unsatisfied with our own person.
“Hail speaks of weather problems like tsunamis and global warming. Locust brings us back again to food – what poisons we put on our fruits and vegetables. Darkness is a metaphor for our dependence on phones. Death of the firstborn presents us with a big question about what will happen to our digital presence after we leave this world.”
Although the interpretation may seem a little odd in terms of the tradition, the ideas are novel and are bound to excite responses from the sort of participants that go along with this radical Haggadah.
He has similarly reworked the abstruse discussion as to how many plagues the Egyptians were afflicted with? Are there 10, 50, 250 or more? The card that presents this convoluted discussion is backed by the song, “Dayeinu” – “It would be sufficient.” Whereas the one side of the card offers a confused and confusing debate marked here with criss-crossing strings, the other side shows a clear order of things marked by the same string forming a very beautiful and logical process in everything.
“This is to serve as a reminder that we are just looking at this world from one narrow angle. By flipping the card we can see the world in a different light. There’s a midrash where people are looking at a beautiful Persian carpet from the back and all they see is an entanglement of cords. But God is viewing the carpet from above and so sees the beauty.”
On the last page of songs, we read “Had Gadya” (One Small Kid). “Most people see this as a children’s song, but I thought that there must be something deeper to it. I understood each verse as representing something that holds us back in our lives, be it money or possessions or whatever. But the final verse reveals that it is also about the Holy One Blessed Be He.
“He is behind everything and we should remember that all these obstacles are there to challenge us with something beyond our own world. All these hours of watching the Seder are like a theater show where you sit in anticipation until eventually you’re rewarded with something to take home. So the idea that God will eventually redeem us is a positive way to end.”
To make it easier to comprehend how this Haggadah works, Kaplan-Wildmann has posted a short video of people using the book at their Seder (https// to show how this Haggadah is different from all others.
When not involved in the Haggadah,
Kaplan-Wildmann pursues a wide range of design projects as well as designs for stage productions. These include an origami design based on the blessings to children that Jewish parents bestow on their offspring each Friday night, and a book of the Sabbath created for one experimental congregation in New York, but which is flexible enough to be used elsewhere. When we met, he had just finished producing a stage play “In the Heights” for a local Jerusalem theater company. In addition he does designs for conferences, and other educational formats.
“Art,“ he summarizes, “is something that’s burning inside of me and has to come out.”
What he has found is that in the past few decades the Jewish people, along with much of the rest of the world, is moving towards more and more visual work. More importantly for him is that all his work is within a halachic framework, which he describes as containing boundaries that are positive. Or as he puts it, “That which inspires me as an artist.”