Telling The Same Story

A mixed bag of newly published Haggadot appeal to traditional and modern tastes

01ralph88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Article in Issue 1, April 27, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Tradition reigns supreme at the Passover Seder. Everything happens as it happened last year. The frantic last-minute cleaning, the burning smell from the forgotten pot on the stove, the gathering of relatives, writhing inwardly under the self-imposed Passover family truce. Then everyone takes their place around the laden table, and the first, essential, ritual takes place: the choosing of the Haggadah. Which one do you choose? If you are hosting the Seder, nearly always it will be the one you chose last year. The familiar shapes of the wine stains, the anonymous yet familiar blurred illustrations of plagues and Exodus, and the old-fashioned Hebrew letters work their magic. You gaze at it, and the ghosts of Seders past gather just out of sight, only to be banished once you reach the page that says, "Partake of the Repast." New Haggadot may be telling the traditional tale, but they are not yet traditional themselves, and have to make a very good impression in order to earn their place at the table. How do these four, all newly published this year, shape up? I have no reservations about the first one. The Schechter Haggadah is a triumph. The text is liberally illustrated with glowing reproductions of artwork taken from Haggadot through the ages. You are likely to meet some familiar friends, such as the figures from the 14th century Birds' Head Haggadah, or the powerful work of the 20th century illustrators Arthur Szyk and Siegmund Forst. But I found some aesthetically satisfying work from artists previously unknown to me. One such is Ze'ev Raban, who taught at the Bezalel Academy in the 1920s and was influenced by traditional Persian and Syrian styles. His rendering of the 'Four Sons' of the Haggadah shows this clearly. Another is David Wander, whose 1984 illustration of the same theme for the Wolloch Haggadah is remarkable. He portrays four books on a table: one open to the text of the Haggadah about the 'Four Sons,' the second on fire, the third with blank pages, and the fourth shut. The meanings elegantly compressed into this work are enough on their own to keep debate going at the Seder table for quite some time. This rich collection is in large measure the product of Prof. David Golinkin's lifelong interest in the art of the Haggadah throughout the ages. Golinkin, president of the Conservative Movement's Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, selected some works to accompany the text, while others have been gathered in a special section immediately after the Haggadah itself. Each of the illustrations is accompanied by Golinkin's brief explanatory note, in which he wears his considerable learning - he is a professor of Jewish Law at Schechter - lightly. Commenting on a 16th century woodcut, illustrating the first known printed Haggadah in Latin (or any) translation, and showing each participant at a Seder with four cups before him, he discounts a theory that this was a device to convey the number of cups to be drunk in visual terms and adds: "It is more likely that the artist was not Jewish and had never attended a Seder and he therefore thought that each participant must use four different cups." Rounding off the book, there is a fascinating scholarly, book-length commentary on the historical development of the Haggadah by the co-founder of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Dr. Joshua Kulp. The average reader ought to be able to follow Kulp's arguments, though it would be better to read them before drinking his or her four cups of wine and not after. Kulp points out, incidentally, that when the custom was instituted during the Mishnaic period, about 1,800 years ago, it was usual at dinner to heavily dilute wine with water. Kulp cautions against overinterpreting the text. He notes that the comparative absence of Moses from the Haggadah is probably a by-product of the work being based on certain verses from Deuteronomy rather than being the result of a deliberate act, and continues, "When we remind ourselves that the Haggadah was not a text put together at one time by one editor, we should be extra cautious of detecting editorial intention in the sum of the Haggadah's texts." The commentary at least solves one old problem for me. I never understood how the cat of the Haggadah's closing song Had Gadya had been able to devour a goat. Well in at least one early form of the song found in a 13th or 14th century manuscript from Provence, it was the dog that takes care of the goat. The cat enters later in the song as the nemesis of (what else?) a mouse. How the mouse ultimately made its escape from the song is, alas, not recorded. The only drawback to using the Schechter Haggadah at the Seder table is the fear of ruining its pages by spilling wine on it. Some may find its large size awkward, but I was impressed by the large, clear English and Hebrew typefaces and the unfussy translation (partly the work of Kulp). Here, there is no "partaking of a repast," something that for me conjures up images of hungry lawyers. The text simply states, "The festive meal is served." Unfortunately, the Lovell Haggadah, though also published by the Schechter Institute, is much less impressive. Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz, the Senior Rabbinic Fellow in the Jewish Theological Seminary's KOLLOT adult study program, is responsible for the translation of the text, the commentaries and the illustrations or "illuminations,"to use his term). He also includes various directions for encouraging, as the author puts it, "a tapestry of responses" to the retelling of the Passover story. For myself, the more pretentious and touchy-feely parts of the text, much of which appears to exploit the Seder as an opportunity for "personal transformation" and "journeying in multiple vectors" are better passed over. Still, to each his (or her) own, and no doubt some may find this approach attractive, even fulfilling. The difficulty lies with the illuminations. They don't illuminate. To be fair, Berkowitz displays a pleasing sense of color and form, and cleverly integrates traditional Jewish art styles into more modern settings. His work looks attractive on the page. But for the most part their symbolism only acquires meaning once one has read the artist's unusually lengthy explanations. Some even mislead: the bold colorful stripes he uses to portray the Ten Plagues suggest flags flown at the Gay Pride parade rather than gruesome, lethal afflictions. "Art tells its own story," claims the author. I am not sure whether it should, but here it doesn't. I boast no expertise in art, but comparing the Lovell with some of the really powerful fare on offer in the Schechter Haggadah makes it clear where Berkowitz fails. The art there engages, provokes and delights. Here the art just sits prettily on the page, without for the most part drawing the onlooker in. I ought to add that I found the typefaces of the text to be a little small for me, but otherwise aesthetically pleasing. The Reform movement in Israel has also come out with a "Haggadah LeZman Hazeh" (Haggadah for These Times), in which, as one would expect, the approach of the editors is much more wide-ranging than in an Orthodox or Conservative work. On the right-hand side of the page is the traditional text, while the left-hand side hosts eclectic material ranging from the Babylonian Talmud, the works of Yehuda HaLevi, and the Rambam, to poems by Rachel, Tchernichovsky and Alterman. The introduction states that the editors have tried to provide a work suited to a modern Israeli audience living a life of freedom with responsibility, rather than to Jews living still in exile. Throughout this Haggadah, there is unsurprisingly much stress (a little self-conscious at times) on the themes of equality of the sexes and social justice. Being observant myself, I found the willingness of the editors to engage with Orthodox texts very welcome: This sort of compliment is rarely returned, unfortunately. I was bothered only by one thing: A watered-down version of Had Gadya, an utterly cloying rhyme in which the cat lies down with the goat (and the dog), the fire clears the field for planting and sowing, and the Angel of Death finds the whole ghastly scene so cute that he quits his job. This is taking concern for young feelings too far. Most children are instinctively drawn to Had Gadya in part because they are incorrigible realists and Had Gadya expresses certain hard truths about our lives. The lion may lie down with the lamb in the next world, but in this one, he brings mint sauce to the encounter. Fortunately, the original Had Gadya text is included.The reader should note that this Haggadah has not as yet been translated into English. Artistically it is much less ambitious than the other two, but the artwork, while never going much beyond the decorative, is attractive enough, and the typeface clear, if a little too colorful at times. The "Haggadah in Another Dimension" is more of a one-trick pony (or goat?). Its sole claim to fame is that it is the first 3-D haggadah to be published, and it comes equipped with special spectacles so that one can look at the pictures and get the full effect. I can report that indeed the lenses worked, and I saw the colorful pictures in all their multidimensional glory. In the spirit of the Seder night, I now ask four questions of my own. Why is only one pair of glasses provided? Anyone with children (and the audience for this production must be children) will realize that there will be fights as the little ones contest the right to be the next to put them on. Why is the material from which the glasses are made so flimsy? If they last out the Seder night in families blessed with vigorous and feisty offspring, I'll be surprised. Why are the pictures themselves so unappealing? Granted, the charming and funny clay animation figures that graced "The Animated Haggadah" of 20 years ago and that were a firm favorite of my own children set a very high standard. But the figurines here really don't come close. Why is the accompanying text in Hebrew and English so small and squashed together? Honesty compels me though to note one thing. When discussing these Haggadot at the editorial meeting, I happened to pass some of them round the table. Almost every one of my esteemed colleagues made a grab for this Haggadah, and there were collective 'oohs' and 'ahs' as each of them with surprising swiftness got in touch with their inner child. You will be relieved to read that good manners did not desert the company, and the fragile glasses emerged unscathed. But this makes me think that the "Haggadah in Another Dimension" might sell very well indeed, and that there will be a lot of resentful youngsters round the Seder table this year as the adults, for once, have a lovely time. • Article in Issue 1, April 27, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.