The story and impact of the American Heritage Haggadah

"The celebration of Passover has changed dramatically in America from pre-Civil War days to the present. What has not changed is the Passover story itself. It continues to move, teach and inspire Jew

Moses leading the Children of Israel across the Red Sea from the ‘American Heritage Haggadah’ by David Geffen, Gefen Publishers 1992 (photo credit: DAVID GEFFEN)
Moses leading the Children of Israel across the Red Sea from the ‘American Heritage Haggadah’ by David Geffen, Gefen Publishers 1992
(photo credit: DAVID GEFFEN)
“Your American Heritage Haggadah evidences the central place of Passover in American Jewish life.” 
These are the words of Prof. Jonathan Sarna, the leading American Jewish historian, who continued, “Every major event and trend in American Jewish life – wars, social movements, religious innovations and much more – have been reflected in the ways Passover has been celebrated. New technologies have likewise transformed everything from the production of matzah to the way Passover products are distributed and marketed.” 
Our patriarch, Rabbi Tuvia Geffen, participated in the holiday beverage process when he wrote his “Coca-Cola teshuva” in 1935, indicating what he did to assure the popular drink would be kosher and kosher for Passover.
“As your Haggadah demonstrates,” Sarna noted, “the celebration of Passover has changed dramatically in America from pre-Civil War days to the present. What has not changed is the Passover story itself. It continues to move, teach and inspire Jews, year in and year out.” 
I am proud that Sarna captured what my Haggadah is all about. 
In the musical, South Pacific, a memorable song gives us advice “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?” From the 1940s, my sedarim in Atlanta, I felt very strongly that I wanted to create an American Haggadah. Only in 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War, did I travel to the US to collect money, images and documents. 
Then I sat in Jerusalem with a graphic artist working very hard, side by side, so that the American Heritage Haggadah could be completed. It finally was, on a snowy day and night in January 1992. 
With the Greenfield brothers, Ilan and Dror, owners of Gefen Publishing House, I saw the first copies emerge from the bindery. By the middle of the month, I had arrived in the US with Haggadot preparing to embark on a 28-city book tour. Passover 1992 was the debut of my American Heritage Haggadah.
Living in Jerusalem actually inspired me to think seriously about creating a Haggadah. My inspiration for this work came from Seders with my Zaddie, the rabbi, and my Bubbie, Sara Hene, and my parents, Anna and Louis. 
One of the first persons I met as my work began was Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, an Atlanta native, who was speaking in Jerusalem. I shared with him a few illustrations I had selected for use in the Haggadah. He reacted positively asking me to visit him when my trip was completed. There in his office in Washington DC, he asked to write the introduction which can be found in the Haggadah. His discussion of the meaning of this volume is quite insightful and has been quoted frequently.
In developing the structure of the Haggadah, I relied on the initial articles I had written in The Jerusalem Post, the Southern Israelite and the Wilmington (Delaware) Every Evening daily paper. I had been fortunate that the first major item I had once found was a drawing of the George Washington Seder in 1889. No one had ever seen it so I had a “find.” 
Subsequently, that illustration was used by Prof. Beth Wenger of the University of Pennsylvania in one of her books. The illustration has been included in Haggadot, and Prof. Jonathan Sarna wrote about its meaning in an article about 20 years ago.
My second significant Passover event was the story of how my grandfather, Rabbi Tuvia Geffen, convinced Gov. Eugene Talmadge to order the release of a Jewish prisoner, unfairly charged, from the Georgia Chain Gang in 1933. I named that event “The Matzah Pardon.” That story has been told over and over since my Haggadah appeared in 1992.
The third piece of American Passover Judaica was located at the American Jewish Historical Society where the archivist, the late Dr. Nathan Kaganoff, pulled out a letter and showed it to me. Congressman Herbert Tenzer of New York used his personal Congressional Stationery to request his Chametz be sold by his spiritual leader, Rabbi Gilbert Klapperman in the 5 Towns on Long Island. Tenzer authorized the rabbi “to dispense of all hametz in my possession.” The Congressman listed all the different residences which he had plus his office in the Capitol.
Traveling in the south from Atlanta to Charleston, I spent time in the famous reform synagogue, “Kahal Kadosh” in the city, fourth oldest Jewish building in the USA. Rabbi William Rosenthal, there, of blessed memory had a personal collection of images from American Jewish history. 
In my search there among his drawings, I located what I consider the oldest illustration of a Seder in the United States. Drawn in 1858, the Seder table has a Passover plate with the items which are to be used. The father is speaking to his son, on a highchair about the Exodus from Egypt. The striking part of that illustration is that the father looks exactly like Abraham Lincoln. A historian of the Civil War explained to me that many men may have looked and dressed like Lincoln.
I want to mention one other image because I did not immediately recognize its uniqueness when I found it in Western Jewish Archives then located at the Magnes Museum in Berkeley, now at University of California at Berkeley. In a black-and-white photograph from 1907, you see the Heppner family sitting around the Seder table. Next to the father is a sign stating “one year after the earthquake.” 
Behind the Seder table the American flag and the Magen David flag (pre-Israel) are visible. The participants on that Passover night 114 years ago are nicely dressed, and the father is wearing a tall black kippa.
This photograph has led an exciting life. At the Yale University Library, there is a permanent collection of Haggadot on display. My Haggadah is there with several hundred others including the noted illuminated Haggadah of David Moss of Jerusalem. The page of my Haggadah which is visible is the reproduction of the Seder in San Francisco after the earthquake. Since that display is on-line, anyone who so desires can view that image.
My late parents provided me with two items:  a ticket in the 1930s to a Shearith Israel Passover Carnival and a noted songbook of the ‘30s with Passover songs. My cousins, Dr. Heschel and Stanley Raskas found an empty box of Raskas Passover Sweet Butter from the 1940s which was reproduced in the Haggadah.
There are colored photos from a Seder for Jewish military personnel in 1991 held on an R&R Recreation ship for soldiers on leave. This was during the Gulf War and alcoholic drinks were forbidden in Bahrain. Because of that religious prohibition, an English ship sailed in and was anchored off shore and used for the soldiers’ enjoyment. Chaplain David Zalis, was stationed there with Jewish troops. He used his military and Jewish expertise to create a wonderful Passover retreat with all holiday trimmings. 
Everyone attending stayed on the ship for the two first days of Passover and had a wonderful time during this break in the war. In the summer of 1991, Zalis, who lives in Jerusalem, loaned me colored photos and a beautiful letter on military stationery which he received after Passover. Since he knew how to use the American military services in their positive ways, he obtained large quantities of matzah and wine. Zalis retired as a one star general and lives in Jerusalem. 
In the group of color reproductions is the first Hebrew map of Eretz Yisrael published in USA in 1840. On his trip to USA, a clever gentleman from Hebron, sent to solicit funds for the poverty stricken Jews of Palestine, located a Hebrew map of Palestine in Livorno. He took the map, and when he arrived in USA, he performed early photo shop placing his picture on the map in place of a printed seal. Even more fascinating, he had hand-written letters he had in Hebrew and Arabic printed on the map to prove its authenticity. He sold the maps to American Jews to raise funds for all those suffering in Palestine. Technically, the map is a forgery, but its uniqueness, only one copy surviving is in the Library of Congress, brought it great prominence in the Jewish treasures Exhibit at the library 20 years ago.
The Haggadah has over 50 pictures and photographs which were reproduced dating from 1858 to 1991. The textual material begins in 1778 and features Passover printed and handwritten documents which I found in archives from Jerusalem, Berkley California, Charleston South Carolina Boston, New York, Atlanta and Wilmington Delaware.
There were 7,000 copies published of my Haggadah, but there is none left. You can purchase it on Amazon and at a few online used book services. The National Library of Israel has a copy, as does the Library Of Congress. I sent it to twenty libraries in the US and I personally presented a copy to the Bibliotheque National in Paris. Through friends and family, the Haggadah is found in the presidential libraries of Jimmy Carter, George H. Bush and Bill Clinton. 
I worked hard to fulfill my dream and thankfully I was successful. As you realize, I had fun and excitement preparing the American Heritage Haggadah and leave it for those who choose to use it in a future Seder.■
The writer is a rabbi who made aliyah with his wife, Rita, whom he credits with naming the Haggadah, and three children from Atlanta in 1977.