October 20, 2018

Ilan Stavans’ ‘New World Haggadah’ for the modern world

Ilan Stavans feels the time has come for the diversity of the modern Jewish experience to be reflected in the Haggadah we read at our Passover seders. Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, and author or editor of many books and poems dealing with Jewish and Latino history and culture. “The New World Haggadah” is his interpretation of the Passover story, and it includes many of the traditional elements but adds varied voices from the multicultural, global landscape.

Stavans will appear at the Skirball Cultural Center Sunday, March 20 as part of “Viva!”, an ongoing Skirball initiative exploring connections between Jewish and Latin American Cultures through lectures, conversations and performing, visual and media arts. We asked him a few questions in preparation for his visit to Southern California:

Jewish Journal: Why another Haggadah? What makes this one different from the others out there?

Ilan Stavans: The mandate we have as Jews is for the story of the Exodus from Egypt to be retold every generation. The real Haggadah, the one belonging to all of us, is always blank, its pages ready to be filled out. As a Mexican Jew who immigrated to the United States, for years I have felt a more diverse, more pluralistic, inclusive delivery was needed. When I turned 50, I told myself: this is your time. “The New World Haggadah” is meant for American Jews in the 21st century. It connects us with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, with Sephardic and Ashkenazic cultures, with the Holocaust and terrorism, with the Civil Rights era, with the Americas as a whole, with the endurance of the State of Israel, and with Yiddish, Ladino, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic. This is a Haggadah about Jews as eternal immigrants.

JJ:  This Haggadah retains the construction of the traditional format, but between the explanations of various symbols or reciting of the 10 plagues, you have included some very powerful poetry. How did you decide what poems to include, and do you intend the poems to be read aloud at the seder?

IS: The beauty of the Passover seder is that it features elements from the past, the present, and the future. It has poetry, politics, folklore, Mishnaic commentary, and references to pop culture. My hope is that “The New World Haggadah” will open a new world for readers who will see our heritage through a multilingual prism. I wanted to feature medieval and renaissance authors, resistance in World War II, crypto-Jews and activists during the Dirty War in Latin America, songs of protest and songs of hope.

JJ: Your own ancestors were Polish immigrants to Mexico, the country where you grew up before coming to the United States when you were in your mid-twenties. It seems like you are embracing both sides of your heritage here, and also including references to other ethnic groups that are still seeking freedom in various ways. As American demographics change, are you hoping that this new Haggadah will be embraced by a more multicultural Jewish world?

IS: American Jews are no longer a homogenous minority; we come in all colors and from all corners of the world. “The New World Haggadah is inspired by the maxim e pluribus unum. Tell us a little bit about the artist, Gloria Abella Ballen and how she conceived the beautiful drawings and paintings that enliven the text.

IS: She has done a superb job marrying image and word. This is a Haggadah for all ages.

The New World Haggadah by Ilan Stavans.  Illustrated by Gloria Abella Ballen. Gaon, 2016. Paperback, 82 pages. $18.00

Ilan Stavans will appear at the Skirball Cultural Center March 20th at 2 pm.

Lisa Silverman is the Library Director of the Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.