Haggadah Returns to Tradition

“The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah,” edited by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, art by Ruth Weisberg. (CCAR Press, $19.95)

When the call went out to find an artist to work on “The Open Door,” a new Reform haggadah, Ruth Weisberg knew she just had to apply. Weisberg, 59, a noted artist and dean of fine arts at USC, had done a lot of research and given lectures about the Passover storybooks, and they were something that she felt passionately about.

“I felt I had a special insight into what enriching Jewish visual culture might mean to Jewish culture in general,” Weisberg said. “In a sense, visual culture had been somewhat neglected, and we tended to think of the work of interpretation and commentary as textual work. But I thought it did not have to be textual work, it could be images.”

Weisberg worked with Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, who edited the text, to create a haggadah that both built on traditional Reform practices and encompassed new rituals. They designed “The Open Door,” sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, United Hebrew Congregations and Hebrew Union College, to be a haggadah that is easy to use but still inspiring and thought-provoking.

“The text is organized differently to previous reform haggadahs,” Weisberg said. In “The Open Door,” “you have the service that you follow all the way through, with a considerably larger degree of Hebrew, but with more transliteration, so that there are more ways into the text. There is the complete service, but what you have on either side of the text are extra texts and elective readings that are very rich and extremely varied, and they come from all different sources and different cultures.”

There are Sephardic readings and Ashkenazic readings, and there are Martin Luther King readings. “Every year you can use this haggadah differently, and have it reflect what is going on in the world, or particular concerns of that year,” she said.

The haggadah has been modernized in other ways as well. In an effort to be inclusive, Weisberg and Elwell amended the God language in the text to make it gender-neutral, and while feminist innovations have been added, such as the Cos Miriam (Miriam’s Cup — a parallel to Elijah’s cup, but is filled with water), also included are more traditional observances, such as hand washing, which was absent from the most well-known Reform haggadah, the Baskin-Bronstein haggadah.

“It is probably the most traditional Reform haggadah that has ever been published, but at the same time it is very innovative,” Weisberg said.

As the artist for the project, Weisberg believed that she had more to offer than simple illustrations that accompanied the text. “My ideas for images affected the editor,” Weisberg said. “These were not afterthought illustrations of the text, but were really embedded in the process of bringing this haggadah into fruition. That is really an important distinction, and it is much more interesting to work that way.”

The drawings in the haggadah reflect hours of discussions that Weisberg had with the editor, friends, members of the New Emmanuel Minyan at her congregation Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills and Rabbi Laura Geller. Together, they grappled with the text of the haggadah, and her drawings reflect the conclusions they reached.

In one drawing, “Eagles and Gazelles,” Weisberg strived to create a sense of freedom that was joyously uplifting. “There is a text that is used in the Baskin-Bronstein haggadah that talks about ‘eagles wings with the swift gazelles,’ and it is a verse that gives you the sense of what freedom feels like,” Weisberg said.

“It is very buoyant, and in the Baskin illustrations, which I admire, the eagle is very predatory, and it is not buoyant, and it is not about freedom. I really wanted to do an image of an eagle that soared, that had the feeling of liberation, and I feel that I have captured it,” she said.

Weisberg also worked to create images for parts of the text that were usually neglected by other haggadah artists, such as the story of the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah.

The end result is a haggadah that Weisberg hopes will become a classic, but will also be particularly powerful this year.

“Each year, no matter what is happening in our lives and in the world, this story of slavery and freedom always has a special resonance in the world,” Weisberg said. “This year I imagine that it would be especially meaningful for all of us, because I think that we are all aware of the preciousness of our freedom and some of the threats against us.

For more information, please contact the Central
Conference of American Rabbis at (212) 972-3636 or visit http://www.ccarnet.org/haggadah/