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.

The Jewish Bernie Sanders who only Vermonters know


Bernie Sanders reads from the Passover Haggadah in Hebrew and jokes with his seder hosts about finding hametz, traces of leavening, after they have thoroughly cleaned the house in preparation for the holiday.

The presidential candidate, a socialist competing for the Democratic nomination, also follows Israeli politics close enough to understand the influence of the haredi Orthodox parties in government. And like many Jews of his generation, Sanders, 74, chafes at what he sees as disproportionate critical attention applied to Israel.

But little of this emerges in his public profile.

More has been written about the Judaism of his Brooklyn childhood than his interactions with the faith and community today.

“I know he’s Jewish and I know he has a good heart, but give us something, make us feel proud of you,” said Rabbi James Glazier of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in South Burlington. “I can’t tell him what to do — that’s not my business. He owns his own spiritual journey. But we need a Jewish hug from him every once in a while.”

As a politico, Sanders appears averse to hugs, Jewish or otherwise. Consider his awkward handshake with Hillary Rodham Clinton during the first Democratic presidential debate last week after he said her use of personal emails while in government shouldn’t be a campaign focus.

“It’s not like he’s embarrassed or ashamed of [his faith],” said Richard Sugarman, an Orthodox Jew who is among Sanders’ closest friends and a professor of philosophy. “He continues to be a universalist; he doesn’t focus on those issues.”

The Jewish Vermonters who know Sanders say his reluctance to make his Judaism central to his public persona is a function of his preference for the economic over the esoteric, as well as a libertarianism typical both of the state and its Jewish community – one that embraces expressions of faith and the lack of them.

Sanders, like many Jews who came here in the 1960s and 1970s, migrated to Vermont for reasons having little to do with his Judaism. He once told NPR that travel brochures he saw as a teenager depicting the state’s open spaces attracted him in the mid-’60s. Sanders, his first wife and his older brother bought 85 acres of land for $2,500. (Sanders has been married twice. His first wife is Jewish, his current spouse is not.)

Ben Scotch, a lawyer who for decades worked in the state attorney general’s office and for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he and Sanders were part of a generation of Jews who supplanted the state’s more conventional Jewish community.

“The children of Jewish families that settled here generations ago frequently looked at Vermont and said, ‘What are we doing here, this is no place to identify as Jews, the real Jewish centers are in the cities,’ and they doffed their hats,” said Scotch, who lives in Montpelier, the state capital, and knows Sanders through his dealings with government.

“One generation was heading south on the interstate to New York, and meanwhile heading north on the interstate are children of city-bound Jews, saying ‘enough of my parents’ materialistic values, I don’t want to be in the undershirt business for the rest of my life.'”

Eventually, many of the new Jewish migrants found Jewish community, albeit one that worked with Vermont’s counterculture. Montpelier today is home to four female rabbis, three Reconstructionists and one who identifies as Orthodox, having attended a transdenominational rabbinical school.

The Orthodox-identifying rabbi, Tobie Weisman, said she has encountered an abundance of stories like Scotch’s through her group, Yearning for Learning, which organizes Jewish programming throughout the state.

For example, she asked the owner of a local gelato shop what ingredients he used to ascertain whether the desserts would be suitable for the kosher-observant, only to find out that the man’s mother was Jewish. Several months later, the shop owner was seeking advice on how to make horseradish-flavored gelato for a seder.

“Being a rabbi, I find Jews,” Weisman said, noting that when she speaks to people with children, about one in three times she’ll find a Jewish connection.

Susan Leff, who founded Jewish Communities of Vermont two years ago to coordinate Jewish activities in the state, said counting Jews in Vermont is a challenge, precisely because the Jews who arrived in the ’60s value the state’s nonconformist ethos and resist organization.

Before launching her start-up, Leff asked around at Jewish congregations about setting up an affiliate of the Jewish Federations of North America, but it was a nonstarter.

“People would say, ‘why send our money to New York?’” she recalled.

Leff said her mailing list suggests that there are more than 20,000 Jews among the state’s 600,000 residents. That’s four times the 5,000 Jews that appear on outdated databases. From three functioning synagogues in 1975, when she arrived in the state to study at Bennington College, there are now 14 with rabbis, along with an array of lay-led prayer communities, or havurot. Of the 10,000 students at the University of Vermont, where Leff  served as Hillel director for a decade, she estimates 2,000 are Jewish. The campus has a kosher kitchen.

David Fried, Weisman’s husband — a New York native who is a farmer and a jam maker — described his own trajectory from secular Jew to observance.

Checking trees ripe with produce on a cool autumn day, he remembered being nervous the first time he shut down his farm, Elmore Roots, on Shabbat. Fried said he discovered quickly that his clients and neighboring farmers respected his observance.

Alan Steinweis, who heads the University of Vermont’s Center for Holocaust Studies, said the state’s libertarian traditions created a convivial environment for diverse Jewish expression.

“It’s a comfortable place for Jews to move to,” he said.

Steinweis noted that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, or BDS, had failed in its bids to gain a foothold at the university, despite its reputation for being among the most liberal in the United States.

“It’s traditional Yankee libertarianism,” he said. “It’s OK to criticize, but don’t censor.”

Sanders’ fraught encounter with BDS supporters who challenged his defense of Israel at a town hall meeting in Cabot last year was captured on YouTube. Sugarman said he was not surprised that his friend stood up to the hecklers, telling them to “shut up.”

“Many of us were gratified, not amazed, that Bernard had the ‘beitsim’ to stand up against these nihilists,” said Sugarman, using the Hebrew colloquialism for “balls.” (Most Vermonters call Sanders “Bernie”; Sugarman prefers “Bernard.”)

Sugarman has known Sanders since they met on a slow train home to Vermont in 1976. Sugarman was returning from defending his doctorate at Yale, Sanders from a family reunion in Brooklyn — “events that were traumatic for both of us,” Sugarman said.

They spoke all night, and Sanders moved in with Sugarman for a while following the breakup of Sanders’ first marriage — and kept a kosher kitchen in deference to his friend. (Sugarman, who roomed with former Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., at Yale, may be the only person to have lived with both serious Jewish contenders for the U.S. presidency.) Sugarman encouraged Sanders, who had run several hopeless third-party bids for statewide office in the ’70s, to run as an independent for Burlington mayor in 1981; Sanders defeated the Democratic incumbent by just 12 votes.

Sanders went on to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990 and to the Senate in 2006.

He has chosen friends who complement his wonkishness: Sugarman, the philosopher, and Stanley “Huck” Gutman, a professor of poetry at the University of Vermont who has written about the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. In 2010, the Washington Post profiled Gutman, who for four years was Sanders’ chief of staff, because Gutman routinely sent Senate staffers favorite poems. Gutman acknowledged he got nowhere in talking poetry with his old friend and boss.

In his cluttered office Sugarman, whose expertise is Emmanuel Levinas, the Talmudist and philosopher, pulled out from a table tumbling with books on Levinas (and one kids’ book about Hanukkah) a compilation of speeches from a Levinas seminar he organized in 2000. He opened it to the welcome speech by Sanders, who mentioned Levinas only to jokingly wonder whether he was a candidate because his name cropped up on signs around town.

But Sugarman said the candidate’s Jewish identity is principally expressed in his understanding that elections make a difference, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

“He once said that as a child in Brooklyn, he learned there was an election in Germany in 1932,” Sugarman recalled of Sanders, whose father lost family in Holocaust-era Poland and who is on the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. “And although it was not decisive, it was quite important.”

Pharoah said ‘no.’ You won’t believe what God did next.


Once, at our seder, our friend Ira gave a running commentary on the haggadah, offering a scientific explanation for every miracle and wonder in the Exodus story.    


I honor the impulse to rationalize the Passover story, to find a lens through which it looks like history. But I think it may actually be better if the whole thing really were made up.

I can see why Wolpe got a big pushback. Ingenious alternatives were offered for the truth of the text. Richard Elliott Friedman, for example, a distinguished scholar, built an elegant case that the Exodus did indeed occur, but just for one fierce tribe, the Levites. When they joined the other tribes, the Levites became the Israelites’ priesthood. The task of teaching Torah fell to them, and their own experience became the official version.

“And that is how a historical event that happened to the Levite minority became everybody’s celebration — how we all came to say that we were slaves in Egypt, although that was not the experience even of most Israelites of the period. It’s not so different from practicing, say, the American cultural tradition of Thanksgiving, which most Americans do, even though most U.S. citizens are not descended from Pilgrims or Native Americans.” 

I honor the impulse to rationalize the Passover story, to find a lens through which it looks like history. But I think it actually may be better if the whole thing really were made up.

Wolpe is a bit elegiac when he tells us that the Exodus may not have happened, the way parents in another religious tradition admit there is no Santa Claus. He lets us down easy and guides us to the holiday’s enduring lesson. But I think there’s a huge upside to appreciating it as a fiction, a masterwork of the human imagination, a brilliant narrative, an origin myth whose aesthetic truth leaves me awestruck by its moral truth.

Yes, Passover is about the bitterness of bondage and the righteousness of freedom. But it’s also about — to me, even more about — our telling the story of bondage and freedom.  When we do that, we not only obey a biblical injunction to teach our children where we came from, we communally experience how literally spellbinding a story can be.  

We Jews didn’t just give monotheism to the world. We also gave the story of monotheism to the world. If monotheism had been merely a creed or ideology, the world might have paid attention for a bit and then moved on. But because it’s a story, a breathtaking drama, it has held the world in its grip ever since.  

martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Bringing new questions to the seder table


With Passover upon us, an almost universal association with the biblically based holiday is the reciting of the four questions, commonly chanted by the youngest person seated at the seder table. Our tradition has long emphasized the importance of asking good, probing questions. The ones cited in the haggadah are nothing more than basic examples to stimulate discussion and interest in the night’s proceeding.

Here are four questions of a different type. These don’t appear in the Passover haggadah, but rather in the Talmud, tractate Pirkei Avot. Rabbi Shimon Ben Zoma, who lived in Israel during the first third of the second century, asked them. His questions could not be more fitting to the Passover night.  

1) “Who is wise?”

“One who can learn from others.” Building on the rabbi’s response, be mindful to learn from other people’s experiences, living or deceased. Think of the wise child described in the haggadah.  Characteristic to the wise child is one who is inclusive and appreciative of those who have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the teachings and understanding of our age-old, wise religious tradition.

2) “Who is strong?”

“One who can say no to him-/herself.” Self-discipline is difficult.\ It’s not easy to diet or exercise or give up aspects of our lifestyle to which we’ve grown accustomed. From the standpoint of Passover, it’s not easy to go one full week without leavened grain products, let alone maintain the standards inherent to the observance of the holiday. But as difficult as it is to say no to yourself, it is even harder to know when to say yes. The Jerusalem Talmud sums it up best (Kiddushin 4:12): “You’ll be held accountable for every legitimate pleasure you’ve denied yourself.”

3) “Who is rich?”

“One who is happy with what he/she has.” How many of us can say, “I have enough.” During the Passover seder, we sing the song “Dayenu,” which translates, “It would have been enough for us.” I wonder how many sing that song and actually mean it?  How many of us are happy with our spouse, our children or our friends? Do we repeatedly try to change them? “Dayenu” is not a plea for complacency. If anything, it’s a plea for perspective and heightened appreciation for the things we do have.

4)  “Who is honored?”

“Those who honor others.” If you want to keep friends and maintain family bonds, honor them. Stop competing against them. The word for honor in Hebrew shares the same root letters as the Hebrew word “heavy” (it also relates to the word liver; the liver is an especially heavy organ). At times, it is literally heavy, or minimally difficult to give honor. Not uncommonly, we’re fixed on ourselves. Next time you’re in a conversation, see how quickly the discussion shifts to you and your interests. Be particularly mindful of that tendency when seated around the seder table. Bear in mind, honor doesn’t mean agreement. An additional rabbinic comment makes the point; the one who is ultimately honored is the one who flees from being honored.

Freedom for all human beings is the leitmotif interwoven throughout Passover’s celebration. But tied into the notion of universal freedom is the simple freedom to pose questions. This Passover, as you sit around your seder tables, ask questions; ask questions the likes of those asked by Rabbi Ben Zoma. Don’t be bound by the “classic” four questions. Remember, they’re only examples. While you form your own probing questions to deepen your Passover experience, don’t forget to come up with some equally good answers.


Rabbi Michael Gotlieb is the rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

Preserving Yiddish in the seder


Nowadays, it’s rare to find a Passover seder that doesn’t deviate from the traditional haggadah. But the Erev Shabbos Discussion Group, formed in the San Fernando Valley about 50 years ago, has been doing it its own way for decades — keeping the story secular, social justice-oriented, and drawing from Yiddish and other traditions. 

On March 29, 76* people gathered for a seder at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley. The seder combined Yiddish, Hebrew and English poems and songs, and paid tribute to the founders of the community.

Erev Shabbos grew out of the Valley Kindershule and Valley Mittelshule, a Jewish school founded around 1960 by Yiddish-speaking Jews who had recently moved to the area. The school met on Saturday mornings, mainly at the former Valley Cities Jewish Community Center. The Valley shules (Yiddish for schools) were an outgrowth of the existing shule movement that dates back to the 1930s in Los Angeles. While the Valley shules ended around 1980, the former students continue to stay in touch, and several graduates reunited at the seder to sing Yiddish songs from their childhood, such as “In Dem Land Fun Piramidn.”

The kids’ parents wanted to pursue their own formal Jewish education, and so began a Friday night study group in around 1967. Decades later, they continue to meet, now on Sunday mornings. They began hosting seders for their children, with Torah stories geared toward young people. Children would sit on tablecloths on the floor and draw with crayons. Over time, as those children became parents themselves, the seders became more adult-centered. 

“Because we are secular, we don’t include any prayers. We include a lot of songs about justice and freedom and world peace. Certainly the themes might be the same that are included in a religious sense, but it’s from a different perspective,” said Sylvia Brown, 90, a Valley Village resident and founding member of Erev Shabbos along with her late husband, Murray. She also served as the principal of the Kindershule.

Members of Erev Shabbos created their own haggadah, a process that took several months. The group incorporated segments of several haggadot, while adding Yiddish and English poems that were meaningful to the group. It’s been revised every few years. “It’s an enormous amount of work,” Brown said.

Near the beginning of Sunday’s seder, Barbara Bickel read from the haggadah, “Whoever enlarges upon the telling of the Exodus from Egypt, those persons are praiseworthy.”

The Erev Shabbos seder focused on the Holocaust and the resistance movement. The group lit six candles in honor of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis in World War II. They also recited “Peysakh Has Come to the Ghetto Again,” excerpted from a Yiddish poem by Inem Heller and translated by Max Rosenfield. One part of the poem reads: 

In face of the Nazi — no fear, no subjection!
In face of the Nazi — no weeping, no wincing!
Only the hatred, the wild satisfaction
Of standing against him and madly resisting.

Also included was the Yiddish poem “Zog Nit Keynmol,” written in 1943 by poet Hirsh Glik in the Vilna Ghetto, which became the anthem of the Jewish partisan movement. One refrain reads:

Never say that there is only death for you.
Though leaden skies may be concealing days of blue.
Because the hour that we have hungered for is near.
Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble: “We are here!”

The haggadah also nodded to other peoples’ struggles for freedom. The group sang the African-American spiritual “Go Down Moses,” itself inspired by the Exodus story. Following the second cup of wine for Elijah the Prophet, the group filled a goblet of water for Miriam, Moses’ sister, who lead the Israelites in singing and dancing after crossing the Red Sea. The Erev Shabbos group brought out tambourines and maracas and sang Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam’s Song,” as the women held hands and circled the room in a line dance.

“Miriam’s Song” was added to the haggadah by Cindy Paley, a Kindershule graduate and music educator, and one of the main organizers of the seder. She said her fellow students received an unusual education, studying Yiddish as well as workers’ rights. 

“It’s a very socialist, left-leaning group. [The tradition] came from the Bund in Eastern Europe. When we were in Kindershule in 1967, we went up to the peace march in San Francisco against the Vietnam War. I remember it was a very political group in those days,” Paley said.

“The shule network in L.A. — which was the most attended Jewish educational system in the city from the 1930s unil the early 1950s — spanned the political spectrum from socialist to communist-affiliated working Jews in the city,” said Yiddishkayt director  Rob Adler Peckerar.

Many of the Kindershule graduates credit that school and their liberal secular upbringing for shaping who they are today.

“It defined how I was Jewish,” said Robin Share, an instructional coach for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Going to Kindershule and Mittelshule formalized and put a sort of stamp of approval on that experience and the way we understood our role in the world as Jews and as progressives.”

“I think it was my really early introduction to liberal politics,” said Avital Aboody, a community organizer and social justice activist working in San Diego, who attended these seders as a child, when she and her friends would act out the Passover story with costumes and props.

Many of the group’s founding members have died. “We started with about 14 couples. There are only two [of those] men left, and seven women,” Brown said. “This year, we lost two members.”

Another former Kindershule student is Aaron Paley (founder of Yiddishkayt and a co-founder of the popular CicLAvia bicycling events held regularly throughout Los Angeles). He announced to Sunday’s group that he is currently working on “The Shtetl in L.A.,” a documentary about the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center and the Erev Shabbos Discussion Group. He asked the guests at the seder to record interviews with the elders of the community, and to digitize and submit their archival photos and videos, as well as to contribute financially to the project.

“We’ve lost so many people. It’s really something that we’re still here,” said Sabell Bender, 88, a West Hollywood resident and one of the original Erev Shabbos members.

But with the now-grown children and grandchildren attending the annual meal and keeping the community intact, there’s new life to the group. “We hope it’s going to continue with the same spirit that it’s had before,” Brown said.

*We originally reported the number as 60.

Easy floral arrangements for your Passover table


You’ve been cooking for days. You got the good dishes out of storage. The silver is polished. And in the midst of getting all the preparations ready for the big seder dinner, the last thing you probably want to think about is a floral centerpiece. 

The reality is, centerpieces just aren’t that practical for the Passover table. The table is already crowded with dishes, glasses, the seder plate, Elijah’s cup, Miriam’s cup and bowls of saltwater. You know that as soon as the brisket comes out, that centerpiece is getting moved to the living room.  

But flowers add so much to the Passover table. They signify spring and new life. And the beauty of the blooms brightens the entire evening. 

Here, then, are four ideas for seder dinner floral pieces that are easy to whip up, and take up very little room on the table. We’ve expanded the definition of “florals” to include herbs and succulents; while not florals in the technical sense, these organic elements are a popular alternative to flowers. 

Because the arrangements are small, you can create multiples to scatter across the tabletop, perhaps one in front of each person’s place setting. And their low height means you will have no problem seeing across the table as each of you reads a passage from the haggadah. These also make great favors that guests can take home to remember the evening. 

Endive-wrapped vases

Red endive is sometimes used as a bitter herb on the seder plate, but it also makes a colorful foundation for this quick and easy arrangement. Endive leaves are wrapped around a glass votive holder to form a vase and fill with flowers or, in this case, fragrant mint leaves.

Place a rubber band around a glass votive holder. You can also use a shot glass or a small juice glass.

Egg blossoms

The egg has so much symbolic significance during Passover celebrations, it’s only fitting to incorporate it in the flowers. These hollowed egg shells act as a miniature vase, as if the eggs are hatching spring’s new possibilities.

Break the tip of the egg with a knife, and pour out the egg yolk and whites to save for cooking. Wash the inside of the egg and let it air dry.

Mason jar succulents

For a unique twist on Passover flowers, try these succulents arranged in mason jars. Beautiful, resilient succulents can grow in the harshest environments, and they represent the hope that was ever present, even in captivity in Egypt.

Cut succulent blooms from existing plants. Allow them to sit out for about a week so a scab forms where you cut them.

Magnetic flowers

It’s a Passover miracle! These flowers are standing on their own, without a vase. It may not be the parting of the Red Sea, but you have to admit, it’s pretty nifty. The trick is magnets at the base of the stems, and a hidden piece of metal under the tablecloth.

Hot glue a magnet to the head of a nail. Flat neodymium magnets are perfect for this, but keep the kids away — they are harmful if swallowed.

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What makes this book different from (most) other books?


Maybe it is appropriate that books created by the People of the Book are just as complex and varied as the people themselves. Our Torah contains multiple versions of the same stories. In the Talmud, interactive commentaries spiral out from original texts. Our prayer books feature several languages, and we have a sage (Rashi) who has his own script. For the linear 21st-century mind, it can be hard to take in. 

But the story of the Exodus from Egypt, a story we are commanded to retell on the holiday of Passover, seems to lend itself to a straightforward, simple text. After all, the ritual is called seder, or order. As it is set forth in Torah, there are only two parts to the mitzvah: Make a sacrifice, tell a story. (You know the one: Let my people go, cross the sea, women dance with timbrels and dayenu.

Yet every year, when I open the book placed in front of me on the table, I am reminded of how easy it can be to lose my way in the haggadah. The collection of excerpts from the Bible, Mishnah and midrash, interpolated with instructions for ritual — not to mention illustrations and quotes on civil rights, feminism and climate change — can be daunting. Whether the text is hand-compiled or Maxwell House, one of the Four Questions should be:
Which page are we on

The oldest haggadah still in existence was part of a 10th-century prayer book, but there is evidence that haggadot were separate books earlier than that. Almost from the start, they were seen as personal objects, less subject to the rules of the community and more amenable to the expression of personal taste. 

In the Middle Ages, well-to-do families commissioned artists to create personal haggadot. Illuminated and beautifully decorated, many of them were also illustrated, a practice that was allowed — despite the belief that the second commandment regarding graven images forbade it — because they were thought to be educational. 

As soon as there was printing, there were printed haggadot, and today we are inundated with beautiful and intriguing versions of endless variety. Based on the number of versions, the Passover haggadah may be one of the most popular Jewish books, just as the seder is one of the most observed Jewish rituals. 

But in all that time, they didn’t get simpler. 

The form of our Passover ritual is generally believed to have been lifted from a Greek gathering called a symposium. There were three parts to the evening: a banquet, set speeches and discussion. Turns out the symposium had its literature, too, which shaped our haggadah, and reflects teaching methods that were considered best practice thousands of years ago. 

Rabbi Adam Schaffer, religious school director at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, suggests that the haggadah is more like a lesson plan than a storybook, and handing them out is a little like giving lesson plans directly to the students. There are a multitude of discussion topics. It’s the job of the seder leader to bring coherence to the evening, to help create an experience — as if you were there — as well as to pass on the story of our ancestors. 

But if the haggadah is like a big lesson plan, Schaffer amends, it is also like a jazz score, a basic melody with themes that the people at the table are meant to riff on. 

That’s us. Our task. At the table where there are so many guests — living and dead, each with a voice — the telling of the story of the Exodus is just one part of the conversation. 

Of course not all seders are so perfectly led, and not all leaders have the time or the inclination for elaborate preparation. If you find yourself looking into this complex text, unable to find meaning or your way, Schaffer suggests seeking someone on the page to talk back to. Be the second child, ask questions of tablemates and the haggadah. You are meant to ask, what does this mean to us? It is essential. 

Best practices — then and now. 

Make your Seder pop


Every year, millions of men, women and children gather at the seder table and read from the haggadah in what seem to be a million different ways.

Some use the familiar Maxwell House version; others find the Four Questions in “The Family Haggadah.” Recent years have offered updates with modern twists, such as 2012’s “New American Haggadah,” which features commentary from contemporary writers and thinkers in the Jewish world; and the “2010 Facebook Haggadah,” a satirical Web site with humorous status updates from Joseph, Moses, Pharaoh and the rest of the story’s key players. 

This year, Melissa Berg, a Toronto resident, released “Pop Haggadah,” which draws its inspiration from modern art. 

“The title refers to pop culture and art,” she said. “The images and the colors pop. You can make your Passover really stand out and pop.”

“Pop Haggadah” is full of bright, lively colors and a variety of fonts on every page. Separately, each page is a piece of artwork in and of itself. It’s meant to keep kids focused and adult readers intrigued throughout the several hours it usually takes to get through it.

The book also contains cartoon-esque visuals drawn by Berg, a hobbyist illustrator. The pictures — which include a plane with large bird wings (after “Next Year in Jerusalem”) and a ram falling into a swirling vortex — were inspired by art from the 1960s and ’70s. 

“I like Warhol, and I looked at album covers from the 1970s for this,” she said. 

Along with the drawings, the 156-page text consists of blessings, instructions and Hebrew translations found in a traditional haggadah, as well as fun facts. After a “l’chaim,” for example, Berg adds that resveratrol is “an antioxidant found in grapes, believed to have many health benefits.” 

Although “Pop Haggadah” is meant for an Orthodox seder, Berg believes that everybody can find something they like in it. 

“I wanted it to appeal to all different sects of Judaism and make Passover fun,” she said. “It’s my favorite holiday because I’m able to get together with my whole family.”

Berg, 30, grew up Conservative, but became Modern Orthodox as she grew older. She works for Raphael Shore, a film writer and producer who has made movies about Jewish issues and national security, including “Relentless: The Struggle for Peace in Israel” and “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.” 

When she’s not working at Shore’s production company, she’s taking on artistic and Jewish-themed endeavors like “Pop Haggadah.” Her next project, which she is currently working on, is going to be a biblical comic book. 

“I’ve always been interested in writing, and it’s something I wanted to do,” she said. “I like to create. … I really enjoy doing things that are artistic.”

“Pop Haggadah,” which Berg self-published and sells for $25.95 on ModernTribe.com, took her a year to write. To compile the seder instructions and blessings, she sought inspiration and found text from other haggadot. Her sister helped by translating the Hebrew sections. 

Because Passover is a crucial time for the Jewish people, and a period in which it’s imperative to be joyous, Berg wanted to help that happiness come to fruition for others. 

“It’s such an exciting holiday,” she said. “Sometimes during the seder you have people slipping and not knowing where they are in the haggadah. I wanted to do something that was fun. Passover should be about celebrating. It’s important to celebrate and have things that are happy and lively.”

Iraqi-American Jews oppose planned return of Jewish artifacts


The last remnants of Iraq’s once-vibrant, 2,500-year-old Jewish community left that country long ago. (Only five Jews remain, according to a recent New York Times op-ed.) But some Iraqi Jewish manuscripts, community records and holy books may soon be sent back from the United States, much to the chagrin of Jewish Iraqi expatriates.

When an American weapons inspection team entered the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters in May 2003, shortly after the American-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq, they didn’t exactly find the weapons they were looking for.

Instead, languishing in four feet of murky, rancid water were texts dating back as far as the 16th century — including siddurim, commentaries, Torah scrolls and community records from hospitals, synagogues and elsewhere. Why the Iraqi government stored these items is unclear.  

Since the discovery, the materials have been in the United States’ hands, and much of the collection is being restored and digitized, at a cost of about $3 million. Some of the materials were placed on public display on Nov. 8 at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., as part of the exhibition “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi-Jewish Heritage.” The Archives has published a portion of the collection, available at ija.archives.gov.

Despite the collection’s recent unveiling, time is short for those hoping to see the items.

After the restoration and digitization of the collection is completed, which will likely be in 2014, the State Department will return the documents to the Iraqi government as it agreed to do when the U.S. government found them, even though no Jewish community remains in Iraq.

State Department spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala wrote in an e-mail to the Journal that funding for the project “includes provisions for training Iraqi conservation professionals in preservation and the exhibition and handling of the material after the collection returns to Iraq.”

According to Jhunjhunwala, Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA), has said that INLA will display the collection when it is returned, and that INLA has the right storage facilities and well-equipped restoration lab to care for the material.

In late October, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles put out an action alert urging people to call their congressional representatives, asking them to sign a letter urging the State Department “to facilitate the return of these items to their rightful owners or their descendants, and not to the government of Iraq.”

Joseph Samuels, a Baghdad-born Jew who secretly crossed into Iran in 1949 with his younger brother, now lives in Santa Monica and is a member of Kahal Joseph Congregation, an Iraqi synagogue in Westwood. Samuels is troubled that the collection may be returned to people he says will have no concern for it.  “They couldn’t care less about the history of the Jews,” he said. “I think it’s a terrible idea.”

Joseph Dabby, who moved with his family from Baghdad to Los Angeles in 1972, agrees.  “To return them to where they will be treated as trash is incredible to me,” Dabby said. “I’m pretty sure they will be neglected.”

Dabby, 67, is chairman of the board of Kahal Joseph, and he recounted the challenges Jews faced in Iraq four decades ago.

“Jews in Iraq were persecuted continuously,” he said. “[They were] not allowed to practice their own businesses, not allowed to get higher education.” The two synagogues in Baghdad did not regularly hold services, except on holidays, Dabby said. “We were scared to convene.”

Dabby also expressed gratitude to the American government for restoring the documents, and even to the current Iraqi government “for letting these documents be restored.

“We recognize the effort, and we appreciate that,” Dabby said. “We are just not in favor of them going back.”

The Bronfmans’ New Haggadah


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Cover of the newly released "Bronfman Haggadah."Cover of the newly released “Bronfman Haggadah.”

For Passover this year, Rizzoli has just released “The Bronfman Haggadah,” written by the businessman, philanthropist and Jewish community leader Edgar Bronfman Sr., illustrated by artist Jan Aronson, who is also Bronfman’s wife. Unlike other haggadot, this version includes the role of Moses in the story of the Exodus (read Bronfman Exodus Story on page 19). In his introduction, Bronfman suggests that the omission from the traditional telling may be because the rabbis who wrote the early haggadot “viewed Moses as a dangerous hero — one who could easily upset the religious hierarchy.” On the occasion of the book’s release, Bronfman and Aronson talked about why and how they created the book, rethinking the role of the haggadah to tell, in their own way, the tale of Jewish Exodus and liberation. The following is an edited version of that conversation:

Tom Teicholz: Why a new haggadah?

Edgar Bronfman: What I think should be done in the 21st century [is] to have a haggadah that teaches young children what Judaism is all about. And I think it’s all there in the Passover story — if you know how to tell it properly. What I’ve done is written a haggadah that I think children today can relate to — and not just on Passover.

TT: How is this haggadah different from all other haggadot?

EB: It’s different in a number of ways. First, and this was my wife’s idea: Why do you want to feed Elijah after you’ve finished your meal? If Elijah represents the poor of the world, then surely you should let him in to share the meal with you. Young people will learn that feeding the poor — that’s very Jewish. The second thing that’s different, very much different, is I don’t talk about the four children; I talk about the four different kinds of Jews there are in this world and how we have to have open arms to all of them to bring them back into our fold. The third thing that’s different, I don’t stop at the Red Sea and I don’t call it the Red Sea. I call it the Sea of Reeds — a shallow part of the Red Sea that the Jews crossed without thinking, but that when the Egyptians with their chariots and their armor came, they sunk. That put the Jews on the other side of the Red Sea. No one’s chasing them now. And they’re free. Free to do anything and everything, and that becomes chaos. So Moses leads them to Mount Sinai and gives them the Ten Commandments, and this the Jews accept because they can’t stand the chaos either. And that’s where I end [the narrative], rather than at the Red Sea.

TT: You mention the four types of Jews (the wise, rebellious, simple and indifferent). Who do you see as the audience for this haggadah?

EB: I see the audience for this haggadah as the young people who have not left Judaism but are not affiliated. … Hopefully this revives some interest — just like a Birthright trip to Israel revives interest in Judaism.

TT: Throughout your life, you’ve set yourself the task of very large projects, whether it’s running Seagram’s or leading the World Jewish Congress or addressing the third phase of life. Why did you, at this point in your life, decide to tackle one holiday, one night, one meal?

EB: I think Passover is the most important of the Jewish holidays. … [It’s] the night we became a people. … I think all the elements of Judaism are encapsulated in this story. … [Also], when children come to the table at Passover, they are happy … that’s a good time to teach them a little Judaism.

Jan Aronson and husband Edgar Bronfman in 2011. Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO

TT: Ms. Aronson, tell me a little about your artistic journey with this project.

Jan Aronson: With this particular project a couple of things happened that were unique in my career. Number one, I was able to do a lot of research into how I wanted the imagery to cohere with the history of certain aspects of the haggadah. [For example,] I thought it would be interesting to put in a biblical map, which is not something I’ve ever seen in a haggadah. … I added the map [to] put some interesting context and historical references that we are talking about in a visual form. …

My work is very painterly. … This gave me an opportunity to branch out and do other things with my work that I’d never had the opportunity to do. I was also able to draw on some of the skills that I had but hadn’t used in a long time. It was a chance to play and have a good time with patterns and imagery and go outside the box with certain illustrations.

TT: Did working on these illustrations give you any deeper insight into the haggadah?

JA: I thought a lot about which concepts I wanted to illustrate. The ones that were very important to me [from] a spiritual, metaphysical and also ethical standpoint were the ones I was drawn to. [For example,] the burning bush in my concept … [occurs at] sunrise while [Moses] is meditating on his life. … The sun is rising and the color is coming through the shrubbery of the desert. He decides to go back and deal with what he left in Egypt as well as meet his brother, whom he had never met. …

TT: On a lighter note, this haggadah does not make the seder shorter.

EB: My idea was not to make it short. My idea was to make it so that when you were finished with it, you had really done the seder and you had squeezed out a lot of knowledge of Judaism from it.

TT: You left songs for the end rather than integrate them in the seder. Any reason for that?

EB: I think singing is fun, but the [songs] don’t have much to say much Jewishly. … Well, at the end you’ve had your fourth glass of wine, you’re kind of relaxed. It’s fun to sing. If the children have gone to bed by then, we don’t care. What I care about is what we can teach them up until the time of the dinner.

TT: You introduce quotes from Frederick Douglass, [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and Marge Piercy as part of your seder.

EB: My rabbis.

TT: Your rabbis. To that point, this struck me as a secularist haggadah. The magic of faith doesn’t seem to play as great a role.

EB: The magic tricks and all that are good storytelling. I’m not sure it all happened, and I don’t think it teaches very much.

TT: As I read it, there is one omission in your haggadah, and please correct me if I missed it. We are commanded at the seder to feel as if we were slaves in Egypt. For me, the great contribution of Judaism to the world is first, monotheism and the notion of a living God that is not embodied in literal idols and is an abstract concept; and second, this commandment at the seder that speaks to empathy, one of the greatest features of the Jewish faith. But you don’t mention this commandment.

EB: [As to the contributions of Judaism to the world] I say a little more [about this] at the end, where the [Israelites] are all fighting and killing each other. It’s chaotic. Then Moses gives them the Ten Commandments. By accepting the Ten Commandments, they become God’s people. I want to leave it at that … because it’s impossible for most people to really imagine themselves as “this is the night we were freed from Egypt.” That’s a stretch. Nice words, but it doesn’t mean very much.

TT: Each of you has worked for many years in your separate spheres. Can you talk about working together?

EB: For me, that was a joy. What I did was I asked my wife if she would illustrate the haggadah. She said, “But I’m not an illustrator.” I said, “I want someone who’s fresh, and not encumbered.” I know my wife is bright and smart, and I know what a great artist she is [and that with her participation], I’m going to go from what I know is a good haggadah to a great one, by having it become beautiful.

JA: I had the opportunity of a lifetime. Number one, to collaborate with my husband, whom I adore and I respect, on a project that he already had worked five years to perfect … and he said, “Here, just take it and fly with it” — it was a tremendous opportunity and a lot, a lot of fun. I had total freedom, and when I would go into Edgar’s office and show him one of the paintings I had done. … He was always really happy with it. So it was a wonderful collaboration in a very special way.

TT: On that note, let me say: Hag Sameach.

EB & JA: Hag Sameach to you, too.

Tracker Pixel for Entry A version of this article appeared in print.

Pesach without wine


How can we have Passover without wine? This is a question that is asked of me each year as Passover approaches. I always answer that the blessing is over the fruit of the vine and grape juice is perfectly acceptable. I then ask a different set of questions.

Passover is the celebration of our leaving Egypt. It is not a historical event. Yet too many of us consider the Passover seder as a recollection of an historical event. We need to go back to the intent and direction of our haggadah to see ourselves as if we, too, were brought out of Egypt. We have to ask ourselves, “What is the Egypt/Narrow Place I have to leave this year?” All of us have these, be they substances like drugs and alcohol, behaviors like eating disorders, compulsive gambling, etc. We also get stuck in the narrow places of despair, hopelessness, why bother, etc. And we can get stuck in the narrow places of comparing and competing with others, basing our self-worth on our net worth and/or seeking to feel good from outside validation, like lists, who we hang with, etc. 

These are the Egypts that wine could come to blur for us during Passover. I would suggest that everyone abstain from wine and drink grape juice instead this year. I am asking you all to make this an Alcohol-Free Seder so that every person will:

• Look inside themselves and see the narrow places that are keeping them stuck in old thoughts and behaviors.

• Tell the story of their enslavements to others at the seder, and ask for help in getting out and staying out of these narrow places. 

• Offer suggestions to others to help them out of their narrow places. 

• Write down on a piece of paper what the narrow place is, and make these your korban Pesach, your Pesach sacrifice, and burn them all together so that you release your need to run back to Egypt.

• Be present and see how we can work together to get out our comfortable slaveries.

• Make a commitment to be of service to others who are still enslaved and look for the similarities in others. 

In doing this, we will make the seder relevant and we will build stronger relationships through transparency and authenticity. 

It will allow all of us to break our addiction to perfection. We Jews have been telling our story for thousands of years; this year let us make it our story so next year we will be free

Rabbi Mark Borovitz is the senior rabbi and spiritual leader of the Beit T’Shuvah recovery program and Congregation Beit T’Shuvah.

New haggadahs: Edgar Bronfman’s and an interactive version for kids


Francine Hermelin Levite and Edgar Bronfman have been using unique versions of the Passover Haggadah for years. Now both have decided to publish their versions of the Exodus story.

Hermelin Levite, 43, the mother of three school-aged children, is the author of “My Haggadah: Made it Myself,” an interactive version for children of the ritual-laden book that is now available on Amazon.

Bronfman, 84, the business giant and Jewish philanthropist, offers “The Bronfman Haggadah” (Rizzoli) illustrated by his wife, the artist Jan Aronson.

Hermelin Levite's journey to publishing a Haggadah began about eight or nine years ago when she joined some unaffiliated young Jewish families living in lower Manhattan who were banding to create a Passover celebration. Growing up in Detroit, Hermelin Levite says she enjoyed lively and inspirational seders led by her father, who followed the traditional haggadah embellished by music he composed and other innovations. But she knew it was not a universal experience.

Hermelin Levite, a one-time journalist, educational software developer and graphic designer, volunteered to compile the haggadah. She said it had to resonate with kids and families of multiple backgrounds.

She also was motivated by the needs of her young son, who has severe food allergies to nuts, chicken and wheat.

“He was allergic to the food of Passover,” she recalls thinking and vowed to create a seder in which he could participate.

Hermelin Levite recognized that children communicate in various ways.

“The book is designed to invite artistic expression ranging from simple stickers to more complex collage and discussion,” she said, adding that her husband, also a graphic designer, helped with the images.

Over the years, her do-it-yourself, hands-on haggadah has become popular through word of mouth. Last year she decided to self publish and was amazed with the number of orders from far-flung locales such as Budapest and Hong Kong.

This year, with a grant from Reboot, a nonprofit that supports innovative projects to engage young, unaffiliated Jews, Hermelin Levite is traveling across the country introducing the haggadah to new audiences. The spiral-bound haggadah will appeal to kids with all levels of knowledge of Jewish observance.

To illustrate the passage of the four children — the wise, wicked, simple and silent — the haggadah offers four blank faces in which kids are asked to draw the personalities of guests at their seder. Blessings are written in Hebrew with English transliteration.

In retelling the Exodus story, children are presented with an empty suitcase and asked to think about what they would take if they had to leave in a hurry. Hermelin Levite hopes the provocative questions spark conversation.

She credits her Jewish education and a family that fostered a love of Jewish experience with the inspiration for creating the haggadah.

“I used to think I was an accidental children's book author,” Hermelin Levite wrote to JTA in an email. “But given my upbringing, professional path and journey raising my kids, [writing the haggadah] seems to make the perfect sense.”

Bronfman, too, has fond memories of his childhood seders as joyful gatherings of family, but says they were uninteresting, uninformative and rote. Over his lifetime, dissatisfied with the available haggadahs, he has cut and pasted passages from various versions to create more engaging seders in his own home. A few years ago he decided to create his own haggadah.

“I wanted to get all the words right,” he said.

The popularity of Passover offers a unique opportunity, he tells JTA.

“We have a chance to teach young people what Judaism is about,” Bronfman said.

Children's author Eric Kimmel, the author of “Wonders and Miracles,” a Passover companion filled with art that in 2004 won a National Jewish Book award, applauds that spirit.

“If the traditional version doesn't work for you, come up with something else,” he advocates, with a nod to the tradition but also with a dose of disrespect, he adds with a laugh. “What's important is to follow the biblical injunction to tell your children the story of Passover.”

The Bronfman Haggadah” is written entirely in English — Bronfman quips it's to appeal to most American Jews, who do not know Hebrew. The reading takes about an hour-and-a-half. Unlike the traditional haggadah, Bronfman includes Moses, who he holds as a role model of a leader who asks questions and disrupts the status quo. But all the characters of the Exodus, including God, are represented as metaphor and not historical facts, he writes.

Welcoming Elijah the prophet earlier in the seder underscores the Jewish value of welcoming in strangers, Bronfman says.

New words to the popular song “Dayenu” express gratitude for establishing a homeland in Israel. Bronfman ends the seder with a call for spiritual peace in Jerusalem among Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, and all warring peoples.

Notably, Bronfman expands the narrative of the traditional haggadah to include the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. While the foundation of Jewish law is the theme of Shavuot, he acknowledges that most Jews are unaware of the holiday that follows Passover.

“Freedom doesn't mean anything without the responsibility of law,” Bronfman tells JTA. “To be free is a privilege we too often take for granted.”

Aronson, who has fond memories of Passover seders growing up in New Orleans, spent nearly a year working on the illustrations for the “Bronfman Haggadah,” determined to avoid cliched images. To keep the images fresh — and to entertain youngsters — she changes up the artistic styles from one page to another — some are realistic, others abstract or geometric — and also varies the mood and colors. A biblical map of the Exodus depicts the possible routes traveled by the Israelites.

For the Ten Plagues, Aronson draws a large singing insect that will capture the attention of children. Miriam's tambourine is vibrantly colored with long flowing ribbons that complement the joy described in the narrative as the Israelites escape bondage.

Chocolate shakes up the seder ritual


Rabbi Adam Schaffer, who's been leading chocolate seders since he edited a chocolate seder haggadah in 1996, acknowledges that “people often do feel ill” from all the chocolate.

Still, Schaffer, the religious school director at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, Calif., says he was motivated to “experiment outside the box and engage college students who were not in the usual Hillel track,” and found that the chocolate seder took things to a “fun level, helping make connections for people, re-contextualizing the seder.”

In the last couple of decades, college campus groups and synagogue youth groups have concocted the seders that replace the ritual foods with chocolate. There is green-colored chocolate for the karpas/lettuce; chocolate-covered nuts for the charoset mix of nuts, apples and wine representing mortar used in building for the Pharoah; a chocolate egg for the roasted egg symbolizing the Passover sacrifice; a very dark 90 percent to 100 percent chocolate for the bitter herbs or maror. You get the idea.

A chocolate-soaked seder may help sugar-hyped participants absorb the ritual’s teachings about freedom. An alternative to wallowing in the gooey substitutes for the usual ritual foods, as entertaining as that might be, could use chocolate to name the issues of slavery, economic justice and fair trade in the chocolate business and to elevate the profound themes of Passover.

My chocolate haggadah amplifies awareness about ethical quandaries around chocolate, and challenges participants to consider labor justice and spotlight Passover’s underlying messages of freedom, dignity and fairness.

In “A Socially Responsible Haggadah for a Chocolate Seder,” chocolate becomes the medium for uncovering teachings about ethical kashrut, worker equity and food sustainability to celebrate those who toil, often in great poverty, to grow and harvest cacao, including children and young adults — some of them in bondage in the Ivory Coast and Ghana’s cocoa plantations. The haggadah hopes for a harvesting of the fruits of productive, meaningful and safe labors.

The custom of three matzahs — the chocolate haggadah version uses chocolate-covered — recalls our tikkun olam, our ongoing struggle to perfect the world, as we consider responsibility for the contrast between the limited resources of most cacao growers and the wealthy consumers of chocolate. When we cover our matzah with chocolate, we recall that not only are we descended from slaves in Egypt, we recall child slaves on cocoa plantations of our time.

As we prepare to celebrate Passover this year, may we feel assured that we have helped advance the messianic era through our tantalizing array of chocolate choices, not just chocolate matzah.


Rabbi Deborah Prinz is the author of “A Socially Responsible Haggadah for a Chocolate Seder,” which may be found at her blog, www.jews-onthechocolatetrail.org. Her latest book is “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao” [Jewish Lights.]

From L.A., following the Egyptian signs to the Red Sea


If the Passover haggadah seems like hieroglyphics to you, it could be a good thing.

Though the Israelites left Egypt presumably to escape the ankhs and eyes of Horus of the ancient written language, recently I discovered that hieroglyphics — a system of pictorial characters — had a way of writing me into the haggadah.

Considering that on Passover we are commanded to re-enact an event of which we have no memory, perhaps adding some details from the Egyptian point of view might deepen our understanding, or at the very least acclimate us to the theme of leaving Egypt.

Besides, since the current Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi had been seen recently in a video telling Egyptians to teach their children hatred for Jews, I was looking for a way to ameliorate my own responsive charged feelings and not bring them to the seder table.

Carol Meyers, a professor of religion at Duke University in an interview on the PBS show “NOVA,” related, “There are other ways of understanding how people have recorded events of their past. There's something called mnemohistory, or memory history. It's a kind of collective cultural memory.”

I wondered, would looking into the holiday with an Egyptian eye help me to recover some of that cultural memory and see past the present?

After sitting through seders for so many years, where a trip through the Exodus often becomes an endurance race to the matzah ball soup, I knew that my cultural memory definitely could use some augmentation and elaboration.

To freshen my “mnemohistory” — this being Los Angeles, where movie magic memories are made — I made tracks for the historic Egyptian Theater in the heart of the Hollywood Boulevard tourist district.

The theater, an ornate Egyptian Revival movie palace that had a large stage to accommodate the elaborate prologues before the films, recently was refurbished. Developed by Charles Toberman along with the Jewish impresario Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese Theater fame, the theater had opened in 1922. As luck would have it, a few weeks later, King Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in Egypt, resulting in an Egyptian craze that swept the nation.

Further connecting the theater to the Exodus, I found that the “The Ten Commandments” debuted there in 1923. According to the theater’s website, the prologue for the Cecil B. DeMille silent epic featured more than 100 costumed performers on stage, including “players seen in their identical roles in the flesh and blood.”

Now doesn’t that beat Uncle Earl droning through the Four Sons?

Still thinking about those costumes, I left in haste for the theater.

Upon arriving at its columned courtyard, I sat on a bench for a pre-holiday lunch of matzah and hard-boiled egg. Looking out at the surrounding cement walls that were cast to resemble stone blocks, I read a passage from a haggadah that I had brought along: “They put taskmasters over them to oppress them in their suffering; and they built the store-cities for Pharaoh, Pithom and Ramses.”

And movie theaters as well?

As I poured myself a little juice, I tried to decipher the hieroglyphics — scarabs, ankhs, jackals, birds and snakes — that were painted on a nearby wall.

For me, Egyptian imagery conjures up a creepy feeling of deja vu. Was it a cultural memory from the generations spent in Egypt? More likely just the result of too many haggadahs illustrated with pyramids, crooks and flails.

Even if the Exodus story has no basis in historical evidence, it is such a keystone story, so imbedded in Jewish outlook and religious practice, that when you see the signs of Egypt, even in kitschy indecipherable fashion, they speak to you.

On the hieroglyphics wall there were no cute wind-up frogs or Ten Plagues puppets like the kids have at the seder. But looking up at them, I wondered whether after the hail, lice, boils and cattle death if some Egyptians might have wanted to inscribe “Hebrews go now” on a wall.

Below the hieroglyphics I noticed a couple of cartouches. Originally worn by the pharaohs, the oval-shaped inscriptions could be worn as an amulet or be placed on a tomb.

Thinking about the 10th plague — the death of the Egyptian firstborn — I imagined the resulting stacks of amulets. It put new meaning in the seder custom of taking a drop of wine from our cups, demonstrating that we are not rejoicing over our enemy’s loss.

Curious how my own name would look on a cartouche — as apparently are others — I used my smartphone to go a hieroglyphics website that provides the Egyptian symbols to spell your name. Mine was represented by two reeds, a hand, an owl, a hawk and water — images that made me feel like I was connected to a body of water; making me think of the shore of the Red Sea.

To get to Passover, it was time to cross.


Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.

DIYers take on Pesach


At first glance, it’s hard to tell if Eileen Levinson’s Alternative Seder Plate is deeply thoughtful or merely playful. Or perhaps just coolly irreverent.

Levinson adapted her Alternative Seder Plate concept to design the ” title=”Theres an app. for that” target=”_blank”>There’s an app. for that]

Levinson’s art taps into the ethos today’s young adults are bringing to their seders. They want seders where the conversation is collaborative, the themes personally relevant and socially aware, and the resources as diverse as the people around the table. Traditions are important and respected, but also might be idiosyncratically altered or eliminated. A leader may be appointed to keep things moving, but the hierarchy is flat — the seder is a crowd-sourced effort that aims, ultimately, to produce a spiritual/socially relevant/Jewishly connected experience.

And it’s not only young people who are checking it out. Increasingly, adults of all ages are looking past the irreverence to see the potential for relevance in these new do-it-yourself seders.

“You are applying Passover to a generation of people who really enjoy creativity and getting their hands dirty as part of understanding something,” said writer/director Jill Soloway, founder of East Side Jews, an organization that holds monthly events “at unlikely venues during unpopular holidays for Jews with confused identities,” according to its Web site.

East Side Jews hosted a panel discussion that included Soloway and Levinson this week at Skylight Books focusing on the “New American Haggadah,” edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and exploring ways to personalize seder.

A TRADITION OF REVOLUTION

To be sure, tinkering with the seder is hardly a new idea — in fact, it is built into the holiday and may be one of the reasons Passover is the single-most observed holiday on the Jewish calendar. Thousands of versions of the haggadah have been produced over many centuries.

“In every generation, you are obligated to see yourself as if you yourself left Egypt,” the haggadah demands.

And later on, “Whoever discusses the story extensively is praiseworthy.”

Will Deutsch’s sketches provide a caricature-like nostalgic take on Passover moments. A search for the afikomen.

“The haggadah gives you permission to make the seder experience speak to you, where you’re at, right now,” said Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and author of “Passover: The Spiritual Guide for Family Celebration” (Jewish Lights). “The seder is not supposed to be a history lesson. It’s supposed to be a multisensory experience of the Exodus from Egypt itself, and whatever Egypt is constraining you now. That ought to be the topic of the evening — how to place yourself not in history, but in the ongoing story of your spiritual life and your connection to Judaism.”

And Jews have read themselves into the haggadah for centuries. Artwork portraying the four sons, for instance, has included communists, emancipationists, Israeli pioneers, Chasidim or American rebellious teens as the simple, wise, wicked and nonverbal children.

In 1969, 800 blacks and whites attended the first “Freedom Seder,” which Rabbi Arthur Waskow hosted in the basement of a church in Washington, D.C., on the first anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The 1973 “Jewish Catalog,” a countercultural Jewish playbook by Richard Siegel and Michael and Sharon Strassfeld, suggested vegetarians might use a beet on the seder plate in place of the zeroa, traditionally a lamb shank, and the vegetarian “Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb,” edited by Roberta Kalechofsky, appeared in the mid-1970s. Feminist seders continue to be popular today.

21st CENTURY SEDER

So if all that started in the 1960s, what’s so revolutionary about today’s seders?

For one, many in the Jewish community never embraced the seder revolution of the 1960s and ’70s but instead stuck with the old take-turns-reading-out-of-the-Maxwell-House-haggadah model. And within families that have added more interaction, more theatrics, more activity to the seder, this next generation is simply eager to add its own layer to the story.

A 21st century seder uses technology to access a vast spectrum of resources, and it lets ideas emerge from conversation and activity rather than being frontally presented. The seder is less likely to be singularly themed — feminist or civil rights, say — than to incorporate a patchwork of personal and societal ideas that make up the hybrid identity of this generation.

They want ownership and personal meaning, and are not willing to wait for the natural turnover of generations so they can take the lead.

“I went home two seders ago, and at the end of it, I was like, ‘I can’t do that again,’ ” said Tami Reiss, a 30-year-old Web product manager who lives in Los Angeles.

Reiss’ parents live in Florida and are Orthodox; each year they go through the entire text of the haggadah, mostly with her father leading.

“I think there is a big difference between a patriarch leading the seder and being the main source of information, as opposed to everyone bringing some level of curiosity and ability to ask and reply to questions,” Reiss said. “When one person is leading, it’s harder to get that sense of ownership.”

Last year, Reiss hosted her own seder, with the benefit of a grant from Birthright Next. The organization reimburses alumni of Birthright Israel trips who host guests for Shabbat and Passover in their homes. Nearly 550 hosts have signed up through Birthright Next this year, with 35 seders in Los Angeles.

Reiss and her co-host supplied some prompts, but, for the most part, they let the conversation flow. She wrote the Passover timeline out on cards, which she handed out, asking her guests to organize themselves according to the chronological order of the events on their cards.

“It was vegetarian, and we had fun; we played interactive seder games — it was kind of everything I ever wanted a seder to be at my parents’ house,” Reiss said.

Ayana Morse, community director of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, said that non-Jews who have attended her seder have been impressed with the depth of conversation.

“It sort of epitomizes the Jewish idea of the importance of asking questions by providing this forum for guided dinner-party conversation. I think people are sort of desperate for that deeper engagement with friends and peers,” Morse said.

Coming to a seder near you: A haggadah on your iPad


This Passover, Jews can still reliably be called “the people of the book.”

If sales of newly published versions of the haggadah are any indication, on the first night of Passover, when it comes time to tell the story of the Exodus, most people sitting at seder tables will be holding in their hands a text that consists of printed words and images on paper.

Next year, though, it’s anyone’s guess, and it seems inevitable that electronic readers and tablet computers will become a big part of at least some future seders, and anyone with an iPad can experience that future today.

A purpose-built iPad app, titled, simply, “The Haggadah” (Melcher Media) was released on March 28, and another iPad-friendly haggadah, an e-book version of the new ink-on-paper title “Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family” (CCAR Press), has been submitted to Apple’s iBookstore for approval, for a release, the makers hope, before seder time.

The creators of “The Haggadah” app anticipate that people won’t only use the new application to follow their own seder, but also that the app itself could become a site for actual sharing — of recipes, photos, stories and, of course, questions.

[Related: Download the Jewish Journal on your mobile device]

“As far as I know, this is the first haggadah app with this kind of interactivity,” said David Kraemer, a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), who translated the haggadah’s text into English and wrote most of the app’s additional text. There are features familiar to any reader of Passover books — an introduction to Passover and a history of the haggadah — and Kraemer also wrote dozens of comments sprinkled throughout the text, each one accessible with the tap of a finger.

Search any online marketplace for e-books and you’ll find a few haggadot (the plural of haggadah), each with its own tone, quality and price. Craig Buck, a TV writer who created the 15-page “Ina Gada Haggadah” for his family’s 20-minute seder back in the 1990s, doesn’t think anyone has purchased the Kindle version yet, although hundreds have downloaded versions available each year (in PDF format) on his Web site.

PDFs can be read on many tablet readers, and DIYSeder, an online resource that allows users to customize a haggadah’s text (What word would you prefer to substitute for “God”?) and commentary (Is your seder table full of politicos? Children? Non-Jews?) has apps for iPad- and Android-equipped devices that will allow their haggadot to be read there.

Another haggadah in the Kindle store — “The Union Haggadah,” first published in 1923 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) — displays both a menorah and a dreidel on the cover, a clear indication that the seller mixed up Chanukah, probably the best-known Jewish holiday, with the most widely celebrated one, Passover.

“The copyright expired, so it’s technically in the public domain,” Rabbi Dan Medwin, publishing technology manager for the CCAR, said. “We don’t know who took that text and made it an e-book. There’s even an iPhone app.”

That shoddy repackaging of a 90-year-old text (retail price $3.99) is nothing like the e-book version of “Sharing the Journey” that Medwin created for the CCAR Press.

E-books, Medwin said, are becoming more flexible. Thanks to the advent of iBooks Author, software released by Apple in January of this year that allows publishers to incorporate various kinds of media into their e-books, Medwin was able to include a number of special features; for example, he embedded more than a dozen recordings of Passover songs directly into the text of “Sharing the Journey.”

All of the text from the paper version of the book is in the e-book version as well. The illustrations by Mark Podwal are included in the e-book, too; Medwin added tap-activated captions to one illustration of a seder plate.

But if “Sharing the Journey” feels like a powered-up book with a soundtrack included, “The Haggadah” app — which was paid for in large part through more than $25,000 of donations solicited through the crowd-funding Web site Kickstarter — is something else entirely.

“The way people use apps is much more tactile and exploratory than the way they use a book,” said David Brown, one of the developers who worked on the app at Melcher Media, a New York-based book producer that has been creating apps since 2011, including the award-winning app version of Al Gore’s book, “Our Choice.”

“What people want is interactivity and surprise and layers of information in a way that a static page can’t deliver,” Brown said.

Just how layered is the app? Look past the fancy spinning seder plate in the “Preparing for the Seder” section, and consider the other illustrations, all of which come from haggadot that are centuries old.

While the main haggadah text in the app might use only a detail from a particular page — say, a single, ornately inscribed word from the Washington Haggadah, which dates back to 1478 and is held in the Library of Congress — a finger-tap on a magnifying glass icon nearby takes the reader to a new screen. There, the full page where the detail is from is displayed, and with a few pinches and swipes, any part of the reproduced page — crinkles, faded sections, even what look like wine stains — can be viewed.

Most of the illustrations come from the holdings of JTS’ library, where Kraemer is director; some illustrations are accompanied by audio commentary from Sharon Liberman Mintz, the library’s curator of Jewish art.

If the illuminated manuscripts reproduced in “The Haggadah” look as though they might have taken years to create, the app itself was put together far more quickly. Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, contributed his own audio commentary, which he recorded in a single one-hour session, a little more than a month before the app’s release.

And the running time of his observations was even shorter.

“The challenge was, OK, say something in one minute about ‘Dayenu,’ or say something in one minute about the Four Questions or the four sons,” Kula said, naming a few of the better-known parts of the haggadah. “Say something in one minute that is accessible and usable and relevant — that gets the job done, which is to help create meaning in people’s lives.”

Kraemer said he won’t use the app at his seder — he doesn’t use electricity on the holiday, and prefers to use a “basic traditional haggadah” anyway, to allow for more interaction between the people around the table.

Kula, who hadn’t yet seen the full app but had heard the edited versions of his commentaries, was very happy with the result and is looking forward to using it at his family’s second seder, which has always been more free in its format. In previous years, Kula said, the young adults at the table have incorporated media of all types, everything from recorded songs to YouTube videos.

In 2012, it seems, flexibility and interactivity are the words to live by when creating seders, and in that spirit, Amichai Lau-Lavie, the founding director of Storahtelling, contributed to “The Haggadah” app an alternative order of events of his own design.

Lau-Lavie began creating “The Sayder” six years ago, and the basic model — four rounds, each one focusing on one question and accompanied by one glass of wine — was established early. Since then, the format has changed; what was an “on-the-fly” innovation morphed first into a one-page paper handout, then a Web site (TheSayder.com) and now, an app.

“I don’t think the haggadah was ever meant to be read cover-to-cover, as is,” said Lau-Lavie, who is now studying to become a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “The Sayder,” he said, has a uniquely spelled name for a reason: “We really wanted people to read less and say more,” Lau-Lavie said.

This year — in light of the harsh conditions under which the workers who make Apple electronics are known to endure, and particularly since there’ll be at least one iPad at his seder table — Lau-Lavie is hoping to get people to talk about consumption and the conditions of workers.

To that end, Lau-Lavie is asking people to put an apple on their seder plates this year.

“Are we the Pharaoh or are we the Moses?” Lau-Lavie asked, modeling the kind of inquiry he hopes to inspire. “How can we do more to spread freedom around the world?”

My family’s Karaite-style Passover


Never mind the gefilte fish and brisket, the mass-produced, cardboard-like matzah and the kosher-for-Passover wine. Instead, Passover seder at my parents’ Karaite Jewish home includes a mouth-watering menu of barbecued lamb chops, crisp homemade matzah, sweet raisin juice and chewy almond cookies that stick to the roof of my mouth.

The yellowing, paper haggadah we use relies on biblical Hebrew verses that recount the Israelite Exodus from Egypt chanted in exotic, Oriental melodies. Ironically, the thin booklet was brought from my parents’ native Cairo during the community’s own exodus from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist regime, more than four decades ago. Because my sister and I were raised in a Reform temple in the far-flung desert town of Barstow, we eagerly chanted the Four Questions and searched tirelessly for the afikomen. It was only much later that we came to know that those rabbinic, or mainstream, Jewish traditions had been conspicuously absent from my parents’ Passover seder in Cairo.

Karaite Jews rely on the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, as the sole source of religious law, not accepting the Talmud and later rabbinic works as legally binding or divine. Karaites strive to interpret the Bible according to its “plain meaning” and place this duty on each person. Karaites traditionally remove their shoes before entering a prayer sanctuary and often fully prostrate themselves during prayer. Their siddur, or prayer book, consists mostly of biblical passages, including the Shema, but excludes those not biblically based, such as the Amidah.

Observant Karaites are permitted to mix poultry and dairy products. Many also believe it is OK to mix meat and dairy, contending the biblical prohibition refers only to boiling a young goat or sheep in its mother’s milk — not eating meat and milk together.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Today, my parents enjoy being active members of a mainstream Conservative congregation in South Orange County, where my father participates in Torah readings and sometimes acts as a gabbai on the bimah, or dais. Both say they feel comfortable with the Conservative congregation and consider some aspects of Karaism to be strict, such as the prohibition against menstruating women entering a synagogue and, among the very religious, cooking.

Despite my family’s integration, my parents have also managed to maintain some of their ancient Karaite customs. In addition to commemorating Passover the Karaite way, they gather occasionally at the home of a relative or friend for Sabbath prayers or a yahrzeit conducted while kneeling on clean, white sheets that serve as makeshift prayer rugs.

In America, there are an estimated 730 Karaite families, including a large community in San Francisco’s Bay Area and more than five dozen families in Southern California, according to the Karaite Jews of America. Israel has replaced Egypt as the modern center of Karaite Judaism and is home today to tens of thousands of Karaite Jews, many of whom have also adopted at least some rabbinical or mainstream Jewish customs.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Karaites trace their practices to the time of Moses, considering their Judaism to be the Judaism God commanded in the Torah.

But Karaism as a formal movement is widely believed to have crystallized in the late ninth century in the areas of Iraq and the land of Israel, with the merging of elements from various Jewish groups that mostly rejected the Talmud, according to Fred Astren, professor and chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University and a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge. “The majority of rabbinic commentators affirm that Karaites are Jews, and that they do not disagree on the fundamentals of Judaism or that the Torah was received by Moses on Mount Sinai, but they do differ in the way they observe the commandments. Where the differences in the commandments could be most pronounced [is] in the calendar and marriage,” Astren said.

Karaite holidays are fixed according to the new moon after the barley in Israel reaches a stage of ripeness, as was done in biblical times; as a result, they can fall on different days from the more commonly used Jewish calendar.

“If you are eating when other Jews are fasting, and fasting when other Jews are eating, that’s pretty strong stuff,” Astren said. Today, however, most Karaites in America (and an increasing number in Israel) follow the pre-calculated calendar used by mainstream Jews.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Sephardic rabbis have long accepted intermarriage with Karaites. Central Eastern European rabbis traditionally have not, since Karaites did not use a get, or divorce document, in the Middle Ages, though they tended not to get divorced, Astren said. Later, when they did use divorce documents, he added, they were not according to rabbinic halachah.

While living in Israel from 2005 to 2009, I learned that intermarriage between Karaites and rabbinic Jews is common there, as it is here in America. (However, I was told by an Israeli scholar that a Karaite who marries a rabbinic Jew under a mainstream Orthodox rabbi in Israel is required to accept the Oral Law, just as a mixed couple who marries under a Karaite rabbi is required to study and accept the Karaite way.)

Although my older sister and I don’t really practice Karaism, we certainly feel part of this warm and wonderful community that has maintained some of their ancient traditions, teachings and values. My sister married a man of Egyptian Karaite descent, and today their loquacious 2-year-old son chants the Shema in both Karaite and Ashkenazic tunes.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Karaite Judaism was once considered a serious rival to rabbinic Judaism, inspiring intellectual attacks from great rabbinic minds, such as Saadia Gaon and Maimonides. I find it remarkable that Karaism, particularly in Israel and in the San Francisco Bay Area, has endured in some form and is alive today. Yet, it’s strange and a bit sad to think that despite efforts to revitalize the movement both in Israel and America, many of the Karaite ways are being lost with my generation.

Before my mother left Egypt in 1967, Passover cleaning in their modest Cairo apartment started up to a month in advance and involved rigorously scrubbing their walls, floors and doors with soap and water. If someone mistakenly entered an already koshered room with forbidden food, they would — to my mother’s dismay — have to scrub down the entire room again.

Her predominantly Jewish school, known as the Sybil, which was badly damaged after it was set on fire in the 1950s, would close its doors during the entire week of Passover, she said.

The mitzvah of maror


“The most unfortunate thing that happens to a person who fears failure is that he limits himself by becoming afraid to try anything new.”

Last year, while attending a seder on the first night of Passover, three words in the haggadah caught my eye. Now we partake of the “mitzvah of maror.” The mitzvah of maror.

I had been connected to the world of mitzvahs for the past several years, and in fact was just finishing work on my book “1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire, and Change Your Life.”

But the mitzvah of maror didn’t quite fit into my idea of small acts of kindness — holding the door open for a stranger, for example, or dropping a few coins into a tzedakah box.

I started my “1,000 Mitzvahs” project after my father died in December 2006.

My father and I had struggled in our relationship for years and though I knew he loved me, we’d not been able to find a place where we were both happy. When he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, we both knew there was never going to be another chance to say what had to be said and move forward. I remember him asking me, “Why did we wait until I was dying to do this?” Neither of us knew why. Nonetheless, that last year of his life was a complete gift for both of us. When he passed away, my busy life as a mother, wife and entrepreneur came to a screeching halt. After his death, I took a “spiritual sabbatical” to work through the unexpected grief I suddenly felt and came out of it resolved to embark upon a project: perform 1,000 acts of kindness — mitzvahs — to honor my father’s memory.

I started a blog called 1,000 Mitzvahs to track the journey. I wrote the stories of my day, the simple everyday actions that I took — like thanking someone for a job well done, folding laundry for a friend on bed rest or giving my tickets to a lecture series away to a stranger — and the discoveries I made during these simple moments. The mitzvah stories became the tapestry of my days and weeks, and the project helped me move through the grief I’d felt. From the beginning, the mitzvahs were simple and duplicable. I didn’t set out to save the world. I don’t even profess that any of my 1,000 small actions stand out as particularly important. But cumulatively they did shift my thoughts and attitudes and did alter the course of my life. I discovered that by getting more conscious about the actions I took every day and noticing these daily opportunities, they began to show up more often in my life.

As the “1,000 Mitzvahs” project wrapped up, a rabbi suggested I write a book to share what I had learned after grief. His suggestion pushed me to step further out of my comfort zone with my personal project and pursue the idea of writing a book to share my story.

And now, on Passover night, I was confronted with this strange mitzvah of eating bitter herbs. I began thinking of the symbolism of maror, the bitterness of the herbs reminding us to think about the slaves in Egypt. As I ate my matzah and maror, I had an interesting realization and found that this mitzvah of maror had another symbolism for me.

When I was a child and we celebrated Passover, I remember getting to the part of the seder where we were supposed to eat the maror and feeling very unhappy. I was a picky eater and as a child didn’t eat anything spicy. I never willingly put the maror in my mouth. I would put the tiniest bit on the matzah, not even enough to actually taste anything bitter and would eat the matzah so quickly no one would notice that it didn’t even have a hint of bitter herbs on it. As children, we are told what to do and what not to do all the time. Oftentimes this creates a fear of trying new things. For many people, this can create lifelong limitations on our ability to step through fear and engage in new opportunities. Eating the maror was like that for me when I was a child. I was afraid of the experience and not able to see that the bitterness was something I could learn to tolerate, perhaps even enjoy someday.

In my 20s and 30s, I attended many seders. Some were held in relatives’ homes, some in the family homes of college friends. Each year, when we got to the part of the seder where we needed to taste the maror, I would reluctantly add a small dab of bitter herbs on my matzah, always ready to swig it down with a giant gulp of water as soon as the sharpness hit my throat. This, of course, defeats the purpose of actually experiencing and tasting that bitterness.

By my 30s, I was swept into unchartered territory in my life. I was newly married and we relocated to a different part of the country. I became a mother and began raising children and learning that parenting is one of the most unknown journeys we’ll take on in life. As I sat pondering the idea of the mitzvah of maror during the Passover seder, I finally realized it is not only a reminder of the bitterness that our ancestors felt but also the evolution that we each make as human beings during our lives.

This year when we make our seder, I look forward to putting a heaping teaspoon of maror on my matzah and thinking about how, in my 40s, I have done things I never dreamed I could do in my life — like writing a book, starting a new business, and sharing a personal story of grief and healing. Forty isn’t a time for fear; it’s a liberating, freeing time that seems to correlate with the idea that anything is possible. Facing our life full on, grappling with its joys and sorrows has become a daily part of my life. Bitterness has to be present in our lives to have joy.

This Passover season, I hope you will think of the mitzvah of maror as an opportunity — a reminder that while we do have bitterness in our lives, allowing ourselves to experience some of that bitterness or fear might actually have unexpected lessons as well.

Enjoy your matzah and maror!

New Haggadahs: Reform version, novelists’ take and Ethiopian flavor


Leading a seder for the first time this year? There’s an app for that.

Entries in the annual stream of new Haggadahs this year include a Reform version that comes in hardcover, paperback and iPad app editions. Two others feature a gorgeously designed Haggadah that features an array of literary celebrity contributors and one with an Ethiopian flavor.

The Reform Haggadah, “Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family” (CCAR Press), is terrific for its introductions and artwork, bland in its content and promising in its use of technology.

“Sharing” excels as a guide to Passover for those who are new to the seder—sections help first-time leaders with planning—or need a major refresher. It covers the entire weeklong holiday, from searching for chametz before through the beginning of the counting of the Omer at the end.

But the seder itself is bland. Responsive readings—a hallmark of Reform ritual that seemed to have disappeared with the arrival of “Mishkan T’fillah,” the current Reform siddur—unfortunately are back.

Too often the surface themes of the exodus story outshine the subtler values of the seder. However, “Sharing” gets it right by taking prospective seder leaders straight from a section on leading the seder to one called “What Matters on Passover Is That Questions Are Asked.”

The highlight here is the artwork of Mark Podwal. His impressionistic illuminations in “Sharing” are a great addition to the tradition of Haggadah art. Podwal interprets one of the four children as a headless suit of armor with a book at its feet and one as a Torah with a book for a head. The other two have book torsos and heads—one open and facing us, the other closed and facing away.

A few years ago, “Sharing” might have come with a CD, but instead it suggests downloading tracks online to learn seder tunes. (Of course, iPad app version users will have them at their fingertips.)

Despite emphasizing singing during the seder, “Sharing” misses musical opportunities, such as its replacement of the psalms known as Hallel with “interpretive readings” of two psalms. (More of Hallel appears in an appendix—in English.) Meanwhile, “Sharing” goes for music that was probably best left out. Two cringe-worthy songs feature the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Coffee table art books have given birth to an entire sub-genre of artistic, if unwieldy Haggadahs, including the gorgeous “New American Haggadah” (Little, Brown and Company). Edited by novelists Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander, this Haggadah aims not just to tell a story but to be about storytelling. It is far too unwieldy to be deployed in full at your seder, but that hardly seems to be its ambition—and it’s too beautiful to pass up.

“New American” was typeset brilliantly by Oded Ezer, whose ethereal illustrations are a striking break with the concrete representations with which Haggadahs are usually sprinkled. Though design occasionally trumps usefulness, each page is a delight. A meta-telling of the story runs throughout, a timeline of the history of Passover itself strung along the top margin of the pages. The imagery is based on Hebrew letter forms that match the period of the timeline on the page.

In addition to Englander and Foer, the seder is periodically interrupted by brief essays by the likes of Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg and children’s author Lemony Snicket. The interruptions include installments in each of four streams of brief essays, each stream by a different author. The streams cover four themes: “Nation,” “Library,” “House of Study” and “Playground.”

Why didn’t anyone think of handing the seder, the Jewish narrative ritual par excellence, over to novelists before? New American indeed.

The story of the ongoing immigration of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel seems to be a perfect thematic match with Passover. As interest grows in far-flung Jews with unexpected skin tones, an Ethiopian Haggadah was inevitable.

What a shame, then, that “The Koren Haggada: Journey to Freedom” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem) is such a whitewashed letdown. It’s “The Gould Family Edition,” edited by Rabbi Menachem Waldman and translated by Binyamin Shalom. While Waldman has written a number of books on Ethiopian Jewry, it is implausible that no priests of the Ethiopian community could be found to at least co-edit “Journey.”

In his introduction, Waldman says that “Journey to Freedom” includes “the traditions of and heritage of Ethiopian Jewry alongside the story of the exodus from Ethiopia.” Sadly this is not at all what “Journey” does. Instead it tells of Ethiopian Jewry in a series of sidebars and photographs interspersed among a standard Modern Orthodox seder.

The Ethiopian observance of Passover, which they call Pasika, is given some attention, but an introductory section spends a scant page or so on the community’s actual traditions for consuming the paschal sacrifice and telling the story of the Exodus. Instead, “Journey” buries their traditions under contemporary Orthodox ones, as the Israeli rabbinate has long sought to do.

Each of the three diverse Haggadahs fills a special niche and has a unique take on the seder.

Bring the “New American Haggadah” on your journey this year. And first-timers may appreciate “Sharing the Journey” as a guidebook. “The Koren Ethiopian Haggada”? It’s best left behind in Egypt.

Poet’s Haggadah story


Every year at Passover, families around the world pull out their Haggadahs for their Seders, and whether they use a traditional text, a modern one, or even Maxwell House, the story and the words remain largely the same.  But one man, Rick Lupert, saw an opportunity to do something more than produce just another slight tweaking of the classic text.  And thus, the Poet’s Haggadah was born.

The idea didn’t emerge out of nowhere, Lupert’s been running a poetry website – Poetrysuperhighway.com—for over a decade, and one of his main goals is getting poets from around the country to connect.  “I’m always looking for different ways to get poets to share their work with each other,” Lupert says.  One year, as Passover approached, Lupert realized that there might be a way to combine his interest in poetry and Judaism in a unique way. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if poets reinterpreted the Haggadah.’”

Lupert put out a call for submissions and turned to some Los Angeles poets whose work he felt might fit.  He had no clue what the response would be, although he hoped that due to the success of past poetry exchanges he’d done, and the large number of poets who visited his site, that he’d get some good interest. 

One of the poets Lupert contacted was Rachel Kann.  “I’ve known Rick for years and years,” says Kann, “through the poetry community…but not through anything Jewish.”  For Kann, the opportunity to connect her poetry with her Judaism was a welcome one.  “I think he knew I’d be excited about it,”  says Kann, “I take my Judaism very seriously.”

Kann was raised in a secular household in a small town, where, she says, she and her siblings made up roughly “50 percent of the Jewish population.”  It wasn’t until she was older, and “tattooed” that she grew into her Judaism, finding inspiration in the writing of Aryeh Kaplan and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.  Kann decided to write a poem responding to the song Dayeinu.  As she describes it, the poem barely made it in the book as she struggled to get it in before the deadline, but Kann is thrilled it did.  “I have so much gratitude (to Rick) for giving me the assignment,” says Kann. “It parted my Red Sea…I was struggling.”

A few months after publishing her poem, a friend invited Kann to read at an event for the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis.  Kann “was freaking out” before her reading.  She wondered how the rabbis would respond to a tattooed outsider reading her potentitally blasphemous poem.

“I was thinking, I’m going to get struck by lightning for reading this poem here,” Kann recalls.  To her surprise, the rabbis “were so supportive. The response I got was very healing for me, very affirming.”  As a Jew who often felt like an outsider, Kann’s poem allowed her to feel like she was accepted.

Poet Larry Colker was similarly solicited for a contribution.  He spent a number of days trying to figure out what to write about.

“I was reluctant because “occasional” poetry is typically a trap for mediocre work,” Colker says.  But because of his respect for Lupert, Colker pressed forward.  What emerged was a poem about Elijah the prophet, which Colker says is “very personal.”  He submitted it despite some trepidation, because he trusted Lupert. “Rick always endows his creations with unique…wrinkles…so I thought it would be fun.”

When Ellyn Maybe, a regular at many LA Poetry events, heard from Lupert, she jumped right in. “It sounded so cool,” says Maybe, who submitted a poem about the “Four Questions” that delves into issues of social justice.  “I think that’s one thing poets do naturally… questioning,” says Maybe. 

It wasn’t the first dip into the world of Jewish poetry for Maybe, who has also written poems on topics like Yom Kippur.  “It’s important to look deeper into things for yourself,” says Maybe about her decision to delve into Jewish holidays.  For Maybe, whose work is usually not so steeped in Judaism,— she’s traveling with her band to the Glastonbury festival later this year to perform—it was a unique chance to explore Jewish themes.

One thing Maybe loved about the project was the “Poets’ Seder” that went on after the anthology was completed.  A number of poets who’d published in the book gathered at Beyond Baroque, an arts center in Venice.  “They came out, we had some music, it was sort of a performance seder,” says Lupert.  The poets in attendance read their work live, and others called in from around the globe.  As Maybe recalls it, “a lot of poets read that night. I think it was moving.  It’s neat when people are in an anthology together and get to hear their work spoken, too.”

The event was a big success and is available to listen to at poetseder.com, where the anthology can also be purchased.

Lupert hopes the book will find a place at the seders of people around Los Angeles and around the world.  “I didn’t think anyone would necessarily use this as a Haggadah,” Lupert says, though he did just that at a seder at his in-laws.  Lupert hoped that the book could supplement a traditional Haggadah at a seder, and that it would “be an interesting read, whether or not people used it for Passover.” 

“Everyone has their own sensibility about what they enjoy,” Lupert says.  He doesn’t expect that every person will love every poem in the anthology, but he hopes that through its diversity it offers something for everyone.  And if you enjoy poetry, you may want to pick up a copy for your own seder and see for yourself.

Bring something new to the table


A Passover haggadah is something like an article of clothing — a great many styles and sizes are available, it can be tailored to suit one’s own needs and tastes, and we can always make one of our own. The readings and rituals, stories and songs that decorate the observance of Passover are as diverse as the Jewish people itself. Now, as Jewish families around the world prepare to sit down at the seder table, here are a few new and noteworthy examples.


Perhaps the most unusual one is “Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families” by Cokie and Steve Roberts (Harper, $19.99), which describes the Passover rituals that were adopted by two celebrated journalists, one Jewish and one Catholic, after they married. Steve explains that his family was not observant — “left-wing politics was their passion, not organized religion” — but he made his way back to religious Judaism of his own initiative: “I was more a Rogow than a Roberts,” he writes, referring to his family’s original Jewish name. When he married Cokie, an observant Catholic, she respected and encouraged his rediscovery of his Jewish roots: “In fact, part of the attraction between us was a shared devotion to our traditions, families, histories.” The result is a haggadah of their own invention, a unique artifact of an interfaith marriage. “My mother maintained that the first seder she ever attended,” quips Steve, “was organized by her Catholic daughter-in-law.”


At the opposite end of the spectrum, in a sense, is “A Happy Passover Haggadah for the Entire Family,” designed by Monicka Clio Rafaeli with an English translation by Rabbi Marc D. Angel (Blue & White Press, $29.95). Bound and colorfully printed in Israel, fully bilingual in English and vowelized Hebrew, and supplied with selected transliterations of the Hebrew text, “A Happy Passover Haggadah” will guide the reader through the “order” of the Passover meal from Kaddish to Nirtsah. Any improvisation or elaboration will have to come from the participants, but here is a reliable benchmark for any family that favors a highly traditional seder.


“No more boring seders!” is the promise on the front cover of “Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities” by David Arnow (Jewish Lights, $24.99), a treasury that can be used to embroider and enliven a Passover seder with commentary, discussion, elaboration and celebration. Now issued in an expanded second edition, Arnow’s haggadah provides ways to introduce new symbols and new significance into the familiar rhythms of the seder: “Choose something to add to the seder plate this year that relates to a subject of special concern,” the author suggests. Or: “Ask your guests to participate in an art midrash by creating a collage that expresses the relationships among Passover, freedom, and spring.” Or “Compose your own group’s Dayenu” by coming up with new “divine favors” to add to the ones recounted in the traditional song. Arnow challenges every seder leader to go outside the box of the traditional haggadah, and provides the tools to do it.


“A Passover Haggadah: Go Forth and Learn” by Rabbi David Silber with Rachel Furst (Jewish Publication Society, $18) is actually two books in a single volume.  Eight scholarly essays on the origins and meanings of Passover are presented when one opens the book with the spine on the left, and a traditional haggadah is presented when one opens the book with the spine on the right. Silber makes the point that the seder does not consist only of following an ancient text in a prescribed order; rather, we are instructed to expound upon the text to find its “resonances and echoes,” and his book offers a path to those inner meanings. “The idea that Jewish experience and Jewish community is fundamentally founded on both practice and intellectual inquiry is a core message of the seder,” writes Silber, and he thereby describes the goal of his book.


“Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia” by Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights, $24.99) is not a haggadah, but it can be used to illuminate and enliven a seder in the ways that Jewish tradition requires us to do. The authors want us to see in Passover a thread that links us back into biblical antiquity and forward into the future and, not incidentally, an opportunity to “[weave] together the description of the Exodus itself as a moment in the utter present — hope and desire turned into action — with detailed instructions of how to celebrate the transformative moment.” Just as Exodus calls on the Jewish people to respect and protect the stranger because we, too, were strangers in the land of Egypt, “Freedom Journeys” shows how Passover can be seen and used as a call to action on issues that affect all of humankind — war, hunger, poverty, ecology and human rights.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at {encode=”books@jewishjournal.com” title=”books@jewishjournal.com”}.

The Shoah, Beit T’Shuvah, Clinton, Raphe and Szyk


The Shoah

How incredibly written was The Jewish Journal editorial (“Genocide 2.0,” May 2).

Briefs: Some West Bank settlers would agree to leave, Israel OKs Palestinian police stations


Some West Bank Settlers Would Leave If Offered Government Support, Poll Finds

Approximately one in five Israelis living east of the West Bank security fence would leave if offered government support, a poll found. According to an internal government study, whose results were leaked Tuesday to Yediot Achronot, approximately 15,000 of the 70,000 settlers whose communities are not taken in by the fence would accept voluntary relocation packages.

The poll was conducted at the behest of Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon and Minister Ami Ayalon, who want Israel to group settlers within the fence on the assumption that it will serve as the de facto border with a future Palestinian state. The newspaper did not provide details on how many people were polled or the margin of error.

Israel’s failure to satisfactorily rehabilitate many of the 8,000 Jews it removed from the Gaza Strip in 2005 has raised speculation that West Bank settlers would think twice about accepting government relocation offers.

Israel OKs Reopening of 20 Palestinian Police Stations in West Bank

Israel will allow the reopening of 20 West Bank police stations under Palestinian control. The stations will have a staff of approximately 500 and are located in a zone under Israeli security control and Palestinian civil control. This is the first time Israel has permitted such a move since 2001. It is part of commitments made last week by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to ease the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

“This aims to enhance security and impose law and order under the Abbas security plan,” Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs Ministry, told Reuters.

Al Qaeda Assails Hamas’ Purported Willingness to Support Peace Accord

Al Qaeda came out against Hamas’ purported willingness to support a future Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a statement on the Internet Tuesday attacking the Palestinian Islamist group after its leaders told former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that they could support a future peace accord if it passes a Palestinian referendum.

“As for peace agreements with Israel, they spoke of putting it to a referendum, despite considering it a breach of shariah,” Zawahiri said, referring to Muslim law. “How can they put a matter that violates shariah to a referendum?”

Hamas has made clear, however, that it would continue in its refusal to recognize the Jewish state, no matter what peace terms Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reaches with the Israelis. The referendum demanded by Hamas also would have to include millions of “exiled” Palestinians, many of them radicalized refugees, making it a nonstarter in terms of logistics and of the possibility of endorsing a vision of two-state coexistence.

Rising Anti-Semitism in Muslim Countries Fueling Hostility to Israel, Study Finds

Official anti-Semitism is on the rise in Muslim countries of the Middle East, fueling long-term hostility to Israel, a study found. Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center published a study this week arguing that in Iran and Arab states — even those that have recognized the Jewish state — officially sanctioned statements of anti-Semitism with a Muslim slant are increasing, often as a means of diverting internal dissent from the government.

One salient example is Holocaust denial twinned with allegations that Israel is practicing a “real” holocaust against the Palestinians. Anti-Semitism tends to rise in parallel to progress in diplomatic rapprochement between Arab regimes and Israel, calling into question the long-term efficacy of such accords.

The study singled out Iran as a country whose anti-Semitism poses a potential threat to Israel’s existence, given Tehran’s supposed nuclear program.

“Anti-Semitism supported by a state, which publicly adheres to a policy of genocide and is making efforts to arm itself with nonconventional weapons which will enable it to carry out that policy, is unprecedented since Nazi Germany,” the study said.

IDF Investigating Cameraman’s Death

Israel announced an investigation into the killing of a Reuters cameraman by its forces in the Gaza Strip. Following calls for a probe by Reuters and international watchdog groups, the Israeli military said Sunday it was gathering information to determine the circumstances behind the death of Fadel Shana.

Shana was killed while filming a central Gaza combat zone, and film from his camera showed an Israeli tank firing in his direction. An autopsy revealed that he had been hit by a kind of dart used in Israeli shells.

Some critics have suggested the tank crew targeted Shana, although it knew he was a journalist. The Israeli military rejected this.

“The IDF wishes to emphasize that unlike terrorist organizations, not only does it not deliberately target uninvolved civilians, it also uses means to avoid such incidents,” the IDF said in a statement. “Reports claiming the opposite are false and misleading.”

Israel Foils Two Hamas Border Attacks

Israeli forces foiled a massive Palestinian assault on a key Gaza Strip border crossing. Using an armored car and two explosives-laden jeeps painted to resemble Israeli military vehicles, Hamas terrorists rammed the Kerem Shalom border terminal before dawn last Saturday. Israeli soldiers at first responded with small-arms fire, but took cover as the jeeps were blown up by their drivers.

In parallel, another Hamas armored car tried to smash through the Gaza-Israel border fence north of Kerem Shalom but was destroyed by tank fire. Thirteen soldiers were wounded in the Kerem Shalom incident, and four Hamas gunmen were killed.

Israel’s top brass said Hamas had been denied its objective of killing a large number of troops and abducting others in a blow to the Jewish state’s morale on Passover eve. Six Hamas gunmen and another Palestinian were killed in later Israeli air strikes in Gaza.

Israel Upgrades Dress Code for Official Meetings

A more formal dress code is being adopted in the halls of Israel’s government. Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel sent ministers and other top Israeli officials an advisory that following the Passover vacation, they will be expected to dress formally at government-level meetings, Yediot Achronot reported Tuesday.

An old story finds new life in LGBT haggadah


Asher Gellis talks about his life with a modest but clear-eyed sense of wonder that fits his role as a young community activist who is just beginning to hit his stride. Next week, JQ International, an organization that has helped to nurture his development as a leader, will host a seder that will include readings from a new haggadah weaving the history of gay and lesbian people into the story of the Exodus.

Like the Jews emerging from their captivity in Egypt, Gellis said his own experience of oppression lent a special urgency to his quest to establish a community for people wandering in a spiritual desert. A decade ago, he was just out of college — and just out of the closet — and feeling very much alone in the wilderness.

“There was no place to be Jewish and gay in Los Angeles,” he said. “Some temples had gay programming, but they seemed more oriented toward people who were partnered, had kids.”

As a young man just discovering himself, Gellis said, he simply didn’t connect with communities oriented around family identity — conventional or otherwise.

Then he discovered a scattered group of like-minded young gays and lesbians who were beginning to coalesce into a community. They had a variety of backgrounds — from secular Jews who had been involved in JCCs to Orthodox Jews who had been through yeshiva.

“JQ International evolved organically,” said Gellis, who is now executive director of the Los Angeles-based organization, which focuses primarily on people in their 20s and 30s. “It’s a true grass-roots organization. Once we had a critical mass of people, things just took off.”

With deep roots in the Jewish communal experience, JQ International has grown to more than 600 members from the dozen or so who gathered for the organization’s first meeting in 2002. Most are in Los Angeles, but new chapters have just opened in New York and Arizona. JQ’s programs are at once social and socially aware — a game night doubles as a food drive, a picnic is also an occasion for planting trees in a local park.

And observances of Jewish holidays become opportunities for young LGBT Jews to mend the rift they often feel between their religious and sexual identities.

“It’s essential to the process of coming out to learn how to lead a less-compartmentalized existence,” Gellis said.

Integrating elements of Jewish identity into their experience as gay men or lesbians also encourages JQ’s relatively youthful members to develop a sense of pride in the legacy of LGBT activism.

“Often there’s no sense of transmitting history in the gay and lesbian community,” Gellis said. “A lot of younger gays and lesbians don’t know what Stonewall [the New York riots that prompted the LGBT liberation movement] was about, or they don’t know how they came to have the rights they have. That’s what being Jewish is about — having a good strong knowledge of who I am and where I come from.”

The upcoming Passover seder, which will be hosted by Hillel at USC on April 26, exemplifies the organization’s focus on integrating Jewish and LGBT identities through activism and traditional observance. A distinctive feature of the event is the alternative Seder plate — which holds a coconut.

“The coconut represents young closeted gay people,” Gellis explains. “Even though they’re sweet and tender-hearted on the inside, they’re also stuck inside a hard shell. It’s our way of remembering people who can’t be with us because they’re not out [of the closet] yet.”

But the element of the seder that’s generating the greatest excitement in JQ’s community is a new haggadah that documents the tradition that’s emerging as JQ evolves from an organization into a movement.

“Stories in gay and lesbian experience find a lot of parallels in the Passover story,” said Kevin Shapiro, a member of JQ’s board of directors and a graduate student in the MBA program at USC. “The main theme of Passover is exodus. The Jews went from being enslaved and not living lives of integrity to a period of freedom where they gained knowledge and a new level of awareness. That’s a good mirror for the experience of coming out.”

Shapiro joined JQ in 2004, after he heard about the organization through a friend and went to a Chanukah party where he met young people who were gay, Jewish and eager to integrate and deepen those identities through activism.

“I especially liked the fact that it was nondenominational,” Shapiro said. “Everyone was there because of the common experience of being gay Jews, regardless of their background.”

Shapiro said that while developing the haggadah has been a collaborative effort from the start, he traces his own enthusiasm for the project to his experience leading JQ’s seder two years ago.

“I took a couple of weeks to prepare,” he said. “I learned there were lots of different types of haggadot — for example, since the ’70s, there’ve been feminist versions and environmentally aware versions, in addition to basic historical narratives. But even though some of them included gay and lesbian elements, there was nothing that really worked for our people.”

Shapiro and the other members of the JQ community involved in the project have assembled the gay and lesbian components of other haggadot and added additional elements from LGBT history that resonate with the Passover story to produce an entirely new document that reflects the distinctive experiences and knowledge of their group. “Each haggadah captures the unique experience of the Jewish community that created it,” Shapiro said. “We’re taking a tradition we’ve created and putting it in the body of literature that sustains the Passover tradition. This has really been a codification process of a new chapter in Jewish history.”

Shapiro also points out that JQ’s haggadah is as much about recovering history as making it.

Had Gadya — according to S.Y. Agnon


Both the composition and inclusion of “Had Gadya” into the Passover haggadah are shrouded in mystery.

This popular Aramaic song, chanted at the end of the seder purportedly to keep the children awake, is dated no earlier than the 15th century. Composed of 10 stanzas, “Had Gadya” follows a cumulative pattern similar to “The House That Jack Built,” where a new detail is added in each stanza.

The thematic connection to Passover is vague, thus producing many allegorical commentaries over the ages, among them “Perush al Piska Had Gadya” by the famed 18th century Talmudist and kabbalist, Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz.

Enter S.Y. Agnon (1888-1970), Israel’s foremost writer and first Nobel Laureate for Literature (1966). Agnon was a master of satire and irony, particularly when it came to religious matters. Himself an observant Jew, he pulled no punches when it came to questioning conventional religious views. Called a “revolutionary traditionalist” by literary critic Gershon Shaked, Agnon often used what Shaked called “pseudoquotations,” which was his way of masking his revolutionary reading of a text by presenting it as if it is quoted in the name of an authoritative religious book or personality.

In his playful re-reading of “Had Gadya” (first published in Haaretz, 1943, in honor of Passover), Agnon opens up by presenting a seemingly authoritative rabbinic “chain of tradition” (itself a parody on “Had Gadya”), culminating with Eybeschutz. This “pseudoquotation” introduces Agnon’s own question on “Had Gadya”: whereas vengeance is extracted in the end, the injury done to the kid at the beginning remains unresolved. In attempting to resolve the problem, Agnon’s analysis runs into a “religious brick wall”: God does not come out righteous! In typical Agnonic fashion, he “resolves” the problem in another way, leaving the reader with a “all’s well that ends well” ending filled with sarcasm.


Had Gadya – An Alternative Version

by S.Y. Agnon

I was told by Rav David Leib from Zanz
In the name of the son of Rav Mani Fast
That his father had the custom to tell the story on the night of Passover
That his rabbi, Rav Menachem Katz, the Head of the Bet Din of Ze’elim
Used to tell the story on the night of Passover
That his rabbi the Gaon Chatam Sofer used to tell on the night of Passover
That the Gaon Rav Yonatan Eybeschutz of blessed memory
Used to raise many questions regarding the story of Had Gadya.

This “Had Gadya” poem tells us that the Cat ate the Kid
that the father bought for two zuzim.
It seems to me that the Cat committed an evil deed worthy of punishment!
If so — then the Dog did a good thing by biting the Cat!
If so — the Stick did a bad thing by hitting the Dog!
Therefore — the Fire did a good thing by burning the Stick!
If so — the Water did not behave properly by extinguishing the Fire!
If so — the Ox did a good thing by drinking the Water!
If so — the Butcher did a bad thing by slaughtering the Ox!
If so — the Angel of Death was justified in slaughtering the Butcher!
Yet, in the end comes the Holy One Blessed-be-He and
slaughters the Angel of Death!
And if the Angel of Death was in fact justified in slaughtering the Butcher, then God was unjustified in his act against the Angel of Death!
How can the righteous God be wrong?

Therefore, the story must go like this:
It’s true that the Cat committed an evil deed by eating the Kid
But when a Kid and a Cat fight with each other
We can assume they may have reconciled on their own and concluded in peace.
If so — what business is it of the Dog to get involved and try to play the judge here?
If so — the Dog is equal to the Stick, and the Stick did good by hitting the Dog!
If so — the Fire misbehaved by burning the Stick!
If so — the Water was justified by extinguishing the Fire!
If so — the Ox misbehaved by drinking the Water!
If so — the butcher did well by slaughtering the Ox!
If so — it is now clear that the Angel of Death sinned by slaughtering the Butcher!
In the end — God determines that the Angel of Death is evil — and slaughters him —
And we conclude all’s well that ends well, with God righteous in all His ways!


Translated from the Hebrew by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Where’s the Passover story?


It’s one of the great mysteries of the Jewish tradition. Every year, Jews around the world gather around a seder table to retell the story of our people’s liberationfrom slavery. You can read a thousand articles, talk to a thousand rabbis, and they’ll all say the same thing: At the Passover seder, we retell the story of the Exodus.

There’s only one problem with this statement: It’s not really true.

At least not if you go by the traditional definition of story.

Pay attention to every word when you go through the haggadah this year, and ask yourself: Where exactly is the story? Especially all you folks in Hollywood — agents, screenwriters, producers, actors — who live and breathe stories every day. Is this an actual story you are reading? Where’s the buildup? The character development? The narrative flow? The climax?

The haggadah, as handed down by our rabbinic sages, breaks all the rules of good storytelling.

Sure, there are snippets of story here and there: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but Hashem our God took us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”; “The Egyptians did evil to us and afflicted us and imposed hard labors upon us,” and so on.

But the bulk of the haggadah is a mercurial mash-up of commentaries and biblical exhortations. A minute into the “story,” for example, we are mired in a Talmudic discussion between Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah and four other rabbis in Bnei Brak on the subtleties of a particular phrase in Deuteronomy — as they debate not the Exodus itself, but simply when and how often they should study it.

What comes next? Well, had the writers concerned themselves with the basics of storytelling, they might have continued like this:

“The year was 1445 B.C.E. The Israelites are now captives in Egypt, and the time of Joseph, the Jew who became prime minister in Egypt, is long forgotten. The ruling Pharaoh fears their numbers. The Israelites are an estimated 2 million in number. Moses, who had been raised in Pharaoh’s court, is now living as a shepherd in the desert.

“As he is tending to his flock, Moses sees a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames. He goes to the bush, and, to his astonishment, God speaks to him from it: ‘Come now, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, so that you may bring forth my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.’

“It took some convincing to get Moses to agree to the task. Moses was not a good speaker and he feared that he would fail. But still, he listened to God and set out with his family on the long trek to Egypt.”

The story goes on, and it’s an epic one, full of high drama and human conflict. Unfortunately, most of it is not in your haggadah.

Instead, after the Talmudic debate in Bnei Brak, the haggadah continues with one of the great non sequiturs of Jewish liturgy: The Four Sons. Think about it. What do these four characters have to do with the story of the Exodus? In Hollywood parlance, they don’t even establish a subtext, or plant the seeds for a future plot twist. They just show up.

So what gives here? Why is our annual night of storytelling so devoid of actual storytelling? How can we ask Jews to relive the story of their people if we don’t explain it to them — and make it part of the official liturgy? How can we expect them to embrace and discuss a story that looks so disjointed and full of holes?

Sometimes I think we should contact the Creative Artists Agency and ask them to produce the world’s most compelling retelling of the Passover story. Can you imagine the haggadah that an elite team of Jewish screenwriters and producers could create? Families and seder participants would be riveted to the page. The tension would build as each person would take turns reading from this extraordinary story — and no one would think of asking, “When do we eat?”

This all sounds so logical and wonderful that I feel like calling CAA right away. But before we rush off and rewrite our 2,000-year-old liturgy, it’s worth asking one key question: Why would our brilliant sages tell the story of the liberation of the Jewish people in such a mercurial and fragmented way?

The usual answer is that we are encouraged to fill in the holes with our own questions and discussion. This response has never satisfied me. I don’t know about you, but I’m more likely to discuss a story and ask questions if the story is told clearly and completely.

No, I think it’s possible that our sages had something deeper and more subtle in mind. Maybe, just maybe, our sages were elusive in their writing because they didn’t want us to get overly attached — to our own story.

This thought occurred to me during a recent Friday night meal at my place with two great thinkers from Israel (Avraham Infeld and Gidi Grinstein). We were talking about the need for Zionism to renew itself, and in doing so, to make sure it doesn’t stay too stuck to its old narratives. Yes, it is critical to remember the stories and lessons of our past, but not in a way that deadens our thinking in the present or stops us from considering new ideas for the future.

In that spirit, it could be that our sages gave us a more grainy and less explicit version of the Passover story so that we could review it from a healthy distance — and not get so enmeshed in the drama that we fall prey to triumphalism or victimhood. In other words, they wanted us to own the story, rather than have the story own us.

Maybe that’s the great hidden lesson of Passover: We can become slaves to anything, even to our own amazing story.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

The classic Szyk haggadah becomes a modern masterpiece of the digital age


There’s a 1,000-year-old haggadah, there’s an Internet haggadah, and now there is a new $15,000 Arthur Szyk Haggadah.

Szyk (pronounced Shick) was a Jew, a Pole, an American, and always an artist, whose brilliant paintings and cartoons could give new life to ancient traditions or eviscerate a Hitler and Mussolini.

Now, almost 57 years after Szyk’s death, antiquarian bookseller Irvin Ungar has come up with a new edition of the artist’s 1940 Haggadah, which, Ungar believes, gives new meaning to the term state-of-the-art, particularly in digital technology.

To create the new haggadah, Ungar said he assembled an international team of top-flight craftsmen, including a digital photographer, writers, designer, bookbinder, printer, boxmaker and film director. To provide the perfect paper for the haggadah, Ungar tracked down a mill in Germany, which had been in business since 1584.

Szyk was born in Lodz in 1894 and started drawing portraits of guests in his parents’ home at age 4. After studying painting in Paris and visiting Palestine in 1914, he was drafted into the czar’s army in World War I but deserted. Later, he fought against the Soviets under the legendary Polish Marshall Josef Pilsudski.

With the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany, Szyk became one of the first anti-Hitler cartoonists, explaining that “the painter of books wants to reply to the wall painter.” The Fuehrer allegedly put a price on the head of his nemesis.

At the same time, Szyk worked for two years on his haggadah, and, in 1937, took his 48 paintings to London, hoping to find a publisher who would do the work justice.

However, Szyk had injected his anti-fascism into his art, such as putting a swastika armband on the Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave and a Hitlerian moustache on the Wicked Son. In the pre-war British appeasement days, every publisher turned him down until Szyk reluctantly deleted the Nazi symbols.



When the haggadah came out in 1940 in an original edition of 250 copies printed on calfskin vellum, it was one of the costliest publishing projects of the 20th century. Subsequent photo reproductions could not match the brilliance of the original.

The same year, Szyk immigrated to the United States, and, as a self-described “soldier in art,” his ferocious depictions of the Axis leaders soon graced the covers of Time, Colliers and newspapers across the country. Amazingly, his use of medieval techniques of manuscript illumination proved to be the right style for biting, contemporary satire.

After the war, he applied his talents to supporting Israel’s struggle for independence, in the process creating a new image of the muscular Jewish worker and soldier.

Szyk, whose cartoons had attacked McCarthyism and racist prejudice against blacks, ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee in early 1951, and within a few months he died at the age of 57.

In the subsequent decades, Szyk and his art were largely forgotten, until a renaissance during the past decade — including a spate of documentaries, biographies and one-man exhibits — brought him to the attention of a new generation.

One of the early rediscoverers was Ungar, a Reform congregational rabbi in Forest Hills, N.Y. and then Burlingame, who had left the pulpit in 1987 to found Historicana, an antiquarian bookseller firm in the northern California city.

Once introduced to Szyk’s work, Ungar was smitten and, as president of the Arthur Szyk Society, is now devoting his life to the master’s legacy, he said.

“No Jewish artist has been more devoted to liberty and social justice than Szyk,” Ungar declared. “No artist has done more to translate Jewish values into art. His haggadah is the great book of freedom.”

The new Szyk Haggadah is being printed in a one-time edition of 300 copies, divided into 215 copies of the deluxe edition at $8,500 per copy, and 85 copies of the premier edition at $15,000 each.

Each copy, resting in a clamshell box, is accompanied by 248-page companion volume on Szyk’s art and life, with essays by such scholars as former museum director Tom Freudenheim (a frequent contributor to The Jewish Journal) and Israeli historian Shalom Sabar. Also included is a DVD of the documentary “The Remaking of the Szyk Haggadah.”

For more information, call (650) 343-9578.


The Four Questions


Images reproduced with the cooperation of Historicana, publisher of the new edition of The Szyk Haggadah

New haggadahs bring fresh approaches to celebration


On Passover, teachers become students and students take on the role of teachers; old and young teach each other.

“The learning is thoroughly democratic, as befits the experience of freedom,” Neil Gillman writes in “The Haggadah Is a Textbook,” an essay in “My People’s Passover Haggadah” (Jewish Lights)

This season, several new haggadahs raise new questions. New interpretations bring new approaches to the seder, enabling readers and participants to bring new layers of meaning to their own celebrations of the holiday.

A fine resource for preparing for the seder and for use at the table, “My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries, Volumes 1 and 2,” edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman and David Arnow, bring together a community of scholars and teachers to reflect anew on the haggadah.

The 12 contributors or commentators come from all denominations, including professor Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi Daniel Landes, Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem; Wendy Zierler, Hebrew-Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR); and Rabbi Arthur Green, Hebrew College.

The two volumes offer a new translation of the haggadah text and essays about the historical roots of the holiday and development of the haggadah. Commentary is presented in Talmud-style pages, with the different voices framing the text.

Co-editor Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at HUC-JIR, is editor of the “My People’s Prayer Book Series,” which recently received a National Jewish Book Award. Arnow, a psychologist and community leader, is author of “Creating Lively Passover Seders.”

Rabbi Yosef Adler was a student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known as the Rav, and served as his personal assistant for two years. Adler attended the Rav’s weekly shiurim, or public lectures, for 13 years, with four sessions each year devoted to Passover. In “Haggadah for Passover With Commentary Based on the Shiurim of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik” (Urim Publishers), Adler presents the profound insights of the Rav, as they relate to the seder and observance of the holiday, along with his own commentary.

Adler is the spiritual leader of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, N.J., and heads the Torah Academy of Bergen County.

In the Maggid section, Adler explains the Rav’s interpretations of issues of time: “The seder itself is reliving the past. Without a historical experience, this type of time experience is lost. Memory is more than a storehouse; it is a reliving of what is remembered. In exploration; we move from reminiscing to anticipation…. The haggadah starts with hindsight and concludes with foresight.”

“Richard Codor’s Joyous Haggadah: The Illuminated Story of Passover,” as told by Richard and Liora Codor (Loose Line Productions), is a concise retelling of the story, with colorful, funny, attention-grabbing illustrations. The pages vary from graphic stories to Chad Gadya told as a pictogram (where pictures stand in for words in the text) to scenes chock full of witty details. Meant for all ages, this is an imaginative and joyous haggadah.

“The Kol Menachem Haggadah,” compiled and adapted by Rabbi Chaim Miller (Kol Menachem), is commentary and insights anthologized from more than 100 classic rabbinic texts and the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Enclosed in a hand-tooled binding, the well-designed pages include the Hebrew text and English translation, with commentary at the bottom.

As Miller points out, the Rebbe’s thinking integrates intellectual, detailed analysis with a more mystical approach, uncovering deeper themes and suggestions for life enhancement. The table of contents includes brief abstracts of each of the Rebbe’s insights as they relate to aspects of the seder. He also explains some particular Lubavitch traditions, like the custom of the Rebbe pouring the wine from Elijah’s cup back into the bottle.

“The Lovell Haggadah,” with illuminations, translation and commentary by Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz (Nirtzah Editions), is a beautifully designed edition, with Hebrew text, an egalitarian translation, discussion guides, activities and 27 original color paintings. Berkowitz explains that he retains the text of the traditional haggadah, “with a questioning consciousness,” sometimes wrestling with the text.

He identifies an essential quality, like incompleteness, curiosity, awe and knowledge, associated with each of the 15 steps of the seder. Included are quotes from Ahad Ha’am, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Kotzker Rebbe, Talmud and Midrash and Isabel Allende introducing the Maggid section (the retelling), which he links with the theme of generosity (“You have only what you give. It’s by spending yourself that you become rich.”).

The artwork, or illuminations, incorporate letters and imagery with decorative borders in the style of manuscript painting. Berkowitz, who is formally trained in scribal arts, is the senior rabbinic fellow in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Kollot: Voices and Learning Program.

He also includes a powerful quote from Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, “Language is the very means by which the imprisoned heart gains freedom.”

“A Mystical Haggadah: Passover Meditations, Teaching, and Tales,” by Rabbi Eliahu Klein (North Atlantic Books), offers the possibility of bringing new readings and new understanding of the haggadah’s hidden symbolism to the seder table.

For Klein, the seder’s 15 rites are “15 steps toward illumination.” He includes mystical reflections and Chasidic stories, alternating between two worlds that are dear to him, “the passionate heart traditions of Chasidism and the possibility of achieving cosmic consciousness through Kabbalah meditation and visualization.”

Before Kiddush is recited, he notes a tradition of Jewish mystics of adding a drop of water to the vessel of wine “in order to symbolically dissolve the wrath of crimson with the kindness of the white water.” Klein has taught Kabbalah, Jewish meditation and Chasidism for more than 30 years in Israel, Great Britain and the United States. He now serves as Jewish chaplain for the California Department of Rehabilitation.

“The Eybeshitz Haggadah: Experiencing Redemption,” by Rabbi Shalom Hammer (Devora Publishing), introduces English-speaking readers to the work of Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz. A prolific author, Eybeshitz was an 18th-century scholar of the Talmud, Kabbalah and Jewish law, as well as science and philosophy.

He served the Jewish community in Prague and later in Hamburg, Germany. Hammer describes his subject’s unusual abilities to integrate different approaches, linking and juxtaposing various texts in creative ways.

New Pesach haggadah is off the page!


Any haggadah that turns the four sons into the Marx Brothers is tops in our book.

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Exodus in Your ‘Hood

Ever wondered what it would be like to experience the story of Pesach? Find the answer on Sunday, March 30, 1-5 p.m., at the Shalom Institute in Malibu’s Fun and Wacky Passover Family Adventure and Camp JCA Shalom Open House. You and your family can travel back in time, pick parsley for the seder, leave Egypt, watch the Ten Plagues, make holiday crafts and — the coolest of all — ride a zip line across the Red Sea. All of that plus a moonbounce, music, puppet shows, reptiles, climbing wall, hikes and camp tours. Did we mention that it is free? That’s right, you can save your shekels to buy those really yummy chocolate lollipops and fruit slices for Passover snacks.


34342 Mulholland Highway, Malibu. (818) 889-5500. or

Pesach — in your own words


A Jewish American soldier finds himself in the Iraqi desert on the first night of Passover and improvises a seder with another soldier by drawing a seder plate in the sand.

Meanwhile, a Jewish lawyer from Menlo Park discovers that our centuries-old haggadah does not actually tell the story it’s supposed to tell — the Jewish Exodus — so he compiles and publishes his own.

In Chicago, a family of Jewish socialists who don’t believe in God have a seder where they celebrate their fight for social justice while singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Forty years later, their daughter in Los Angeles uses yoga to find God and creates a special seder for her Alcoholics Anonymous group.

If you recall, a couple of weeks ago I asked you if there were Passover experiences that really moved you. Well, all I can say is I’m glad I asked.

Philip M. Peck wrote: “During the first Gulf War, I was mobilized to an Infantry Division. We were training 24/7. As a young lieutenant I had an extra responsibility of loading all our armored vehicles to be taken to the ships when the first night of Passover was approaching. As the sun was setting, I realized that there would be no seder for me. I looked out over the desert and smiled. I thanked God for allowing me to reach that day. It gave me great comfort that all over the world there would be seders. It gave me even greater comfort knowing that my family would be gathering around a seder table.”

“At that point, I walked over to the young sergeant who was helping me load the tanks on flatbed trucks,” he continued. “I said to him that I needed to tell him a story, a great story. This young man, who never met a Jew, was about to celebrate his first seder. I drew a seder plate in the sand and took out whatever I had from my MRE’s [Meal, Ready-to-Eat] to make a seder. My sergeant listened as I then told the story of Passover from memory. This experience has never left me. Every seder that has followed has been a great gift.”

Seth Watkins, a Jewish lawyer from Menlo Park, wrote: “Passover hasn’t been transformative because the standard traditional haggadah omits the story of the Exodus. I solved the problem by compiling a haggadah with the Exodus story in it (ExodusHaggadah.com), allowing each of us to understand, a bit better, what our ancestors endured in Egypt. The result has been transformative. People of all Jewish affiliations — or none — are transfixed by the story, or discuss details, and nobody asks the dreaded question, ‘When do we eat?'”

Because Seth is a scholar of Semitic languages, he was able to bring his personal touch to the haggadah. He researched ancient translations of certain biblical terms, which, according to him, further elucidate the Exodus story. (I used his haggadah for the second seder, and I think he’s on to something.)

A woman from Los Angeles wrote: “When I was younger, my family celebrated Passover with another family whose father was a psychoanalyst and whose mother had been raised in anarchist, very left-wing political Jewish circles in Chicago. My family did not believe in God either, but both families wanted not to assimilate, not to deny our Jewishness.”

“So we had our seder, and what stayed with us kids was the social and political dimension — that we were pledged to help anyone who suffered from injustice. We sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ (this was the ’60s) and labor songs.

“Now I’m a grown-up, and I am still hosting a seder, this year for my 12-step group! I’ve become more religious, or more spiritual, than I ever was as a kid. I used yoga to help me find God, and it actually worked. I wanted a scientific way to enter the field of religion, and yoga as taught by a yogi from India provided that. I find that when I celebrate Pesach with my brother-in-laws I’m a little inundated with Hebrew and traditions. But when I create my own, mostly in English, and relate the themes of freedom and deliverance to oppression I or my friends have suffered, it means more.”

As I reflected on what all these people wrote, it struck me that what really moved them was not the Passover story itself, but what they personally brought to it.

Improvising a seder in the Iraqi desert, teaching your kids about social injustice, adding the Exodus story to the haggadah, creating a special seder for your friends at Alcoholics Anonymous — these are all examples of Jews putting their personal stamp on their Judaism. And why not?

We are all one family, yes, but we are also a family of individuals, each with our own dreams and dramas and personal baggage. We are moved by different things. As Jews, we are especially moved when we bring our individual uniqueness to our Judaism.

The people who answered my Passover question were moved when they took a 3,000-year-old story of liberation and did something very Jewish with it: They made it their own.

If any of us feel like emulating them, we all better hurry — Passover is only 12 months away.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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Micah has a question about maror. Click the BIG ARROW