PASSOVER: Myriad Ways to Tell an Ancient Tale


 

Every haggadah has a story, its own story, beyond that of the exodus from Egypt. Depending on illustrations, design, typesetting, additions, where the edition is printed and who commissioned its creation, each version is a marker of Jewish history. In some cases, the wine stains on the pages tell stories too; they appear as family emblems, carrying generations of memories.

New Editions of Old Favorites

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s splendid book, first published in 1975, “Haggadah and History” (Jewish Publication Society) is now back in print. The book is scholarly, intriguing and beautiful, an aesthetic timeline of Jewish history and culture. Featured are 200 facsimile plates, depicting haggadah pages from the early days of printing in the 15th century to the 1970s, with explanations of their context.

As Yerushalmi — the Salo Wittmayer Baron professor of Jewish history, culture, and society at Columbia University, who specializes in medieval and modern Jewish history with an emphasis on Spanish, Portuguese and German Jewry — notes, the haggadah is the most popular and beloved of Jewish books.

“Scholars have meditated upon it, children delight in it,” he writes in the book’s introduction. It has been reprinted more often than any other classic text, and is the most frequently illustrated.

A haggadah printed in Poona, India in 1874, with text in Hebrew and Marathi (the language of the Bene Israel) opens with a full-page illustration showing women in saris, flowers in their hair, preparing and baking matzah, seated in classic Indian positions familiar from Hindu painting. The illustrations are modeled on an earlier version of the haggadah printed in Amsterdam, although they are Indian in tone and detail.

Other highlighted editions include the earliest illustrated haggadah, with decorative woodcuts. Its place and date of origin are unknown; it may have been printed in Spain or Portugal in the last decade of the 15th century before the expulsions, or by Sephardi exiles in Salonika or Constantinople. Also included is a version reproduced by mimeograph in North Africa in 1942 by the Palestine Jewish Brigade.

Selected from the collections of Harvard University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, the haggadahs featured here are only a small percentage of the number of editions that have been published. Since Yerushalmi wrote his book, many new versions — with folk art designs, environmental themes and computer-generated illustrations — have been created.

Also new this season is “Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah” by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Ktav), including 10 essays drawn from the writings of the late scholar and leader known as “the Rav,” who died in 1993. This volume, part of the series MeOtzar HaRav, was edited by Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler, prepared from handwritten manuscripts and tapes of the Rav’s lectures.

The first essay, “An Exalted Evening: The Seder Night,” begins on a personal note, as the Rav recalls his childhood fascination with the nights of the seder and of Kol Nidrei. He felt “entranced by these two clear, moonlit nights, both wrapped in grandeur and majesty.” Enveloped by a “strange silence, stillness, peace, quiet and serenity,” he would “surrender to a stream of inflowing joy and ecstasy.” On those nights, he sensed the presence of God; the commonality of the two is man’s encounter with God. In this and the other far-ranging philosophical essays, he goes on to explore the experiential and intellectual dimensions of the seder and the major themes of Passover.

New Haggadahs on the Shelf

“Touched by the Seder” by Rabbi Yechiel Spero, with an introduction by Rabbi Nosson Scherman (Artscroll) is a haggadah featuring inspiring stories and commentary, compiled by the author of the “Touched by a Story” series. The book includes the Artscroll translations and seder instructions. The selected stories — whether about Jews baking matzah in the Warsaw Ghetto, families showing great strength in the face of tragedy, two friends caring for a third friend immediately after he is wounded in battle while fighting in the Israeli army or Rav Chaim Berlin’s experience on Yom Kippur in the late 1800s — are a vehicle for emphasizing the teachings of the holiday

“The Chazon Ish Haggadah” (Artscroll) features the traditional haggadah text, highlighted with the writings and teachings of the late Maran Hagaon Harav Avraham Yehaya Karelitz, who was known as the Chazon Ish and died in 1953. During his lifetime, much of his work was anonymous, unsigned commentaries, and here Rabbi Asher Bergman compiles his rulings and customs regarding the seder.

An introductory section that lists the halachic rulings and practices of the Chazon Ish on preparing for the holiday notes that he ruled that “one must search books for the possible presence of crumbs.” He would set aside the books he planned to use on Pesach and, beginning several days before the holiday, would check them page by page.

On the page of text with the words “Whoever is hungry — let him come and eat,” Bergman illustrates the generosity of the Chazon Ish, who comforted and helped many Holocaust survivors who came to Israel. With money sent to him from Jews all over the world, he married off more than 100 orphan girls to young Torah scholars. He himself lived in poverty, while channeling money to Torah institutions and to the poor and sick.

“The Liberated Haggadah” by Rabbi Peter Schweitzer (Center for Cultural Judaism) is different from other haggadahs in its humanistic approach, geared to secular and cultural Jews. This haggadah acknowledges early on the author’s view that of the Exodus story as mythical rather than historical. Schweitzer, who leads the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan, recasts the story as a humanist parable, highlighting contemporary relevance.

Rituals are connected not to the historical Hebrews, but rather to an ancient springtime celebration. In addition to the traditional Four Questions, he offers translations in Ladino, German, Yiddish, Russian, French and Arabic and a set of modern questions, framing contemporary issues. He asks, “Why can we get people to the moon but we can not get the homeless adequate shelters?”

He also offers discussion questions for after the meal, raising timely issues including immigration, modern-day sex slavery and forced labor. Included are traditional and new songs, with touches of lightness and humor.

Also available this year is the “Internet Hagada” by Rabbi William Blank. The text is an edited version of the traditional text, set in contemporary English that reads well, with some Hebrew and transliteration. He also pays attention to page design, creating an attractive haggadah.

Here, the traditional four sons are four students: “One is diligent, one couldn’t care less, one is uncomplicated, one is too overwhelmed to ask questions.” Blank explains that there are no external themes imposed on the traditional material as many modern editions do; he emphasizes the universal values and deeply resonating spirituality of the seder.

Blank, who lives in Sacramento, says that he grew up Orthodox, was ordained as a Reform rabbi and now belongs to a Conservative synagogue. He is the author of “Torah, Tarot & Tantra: A Guide to Jewish Spiritual Growth” and “Soon You Will Understand the Meaning of Life.”

This haggadah, suitable for groups where participants are at different levels, is available only through the Internet. Readers are required to buy one (in .pdf format) and then can make as many copies as they need.

Haggadahs for the Kinder

“Max’s 4 Questions” by Bonnie Bader, illustrated by Bryan Hendrix (Grosset & Dunlap) tells the basics of the Passover story through the adventures and questions of Max, the youngest of four brothers who lives in a chaotic house, where they host a joyous seder crowded with relatives. The youngest seder attendees might enjoy the stickers included for decorating the book’s seder plate.

“More Than Matzah: A Passover Feast of Fun, Facts, and Activities” by Debbie Herman and Ann Koffsky (Barron’s) is designed to engage, teach and keep young kids busy.

 

Other Picks for Passover


Everyone can easily participate in the seder with Rabbi Nathan Goldberg’s 98-page newly translated, large type and transliterated “Passover Haggadah” (KTAV Publishing House) complete with numbered lines. www.ktav.com

Two books in one, “Haggadah” by Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Continuum) contains a Hebrew-English Haggadah, with attractive Hebrew typography and accompanying commentary as well as 21 insightful and wide-ranging Passover essays, all written by Sacks. www.continuumbooks.com

Harriet Goldner created and self-published the 18-page illustrated and color-coded “Please, Don’t Pass Over the Seder Plate” to keep her grandchildren entertained while they learned the Passover traditions. www.jewishfamilyfun.com

Fully illustrated and easy to understand, Rob Kopman’s “30 Minute Seder,” downloadable in minutes, provides abbreviated and slightly non-traditional seder basics for impatient participants. www.30minuteseder.com

The Hebrew-English “Hamsa Haggadah,” beautifully illustrated by Eduard Paskhover (A.G.N. Ltd., Israel, 2005) and shaped like a hamsa, highlights the 12 stones of the high priest’s breastplate, each stone representing one of Israel’s 12 tribes. Distributed through Alef Judaica, Inc., in Culver City. — Compiled by Jane Ulman, Contributing Writer

Turning Evil Around


What books must every Jew read? What books are critical to informing your understanding of your faith, your culture, your people? With this issue, The Jewish Journal introduces a new weekly column: My Jewish Library. We've asked rabbis, scholars and thinkers to each pick the one book that was essential to their Jewish life. They will discuss the book and its impact, and explain why you need to add it to your Jewish library. You can join the discussion in our online forum. You can also purchase the book for yourself by clicking the link below.

For the rest of this year, My Jewish Library will replace the weekly Torah portion. Readers (and b'nai mitzvah students) in search of the weekly Torah portion will find several years worth archived and easily accessible at

“>Click here to discuss this book

“Evil and the Morality of God” by Harold M. Schulweis (Ktav, 1984).

 

We have all been with those near to us as they have grieved over the loss of a friend to cancer, the end of a marriage, a death.

These real-life situations are often stranger than fiction. They present the greatest challenge to us as human beings: Why? Why me? Why does evil occur? If God is so moral, why did this have to happen? The questioning of God is called theodicy, indeed a logical problem. If God is all-powerful, then God is aware of suffering in the world. If God does nothing, God is either not completely powerful or not good. If God is both distant and unconcerned, then where is God's morality?

In his book, “Evil and the Morality of God,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the eminent Conservative rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, resolves the problem with evil by dissolving it. Schulweis suggests that the trouble has been that the question “why” has itself been faulty. We think of God as a Subject, an Entity, a Something or a Somebody. What we have learned about God's perfection is for us a sense of indifference to what we consider good and evil. But perhaps we are using the wrong language. Perhaps we speak to God or about God concerning human suffering using language that has an entirely different meaning when applied to God.

We cannot prove to anyone what we know about God. But we have seen and experienced human kindness. We know what it is to do good, to love justice, to embrace compassion, to walk humbly, to care for another as we care for ourselves. These are the values that make life a blessing for the living. These are our realities. A proper belief system affirms these values as the actual subject — and God is the verb.

Let's remember a grammar lesson. The subject comes before the predicate. But if we turn them around an insight emerges. Not God is just, but justice is Godly. Not God is compassionate, but compassion is Godly. Not God is loving, but loving another is Godlike. Thus, we have a new term called “Predicate Theology,” which emphasizes human interaction and responsibility. We have the capacity, Schulweis says, to experience, express and cultivate Godliness.

When evil occurs, the question should not be “O God, why did this happen?” For we have no answer and perhaps God is stunned to silence as well. Rather, we might ask, “What must be done for people to help one another, to act with the Godliness with which each of us is endowed?” Predicate Theology places the emphasis on people's response to evil.

Recently, we have faced the tragic results of waves of hurricanes. Schulweis teaches that divinity is not in natural disasters or so-called “acts of God,” but in “the human control of its floods and destruction…. There is no need for theology to compete with science in offering better or deeper explanations for the tornado and the drought…. Predicate Theology will express its profoundest sympathy, help organize relief, and urge the reclamation of the land. In the acts of encouragement, compassion, mutual aid and cooperative effort, godliness is expressed.”

If God is not omnipotent and able to take away all hurts and sorrows, why bother praying — why bother dealing with religion at all? We have to learn to ask the right questions about God and evil in this world. Rabbi Richard Hirsh notes that instead of “'God, why are You doing this to me,' ask God, 'See what is happening to me; can You help me?' or, instead of 'Why must we feel pain?' we can learn to ask, 'What can we do with our pain so that it becomes meaningful and not just pointless, empty suffering?' And instead of praying for miracles, we ought to pray for strength to bear the unbearable. In this manner, we shift the emphasis from question to response, and it is then that the role of religion becomes crucial.”

Schulweis recognizes that this orientation of theology is not meant for everyone. It is meant for those who are embarrassed by dealing with a God who is morally defenseless or indifferent to suffering. Predicate Theology is a modern, intellectual concept of God that can help us face the emotional difficulties of life.

Every day that we read the paper, we see a new variation on a theme of human agony. But, as the Thanksgiving holiday we just marked teaches us, we know that, somehow, people have a capacity to persevere, to overcome, to survive the journey through the valley of the shadow of death with dignity and integrity. Predicate Theology may help us understand God in a new way. But Rabbi Ira Eisenstein adds one caveat: Don't ask God the wrong questions. Don't ask why you are suffering. Ask for the patience, the strength and the courage to transform your experience into deeds of Godliness.

Morley Feinstein is senior rabbi of University Synagogue.

True Tale Of Homework Hell


Lately, certain educational “experts” have begun an assault on the time-honored tradition of assigning homework. Some assert that teachers are burdening kids with so much work that they are destroying, willy-nilly, the carefree nature of childhood.

My kids couldn’t agree more.

“Nobody really needs to study math these days,” one child protested to me the other night during homework. “You may have had to learn it in the old days, but we have calculators now.”

To this child, the “old days” refers to anytime before the average computer came equipped with 4 gigabytes of memory and a free DVD burner.

“Besides, when am I ever going to have to do long division in real life?”

I hated being trapped by questions like this.

“Math is an important skill,” I improvised. “You may not need to do long division regularly, but you will need the solid foundation of logic that math teaches you in your career.”

“You don’t know much math,” the child said. “Of course, you don’t have a career either.”

The overflow of chutzpah (Yiddish for “unmitigated gall”) from my kids never ceases to amaze me. On a daily basis, they make the most brazen declarations while still expecting three square meals a day for the next 15 or 20 years, regular birthday presents, new shoes every two months and allowances that include automatic adjustments for inflation.

I sighed. Sometimes it’s the only way to cope.

“Look, I’ve never claimed to be a math whiz, but I wish I were better at it,” I said. “It would have made many things in my life a lot easier.”

Like learning to balance a checkbook, and figuring out the tip at restaurants without having to scribble all over the napkin.

“Science is stupid, too,” added another child, seizing the opportunity to add to my difficulties. “That experiment we had to do with the dancing raisins in seltzer was really dumb.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “but the investigation into the chemistry of béarnaise sauce was exciting,” I reminisced.

I was losing ground and I knew it, but consoled myself with the thought that at least the kids were agreeing on something. That in itself was so rare an event that it almost cried out for investigation.

“You’ll never get ahead in life unless you get a good education,” I insisted. “And that means you must be willing to face the prospect of elementary school, middle school, high school and college.”

And student loans, and graduate school and other things I didn’t dare name.

“I already know all I need to know,” said my 11-year-old, bearing a serious expression and a smear of ketchup on his chin. This is a kid who generally gets away with murder, simply because he has cute freckles and a tendency to wear ketchup on his chin. But it could have been worse: he could have claimed to have learned all he needed to know in kindergarten.

“I can still get a job even if I never go to school ever again!” he said.

“By golly you’re right,” I admitted. “You can dress up in a chicken suit and stand on the corner, waving people into El Pollo Loco or another fast-food dive. Of course, you’d have to grow into the suit first. Or you can spend your days asking the question, ‘Will that be paper or plastic?’ and bag groceries until your elbows give out. If you’re not claustrophobic, you can collect money in a tollbooth, but if you bring a book to read during slow times, make sure the words don’t have too many syllables.”

“Okay, that’s enough Mom,” he said.

Too bad. I was just getting warmed up.

As the homework wars continue to rage, I’m beginning to side with the anti-homework warriors. After all, if the kids didn’t have homework, I wouldn’t be spending my evenings quizzing kids on the difference between ectotherms and endotherms and pretending to know the answer without sneaking a peek at the definitions. Why should I have to reveal the true extent of my ignorance in front of my children? I need to preserve the thin veneer of intellectual superiority that separates me from becoming a total laughingstock in front of them. Even though the sum total of my four kids’ life experiences make them barely old enough to buy liquor, they already consider themselves far more knowledgeable than I am on nearly every subject. They probably wonder how I stumble through life, knowing as little as I do.

And yet, I manage to run a home, raise my kids, write an occasional book or column, all without even knowing what really caused the death of the dinosaurs. Maybe the kids are right after all.

Judy Gruen is the author of several books including “Till We Eat Again:
Confessions of a Diet Dropout” (Champion Press, 2003). She can be reached at judy@judygruen.com.

Navigating Aid


By the time she reached the third grade, Aliza Sokolow’s teachers could plainly see that she was a bright, articulate child. But something was interfering with her learning. It took seven more years — until her sophomore year in high school — before Sokolow was finally diagnosed with a learning disability and given some strategies to cope with it.

Once the nature of her problem was clear, however, Sokolow exhibited her trademark determination, working tirelessly with an educational therapist to gain new skills and relearn old ones. After a year and a half of intensive effort, she said, "I have learned how to study efficiently and which study environments are best for me."

Sokolow was loath to draw attention to herself, but she agreed to follow certain recommendations, such as having extended time for test taking, to compensate for her learning disability.

Now a successful senior at Milken Community High School, Sokolow is the executive editor of her school’s newspaper, sits on the student government’s executive board and student judiciary and is a competitive swimmer. This summer, she participated in a journalism program at Columbia University.

So when she started thinking about college, Sokolow naturally wanted to know what kind of programs existed for students with challenges like hers. College and universities are prevented by law from discriminating against applicants with physical disabilities, such as an inability to walk, see or hear. Nor can they discriminate against candidates with learning disabilities or conditions like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). But the degree to which the latter category of students are accommodated can vary greatly.

Last January, Sokolow attended a college conference that featured a session for students with disabilities. Students were querying one representative from a prestigious private school about his institution’s program, but he couldn’t answer their questions.

"He didn’t know anything," Sokolow said. "It was a rude awakening."

She decided to do her own research, scouring Web sites of institutions around the country to see what types of programs they offered to students with physical or learning disabilities. Many of the applicable sections were under construction or buried deep within the Web site. "I found it fascinating that the disability departments at some schools made the disability sites difficult to find, thus making the disabled more disabled," she said.

Books were even less help than the Internet, as their information grew quickly outdated.

Sokolow realized that if she was having difficulty accessing this information, other students surely were as well. Since she had already done so much research, she decided to create a Web resource guide that could help other students. The guide would contain a comprehensive listing of colleges with direct links to the disability sections of their Web sites.

"People of my generation are always on the Internet, and also things can be updated a lot faster. So students would be able to use this resource very easily," she said.

Hundreds of hours later, and with the help of the Technology Department at Milken, Sokolow produced the "College Guide to Learning Disability Programs," a CD-ROM featuring links to disability programs at community colleges and universities throughout the country. With sites ranging from Abilene Christian University to Youngstown State University, the CD-ROM contains more than 1,600 links.

The nature of the programs listed varies. UCLA, for example, has an Office for Students with Disabilities, and offers such services as note taking, taping, providing sign language interpreters, adjusting time allowed for exams or giving priority registration for those students who qualify. At the University of Arizona in Tuscon, the Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center is dedicated specifically to students with learning and attention challenges.

"I just really want to get this resource out there because I realized there were a lot of students who were in the same position as I was when I went to that conference, and students with disabilities really do have a lot of resources out there," Sokolow said. (This year, Sokolow will be a speaker at the conference.)

Students aren’t the only ones to find the CD-ROM helpful.

"This product really streamlines the process of getting information [about disability programs], which can be cumbersome," said Vicky DeFelice, partner at DeFelice & Geller, an educational consulting firm in Westwood. "It’s useful for students, but also for counselors, independent consultants like me or anyone who needs to look up this kind of information."

"It doesn’t really matter where you go to college or what you study," Sokolow said, taking a philosophical view of her project. "If you’re a mencsh and an ish tzedek [a righteous person] and a good person, you can do great things no matter where you go to school. But if there are great programs out there that can help you, more power to them."

The "College Guide to Learning Disability Programs 2004" is available at Amazon.com for $24.95.

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