The Best of Passover Reading

The Best of Passover Reading
April 21, 2005


“Leading the Passover Journey: The Seder’s Meaning Revealed, the Haggadah’s Story Retold” by Rabbi Nathan Laufer (Jewish Lights, $24.95).

Rabbi Nathan Laufer tells a story of his grandfather: Before his family was sent to a concentration camp, he buried the family’s silver. The grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz, and when the family returned to their town, they found that their silver had been ransacked, but an Elijah’s cup, used at the seder, remained. The grandmother gave the cup to her son who later gave it to his son, Rabbi Laufer, who has used it throughout his life.

At Laufer’s family seders, true stories of survival and liberation from the concentration camps were woven seamlessly into the text of the haggadah. A senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and president emeritus of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, he has distilled more than 20 years of thinking about and studying the haggadah into his new book, “Leading the Passover Journey: The Seder’s Meaning Revealed, the Haggadah’s Story Retold.”

The book is different from other books in that it points to underlying meaning in the seder. By taking the reader through the different steps of the seder, offering his original interpretations, he shows a kind of inner choreography; in fact, he demonstrates how the different pieces of the haggadah fit together to form a coherent and powerful whole. In his reading, the text follows the chronological story of the Book of Exodus, and every item in the seder mirrors the order of the journey from slavery to redemption.

He draws parallels, for example, between the ceremony of yachatz, the breaking of the middle matzah, and the story of Moses, as told in the second chapter of Exodus. The broken piece, which becomes the afikomen and is retrieved during tzafun, the hidden one, is like the baby Moses, who is wrapped in secrecy and hidden out of sight. Later on, Moses reappears and redeems the people from bondage. The Torah uses the root z-f-n to denote the child’s hiddenness; this is the only place where the root with that meaning is also used in the haggadah. Laufer believes is it no coincidence.

Moses is hidden not only symbolically in a napkin but also in the haggadah text. Laufer explains that the haggadah is intent on telling the story of the Exodus as “a tale of the unmitigated love between God and the Jewish people. The authors of the haggadah did not want to hinge that relationship based on the presence — or absence — of a human leader, not even one as great as Moses.”

Laufer, a resident of New Jersey who has spent the last few years in Israel, was back in New York recently. He said that the point of the haggadah is “not to read, but to tell. You bring your own imagination and experience to the story.”

“I always considered the haggadah to be the people’s Torah, the core story of the Torah told by the people, for the people,” he continued.

“If you get so much into the story that you lose yourself, then you have achieved what the haggadah and seder try to achieve, to get you to feel, for at least moments, that you were a slave.”

He describes the ideal state as one in which participants enter what psychologist Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi calls the state of “flow.”

“To engage in the Passover seder,” he writes, “is to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage through time. What Pesach gives us is the gift of our identities. It tells us where we came from, where we’re going, our mission, our goal. Our vision is about redemption, not a one-way vision but a vision that goes through cycles.”

“If we find ourselves in a narrow place, then we have to draw on who we are, pull ourselves up and out of it, resurrect our lives and find meaning,” he writes. “If we can do that, then we have lived the Passover story.”

This book is not a haggadah — although much of the text is included here, in English and Hebrew — but a book to be read before the seder, and then used to inspire discussion. Laufer’s approach is both learned and accessible, and he points out many intriguing connections — drawing on history, midrash, biblical text, visual imagery, language, gematria — that many readers will find new.

Also of Passover Interest

“Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Pesach, Sefirat ha-Omer and Shavu’ot” by Rabbi David Shapiro (Urim) includes the rav’s analysis of some of the mitzvot of the seder, along with insights into aspects of the counting of the omer and Shavuot. Shapiro explains that the Hebrew title, a phrase from the haggadah, mei-afeilah le-or gadol, reflects the national development of the Jewish people over the course of the seven weeks from the period of afeilah (physical and spiritual darkness) to that of or gadol, (of the ‘light’ afforded by the teachings of the Torah). Shapiro who is on the faculty of the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., and was its principal for 11 years, is also a staff member of the Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute.

“The Book of Passover” by Rabbi Benjamin Blech (Citadel Press) includes brief and informative explanations of holiday rituals, but this is a book that invites readers to become co-authors, to record their own favorite teachings and holiday memories. Blech, a best-selling author and professor at Yeshiva University, describes the book as a family album — not of photos but of words.

For Children:

“Had Gadya: A Passover Song” paintings by Seymour Chwast, afterword by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld (Roaring Brook Press) is a delightful evocation of the cumulative folk song, chanted at the end of the Passover story. Chwast’s paintings are at once whimsical and powerful, depicting life in a village as members of the community are preparing for the seder when a goat is eaten by a cat, and then the cat bitten by a dog, until finally God destroys the Angel of Death.

In an afterword, Strassfeld explains that “Had Gadya” was added to the text of the Haggadah sometime around the 15th century, and shows how the story of the song expresses the theme of the haggadah. In Chwast’s retelling, the goat and father return, as though “to suggest that there will come a times when the cycle will end not in death but in the death of death,” Strassfeld writes. “God represents the hope that someday this story and every story will end with the words: and they all lived happily ever after.”

“The Secret Seder” by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully (Hyperion) referred to in the title of this moving story is held in a mountaintop shack, outside of a small village in France, where a number of Jews are posing as Catholics during World War II. The seder is described from the point of view of a young boy named Jacques — the only child there — who closes his eyes and recalls his grandmother’s seder table, set with a lace cloth and traditional foods, as they face an empty table. Many sob as they pour the cups of wine; they have no bitter herbs to dip but agree that their lives are bitter. As Jacques recites the four questions, one man interrupts to say that the night is different because Jews are being murdered across Europe. But this group is glad to be together, marking the holiday as they can. Rappaport has written several award-winning books for children, and drew on true stories of Jews in hiding in creating this tale. McCully’s soft watercolors convey a mood of fear and hope.

“Shlemiel Crooks” by Anna Olswanger, illustrated by Paula Goodman Koz (Junebug Books) is an unusual take on the Passover story. Set in 1919 St. Louis, this is a tale of some thieves — “worms should hold a wedding in their belly,” as the author suggests, in a series of Yiddish-inspired curses — who try to steal a shipment of Passover wine imported from Israel from Reb Elias. He ran the kind of saloon where housewives and grandmothers felt comfortable buying kosher wine and brandy. Pharaoh, the prophet Elijah, a tailor named Perlmutter and a talking horse make cameo appearances. The author’s creative retelling is based on a true story she uncovered about her great-grandfather. Koz’s colorful illustrations reflect Olswanger’s humor. Olswanger teaches writing and helps Holocaust survivors to write about their experiences.

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.


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