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Friday, June 5, 2020

Authors Get Creative in New Haggadahs

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An emoji can be seen as a contemporary revival of the hieroglyphics that were so prominent in ancient Egypt. And so, as we recall the flight from Mitzrayim during our third-millennium seders, what could be more appropriate than “The Emoji Haggadah” (KTAV), which tells the tale entirely in playful and inventive images? It’s the handiwork of Martin Bodek, a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and co-founder of TheKnish.com, which has been described as “a Jewish version of The Onion.” 

To be sure, “The Emoji Haggadah” is more of a game than a haggadah, but it will surely engage the lively interest of younger participants and enliven the seder for everyone even if, on the other hand, the challenge of decipherment isn’t going to make your seder any shorter. But, just as the Rosetta Stone was the key to decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics, the author provides some helpful tips for translation as well as the complete text of a traditional haggadah in both Hebrew and English.

The Jewish Journey Haggadah: Connecting the Generations,” by Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz (with photographs by Shira Hecht-Koller) (Gefen), can be described as a user-friendly and full-service haggadah. Berkowitz provides all of the fundamentals — the Hebrew text, a complete transliteration and an English translation. But she also enriches the traditional elements of the haggadah with songs, stories and commentary that are meant to catch and hold the interest of adults and children alike while deepening their understanding of the meanings of Jewish tradition. Along the way, she allows us to see the essential role of women in the Exodus, and she provides a rich selection of talking points for conversation and debate around the seder table. In a sense, that’s her life’s work between covers; Berkowitz, a New York-based psychotherapist, is Scholar in Residence and co-founder of Kol HaNeshamah, an organization whose mission is “re-energizing the spiritual lives of both not-yet-affiliated and affiliated Jews.”

For families with a short attention span, there’s always “30 Minute Seder: The Haggadah That Blends Brevity With Tradition,” written by Robert Kopman and illustrated by Bil Yanok (30 Minute Seder). Lest we equate haste with irreverence, the publisher assures us that “30 Minute Seder” is “fun yet reverent” and “rabbinically approved.” Inevitably and intentionally, much of the traditional seder is left on the cutting room floor along with the question, “When do we eat?” But it has found its readership as evidenced by the fact that “30 Minute Haggadah” is a registered trademark, and the product line includes a large-print edition, a 12-copy value pack and even the “60 Minute Seder” for the slightly more patient seder-goers. 

The Amazon listing for “The Jewish Journey Haggadah” includes a crack about families for whom “a Haggadah distributed by a leading coffee company might suffice.” That’s a reference to the classic Maxwell House haggadah that has become a Passover tradition in itself. As it turns out, however, Maxwell House has issued a limited edition of its iconic haggadah in a nod to a celebrated Jewish figure in current popular culture, Midge, the main character in the Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Except for the title, “Midge’s Haggadah,” and a few interior touches (such as simulated wine stains and a handwritten recipe), it’s the classic 1958 edition with a new cover. And don’t try to actually buy “Midge’s Haggadah” on Amazon, where prices approaching $1,000 are quoted for used copies. Since “Midge’s Haggadah” is strictly a marketing gimmick, it is available for free when you purchase select Maxwell House products on Amazon.

Watch the Journal review “Midge’s Haggadah” here. 

Perhaps the most elegant haggadah of all is the newly published “The Lombard Haggadah,” by Milvia Bollati, Marc Michael Epstein and Flora Casen (Paul Holberton Publishing), which reproduces a manuscript copy of a haggadah first created in the late 14th century and illustrated over the next 700 years with 75 marginal illuminations in watercolors. “The Lombard Haggadah” was the earliest stand-alone haggadah from the Jewish community in Italy, and its significance is explained by the scholars who have studied its origins, iconography and historical context. The book has been published in conjunction with an exhibition of the original manuscript at a gallery in New York City, the first time “The Lombard Haggadah” has been displayed since the Paris world’s fair in 1900. While it is not serviceable at the seder table, it is an example of enduring function of the haggadah as a medium of both literary and artistic innovation.

By contrast, “The Yada-Yada Hagaddah: A Sitcom Seder,” by Dave Cowen (Cowen), is pure parody, a follow-up to Cowen’s 2018 Amazon best-seller, “The Trump Passover Haggadah.” As the title suggests, the haggadah owes as much to “Seinfeld” as to the Book of Exodus, and its function at the seder table is to provide a few moments of hilarity between the traditional readings. Guests can take the roles of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer in performing the comedic scripts that Cowen has created. “Because this is a parody that transforms the copyrighted material [in ‘Seinfeld’] into a teaching tool for Judaism,” Larry David is made to say, “it’s kosher.” And, for all of its high spirits, the author is careful to refer to the Almighty as “G-D,” which suggests that he may be willing to push the envelope on copyright law but not Jewish tradition.

Finally, I join my colleague, Lisa Silverman, in calling attention to the “Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel,” written by Jordan B. Gorfinkel and illustrated by Erez Zadok (Koren), which is the world’s first haggadah in a comic book format. Not unlike the “Emoji Haggadah,” the author and illustrator have retold an ancient tale in a thoroughly modern medium, and their work is both provocative and eye-pleasing. You can read Lisa’s review of the “Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel” on page 59.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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