What We Talk About When We Talk About Passover


The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer grew up with a fairly typical American Passover. His father would use the Maxwell House Haggadah, supplemented with his own pamphlet of writings, and lead the annual Foer seder. But nine years ago, sitting at his family seder in Washington, D.C., Foer thought that, literary-wise, the Haggadah could use a little work.

“It’s an idea that’s occurred to lots of people throughout history, and probably many other people who haven’t actually acted on it,” Foer said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever met a person who also doesn’t feel that this” — meaning their Haggadah, whichever one they use — “could be better.”

So Foer set out to re-write one. He e-mailed dozens of prominent Jewish writers — Jeffrey Goldberg, Tony Kushner, Susan Sontag, Simon Schama — asking them for brief commentaries on some of the Passover themes. He thought he’d compile them all and create a supplement not unlike the one his father made, except with literary superstars instead.

But then he changed his mind.

“It became clear that I was making a book I really didn’t want to make,” he said. What he really wanted to create was a whole new Haggadah, not merely a supplement. So he began to revise. He pruned down the commentators to just four — the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg; novelist and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein; children’s book author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket); and the Jewish studies professor Nathaniel Deutsch.

They’d each write 10 short commentaries, some political, some philosophical, some whimsical, that responded to a line from the traditional Haggadah. His friend Nathan Englander, an equally renowned Jewish novelist, grew up Orthodox; he would translate the traditional Hebrew text itself. Nine years later, the Foer-edited “New American Haggadah” has just been released.

“There was a lot of wasted time,” Foer said, explaining why it took so long. Yet he added later, “There’s no reason to rush.”

Some of the delay can be explained by the change in format. Englander had first been asked to write a commentary. But then, some time later, Foer asked him if he’d do an entire new translation instead.

Englander said he was resistant about doing the translation at first. “But [Jonathan] knows me well and he knows my brain well,” Englander explained. “Then he said, ‘This would be really special, something we could be proud of for a very long time.’ … I bet a great majority of people using this will probably be reading the English translation,” Englander added, “I understood the weight of that obligation.”

To prepare, Englander spent three years studying one-on-one with a learned Orthodox man in Brooklyn. He didn’t want to just read a Haggadah in Hebrew and find approximate words in English. He wanted his translation to be driven by a deeper understanding of the text itself.

“I wasn’t even looking at other Haggadot anymore,” Englander said. “I was looking at the Torah” — the ur-text upon which the Passover story is based. “What’s the meaning? What’s the context? What’s the intent?”

He and his learning partner, Baruch Thaler (thanked in the acknowledgements), would sometimes spend one whole session arguing over a single line of translation, Englander said. And while Englander wanted his translation to be as inclusive as possible — avoiding gender disputes when possible, for instance — he ultimately relied on a decidedly traditional Hebrew Haggadah for his main text.

“This idea that I was going to spend years on this one text, then my sister” — who is still Orthodox, and with whom he is close — “isn’t going to be able to use it” drove that decision, Englander said.

But the commentaries are markedly untraditional. Jeffrey Goldberg, for instance, draws several parallels to more modern-day politics. A commentary on the Four Sons segment of the Haggadah leads to a broader discussion about whether Jews should contribute to causes that benefit themselves, or humankind more broadly.

“Is it not a form of chauvinism to declare that the fate of Ethiopian Jews is an overriding concern of the American Jewish community, but what happens to non-Jewish Ethiopians is only a marginal concern?” Goldberg writes.

In another commentary, he asks whether something in “the Jewish cultural DNA” has made Jews agitators for change throughout history. Jews are often found on the front lines of debates over the environment, taxes, immigration and civil rights in America, Goldberg writes.

“More than 10 percent of the U.S. Senate is Jewish (Jews make up 2 percent of the population),” he adds, “and Jews register to vote, and turn out to vote, in much higher percentages than any other group.”

“The question arises,” he concludes, “Do Jews who agitate so ardently for change do so as Jews, or because they are Jews?”

Foer said he gave the four commentators few directions, neither telling them to avoid controversy, nor to deliberately court it.

“We didn’t go out of out of our way to challenge anybody, but nor did we go out of our way to avoid challenging people,” Foer said. “It’s provocative not in the sense that it makes people defensive, but in that it invites a discussion.”

Nathaniel Deutsch, a professor at UC-Santa Cruz and co-director of the university’s Center for Jewish Studies, confirmed Foer’s laissez-faire approach. Foer never said “you have to toe this line or that line,” according to Deutsch, who added, “I don’t think you can look at this Haggadah and say it has an ideological bent.”

Still, some ideologically contentious issues seem unavoidable. One commentary responds to a line from the Haggadah, taken from Exodus, which in Englander’s translation reads: “And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Deutsch interprets this line as meaning that Jews are a chosen people. He acknowledges in his commentary that “some of us do not accept it at all” — that is, the idea of chosen-ness, which more liberal Jewish movements have been de-emphasizing for decades. But he rejects that idea: “Being chosen is something that has happened to us already, something that we must remember, and in doing so, make present in every generation.”

Deutsch said in an interview that he finds the idea of chosen-ness central to Judaism, even if many Jews today downplay it. “I’m opposed to getting rid of it,” he said, but added a crucial caveat, one stressed in his commentary as well: “Now, what chosen-ness means is something we can debate.”

Foer noted that his Haggadah is not pitched to any one audience in particular. But already interest seems highest among a more liberal, secular-minded set. There have been stories about it in national outlets like The New York Times, NPR, and The Huffington Post, for instance. But other audiences seem excited about it too.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, a Reform rabbi and author of the movement’s official Haggadah, titled “The Open Door,” was thrilled when she first heard she might have — err, competition?

“I don’t feel competition,” Elwell said. “I’m a rabbi and I want more people sitting around the table.” She felt big-name writers like Foer and Englander would only bring in more seats. “Part of the joy is having more people to talk with, to argue with. … It’s not competition at all.”

As for Foer’s family seder this year, and whether his father would replace the Maxwell House Haggadah or supplement it with his son’s new version? Foer answered succinctly: “He better.”