An Old Story, Newly Retold


In the beginning there was the Maxwell House Haggadah, as far as many Jews were concerned. And they saw that it was good, and they kept using it, year after year, at their seders.

The Maxwell House Haggadah was as simple as flour-and-water matzah, the basic Passover staple. It offered no commentary, no explanations, no fancy art — just the Haggadah text.

Eventually, the Jewish community — which was becoming more educated, and in many cases, more observant — demanded more. Enter the Haggadah with commentaries. For a few decades, Jewish and general publishing houses brought out a series of Haggadot that offered a virtually unlimited choice of commentaries on the text: the translated words of classical scholars, and more-contemporary perspectives from the Orthodox and the unorthodox, feminists and New Agers and Zionists and … and the list goes on.

That era is coming to an end.

In recent years, the emphasis is on the individual; and individuals who reflect a larger community. Today’s Haggadah is likely to be artsy, niche-oriented, and in fact, not a Haggadah at all, but a Haggadah “companion” — a book that offers the reader advice on how to understand, conduct and enjoy the seder experience.

This year offers an especially rich crop. Here, in the first of a two-part round up of the new Haggadot, is a brief look at what’s available this year, and what appeared too late last year for most consumers to know about.

The Shirat Miriam Haggadah. Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon. (Mosad Harav Kook, $44.95)

This Haggadah has the making of an instant classic.

Rabbi Rimon, who served in the Israeli Army’s Armored Corps and is now a teacher in several yeshivot and a neighborhood spiritual leader in Alon Shevut, has put out a Haggadah that is both an artistic masterpiece and the epitome of academic scholarship.

It’s equally valuable for the novice seder participant, and the veteran expert, for Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews (separate notes and text are offered for each group), and for someone interested in aspects of Passover philosophy or practice. In addition to a Haggadah’s standard commentary and explanations are additional readings that aid understanding at various levels. Among them: “The simple meaning of the verses,” sources, riddles (answers provided at the back), topics for discussion, and suggested activities. There’s also an “in-depth section,” which adds a review of relevant laws, and a “Jewish thought section,” which offers sages’ reflections. And helpful graphs and flow charts. And a summary of the biblical verses on which the seder is based. And a review of Jewish law for Jews who are outside of Israel on yom tov.

“Some parts of the Haggadah are meant for use before the seder, some during the seder itself, and some throughout the Pesach festival,” Rabbi Rimon writes. “This division … is of course keeping with the words of our Sages about the Four Sons, that the story of the Exodus from Egypt should be transmitted to each of them in his own way.”

The Medieval Haggadah Anthology, with the commentary of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. (David Holzer, no price listed)

This Haggadah can stand on its aesthetic quality (the “digitally remastered illuminated manuscripts” are striking) or on its intellectual breath (the lectures and other comments of the late philosophical leader of the Modern Orthodox movement are both heimishe and inspiring, profound and accessible).

Holzer, who worked with Rabbi Soloveitchik for many years and has preserved many of the thoughts of “The Rav” through a series of “The Rav Thinking Aloud” books, combines here dozens of pieces of art of Haggadot and Machzors that date back to the 13th century, as well as the rabbi’s insights on the holiday’s readings and rituals. It’s not clear if the art was intended to supplement the written content, or vice versa; it works either way.

The print is big, a boon to anyone with poor eyesight. But you might not want to use this Haggadah at you seder table, lest you get a stain on it.

The Night That Unites Passover Haggadah: Teachings, Stories, and Questions From Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Soloveitchik, and Rabbi Carlebach. Edited by Aaron Goldscheider, artwork by Aitana Perlmutter. (Urim Publications, $25.18)

The three rabbis — Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel; Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, for decades the philosophical leader of the Modern Orthodox movement; and Shlomo Carlebach, the troubadour whose music became the soundtrack for a few generations of Jews — whose thoughts about Passover Rabbi Goldscheider brings together, numbered among the most influential leaders of 20th-century Judaism. All shared an open-minded spirit that transcended denominational labels, though all were Orthodox.

“The great rabbinic personalities featured in this volume share common cause in their profound desire and great efforts to bring unity to our people,” Rabbi Goldscheider writes in his introduction. Ordained by Yeshiva University, he served as a pulpit rabbi in the U.S. for two decades and now lives in Jerusalem.

He supplements the rabbis’ teachings with additional readings (“special sections”) on kindness, the Holocaust and Israel, and discussion questions. And illustrative tales from the rabbis’ lives.

The Haggadah’s layout makes it easy to follow the order of the seder, and Perlmutter’s drawings at the start of each section are spectacular. The book is comprehensive, but may better serve as a study guide before Passover; a collector’s item, it’s another Haggadah you will fear staining.

Escape Velocity: A Post-apocalyptic Passover Haggadah. Stan Lebovic. (Black is a Color, $28.84)

In the spirit of “Black is a Color,” a 2011 book that presented the philosophical essays (Why does a just God permit injustice in the world?) and the eclectic drawings (like musical notes on a death camp’s barbed wire fence) of Stan Lebovic, a Baltimore artist, “Escape Velocity” is actually two books: a Haggadah, from right to left, that features the standard text in Hebrew and English, with brief English explanatory notes in the margins; and, left to right, a collection of new essays on Pesach themes, reflections of new Pesach-centered artwork.

While the Haggadah part is gorgeous, the book’s strength is the essays’ artwork section. Both are thought provoking, offering unexpected images and insights. The earth in the form of a shattering piece of shmurah matzah. An empty seder table that morphs into a Pyramid. Zykkon-B canisters in various creative settings. And so on.

Even the title of Lebovic’s Haggadah is original. “Escape Velocity,” he explains at the start of the book, “is the speed an object must reach to escape the gravitational pull exerted by another object, thereby allowing for the possibility of an autonomous existence, unburdened by outside influences.” In other words, the conventional Passover story in the words — and drawings — of an unconventional thinker.

Pop Haggadah. Melissa Berg. (Pop Media, $25.95)

This is a perfect Haggadah for children of a certain age — old enough to read, not old enough to expect more than text, a few explanatory notes and beautiful artwork that accompanies each page.

Berg, an artist — the Haggadah offers no background on her — has created dozens of creative, colorful drawings that illustrate each step of the seder, and she’s set them among striking Hebrew and English fonts.

Some examples: a sketch of the molecular structure of wine on the Kiddush page; innovative symbols for each plague; an aliyah timeline for the paragraph, “In every generation a person should regard himself as if he came out of Egypt.”

Berg’s Haggadah is both good art and good theology.

Crossing Over: A Musical Haggadah. “Music & Concept” by Michael Allen Harrison, “Book & Lyrics” by Alan Berg. (Eagle Putt publishing, 2 hours, 13 minutes, $15)

This is a CD, an oral Haggadah companion.

People who observe the halachic ban on using electricity on yom tov can listen to it in the days before the holiday, to rehearse the seder melodies or get inspiration from the spoken words. The set includes two discs: one of 18 Pesach melodies and some additions like “Let my People Go” and “Oseh Shalom”; the other of an abbreviated seder service.

The music is beautiful.

Harrison, an Oregonian, who calls himself “the Irving Berlin of Portland,” and Rabbi Berg, a longtime friend of Harrison’s family, have collaborated in musical theater, and created “Crossing Over” as a tribute to Harrison’s late father.

Their lyrical interpretation was performed the last two years in the collaborators’ home city in concerts that included professional soloists, a children’s choir and an orchestra. The CD includes performances by a cantor and a gospel singer.

The New Union Haggadah: Revised Edition. Rabbi Howard Berman, consulting editor; Rabbi Benjamin Zeidman, developmental editor. (Central Conference of American Rabbis (110, $18)

In 1923 the umbrella organization of Reform rabbis issued the Haggadah that became the Passover voice of the movement’s philosophy and practice. Nine decades later comes an updated version.

Much about this Haggadah, created in partnership with the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, is “new” — “gender sensitive” language, reinstituted prayers, Miriam’s Cup and an orange on the seder plate (both nods to feminist sensibilities), full transliteration of the Haggadah’s limited Hebrew; this is clearly intended for a non-Hebrew-speaking readership. Also included are creative prayers throughout, an alternative text for the fourth of the Four Questions, and closing essays on such topics as “The Biblical Exodus,” “History of the Haggadah” and “The Haggadah and Reform Judaism.”

What’s missing are some parts of a traditional seder: the bulk of the Maggid section, most of Hallel (Psalms) and nearly all of the blessings after the meal, and the words that accompany the opening of the door for Elijah.

The Brauer Haggadah. Arik Brauer. (Amalthea Signum Verlag, $13.72)

This is the revised edition of a Haggadah that Brauer, a self-described “artistic polymath” who grew up in Vienna and survived the Holocaust while living underground and has lived in Israel, first produced more than three decades ago. “It was of no interest to him that a second edition of the work he did in his youth be reprinted; he wanted to create a new interpretation of the book,” publisher Erwin Javor writes in the introduction.

Brauer’s Haggadah features 24 of his paintings of biblical figures and Exodus themes. His “fantastical realism” style, both in black-and-white and color, is innovative but unthreatening, inviting the viewer to plumb hidden meanings. There’s also an epilogue by Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, the commentary-less seder text, the musical score for several seder songs, and a lengthy question-and-answer section (the questions are Javor’s; the answers, Vienna Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg’s). The questions cover fundamental Pesach practices and beliefs.

Next week: More new Haggadot.