This Year’s Models: More Creativity, Less Commentary


A trend in Haggadah publishing is deepening: Out, for the most part, are the commentary-centered Haggadahs that dominated the field for several decades, featuring interpretations of the holiday’s readings and rituals. In, to a growing degree, are individualistic, often artistic versions of the Haggadah.

This year’s crop includes a medieval Catholic Church-sponsored Haggadah study guide, an illuminated version on display at a Manhattan museum, and one based on baseball.

The Unorthodox Haggadah: A Dogma-free Passover for Jews and Other Chosen People. By Nathan Phillips. Designed by Jessica Stewart (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 88 pages. $9.99).

A New Hampshire-born convert to Judaism and advertising agency creative director in New York City, Phillips has produced a Haggadah that contains the traditional parts of the Haggadah, but in barely recognizable form.

Designed for people who find a traditional seder boring, a seder conducted according to Phillips’ Haggadah will be irreverent, irreligious, rude or funny — but never boring. He’s kept the skeleton, and fleshed out the holiday’s readings and rituals in the manner of someone who has a background in comedy. Which Phillips — a veteran of improv — does.

In the Haggadah are the author’s takes on the Israelites’ experience in ancient Egypt (“Years after Moses skedaddled, life in Egypt really sucked for the Jews.”), on matzah (“It’s not very good, but that’s the point. It’s hard to think about suffering with a mouthful of blueberry pie.”) There’s also Phillips’ humorous interpretations of The Four Questions, the biblical plagues, the afikoman and the rest of the Haggadah. All accompanied by equally iconoclastic illustrations.

The only thing missing from the seder’s standard 15 steps is the blessing after the meal. Some Hebrew blessings are included, but with the author’s not-literal translations.

“I wrote ‘The Unorthodox Haggadah’ for people who want to participate in weird rituals, without the hassle of dogma,” Phillips writes in the introduction. ‘If there is a God, he doesn’t want you to follow rules. He wants you to soul clap and battle with swords.”

The Haggadah will be of most use to a seder participant who has some familiarity with the usual Haggadah contents that Phillips’ gently parodies.

He has led seders for several years at home and at the 92nd Street Y.

In his irreverence is reverence for Jewish tradition, he said, calling his Haggadah “an official Jewish document,” fit for use at a Pesach table. “It’s a very Jewish book … a comprehensive celebration of tradition.”

And, he added, “It happens to be a little bit silly.”

The Lieberman Open Orthodox Haggadah. By Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld (Gefen Publishing. 160 pages, $19.95).

At Rabbi Herzfeld’s childhood seders in Staten Island, the people sitting around his family’s holiday table would read commentaries from a wide selection of Haggadahs — “30, 40 … 50 different” Haggadahs — and engage in Passover-related discussions of current events.

The rabbi, for a decade spiritual leader of Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue in the capitol, wrote his Haggadah with these memories in mind. Essays and commentaries devoted to a wide range of contemporary, often progressive, social issues are designed to foster conversations.

Rabbi Herzfeld, who was ordained by Yeshiva University and served on the staff of Rabbi Avi Weiss at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, wrote his Haggadah as a proponent of Rabbi Weiss’ brand of “Open Orthodoxy” — hence, a “guest voice” by a non-Jew who buys his synagogue’s chametz for Pesach, and readings on such topics as agunot, “fertility challenges,” the kol ishah prohibition of men listening to women’s singing voices, the role of women in Orthodox congregations as spiritual leaders, the Women of the Wall debate, and interaction with “our Christian neighbors.”

For each step of the seder: thought-provoking questions and illustrative drawings.

The rabbi’s central question: “What does it mean to be redeemed?”

The Mosaic Haggadah: Themes of the Passover Haggadah. By David Silberman (Haggadah Publishing, 197 pages. $33).

Silberman’s seders at his Houston home a few decades ago were brief, guided by his young children’s attention span and level of understanding. As they grew older, his seders grew longer, with additions of readings from an eclectic selection of Jewish and non-Jewish sources, including rabbinic scholars and political leaders.

His readings have grown into a Haggadah that features color-coded excerpts divided into six themes that Dr. Silberman, a dentist who grew up in Oklahoma City, found popular among his family members and guests at his annual seders.

The themes are freedom, Israel, gratitude, redemption, family and community. Silberman encourages people using his Haggadah to devote each night’s seder to one theme; he has done the legwork for Jews who invite seder participants to bring such readings but lack his creative touch or organizational skills.

The Haggadah offers the traditional text in Hebrew and English, with readings by such individuals as Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan, Abraham Lincoln, Natan Sharansky and former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

He is at work on a second edition of the Haggadah, with new themes, maybe with artwork.

A Monk’s Passover Haggadah. Edited by David Stern, Christoph Markschies and Sarit Shalev-Eyni (Pennsylvania State University Press, 296 pages. $79.95).

A facsimile edition of a manuscript written more than five centuries ago as an educational tool for Catholic clergy, it is intended as an educational tool for contemporary scholars.

“It is the only such document known to exist, a sustained description of a Passover seder and Haggadah as understood by a Christian in the late Middle Ages,” Stern writes in an introduction.

The manuscript was most likely the product of 15th-century monks who produced it (it included a Latin prologue) to teach fellow members of the Church about unfamiliar Jewish traditions.

Though written for a Christian readership, the manuscript was in most regards faithful to the Haggadah’s traditional text, unlike Haggadahs of modern “messianic Jews” who reinterpret Jewish text in the light of putative Christian fulfillment of Judaism.

“It is,” Stern writes, “an authentic Haggadah meant for Christians, not for Jews.”

The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings. By Sharon Forman; illustrations by Lisa J Teitelbaum (Self-published, 56 pages. $10.79).

In the weeks before Passover last year, one of Rabbi Sharon Forman’s sons brought an unusual complaint to her. “I can’t find a baseball Haggadah on Amazon,” he said.

Rabbi Forman, a part-time spiritual leader at the Westchester Reform Temple, explained the fundamental differences between America’s Game and Judaism’s holiday of freedom. “There should be a baseball Haggadah,” her son concluded.

So Rabbi Forman, the mother of two Little Leaguers who served on the staff of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan before moving to Scarsdale a decade ago, created a Haggadah that combines and contrasts some concepts of baseball and Pesach.

Once she started working on the Haggadah, illustrated by a lawyer friend, “the parallels were raining down on me,” the rabbi said.

She says her book is best used as a supplement to a fuller Haggadah at a seder, or as the primary text at a model seder.

The Rose Haggadah. Illustrations by Barbara Wolff, calligraphy by Izzy Pludwinski. Part of exhibition “Hebrew Illumination for our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff,” at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., through May 3.

A veteran botanical and natural science illustrator and manuscript illuminator, Wolff created her first Haggadah on commission for the family of Manhattan philanthropists Daniel and Joanna S. Rose. It’s 68 pages of evocative, lavishly illustrated — with Hebrew words by a noted Israeli calligrapher – watercolor drawings that accompany much of the Haggadah text. On vellum parchment, with gold leaf and silver leaf, are renderings of ancient Egyptian scenes and other Pesach themes.

The entire work is a “visual commentary … a visual Midrash” on the Haggadah, based on extensive research and created over two and a half recent years, said Wolff, an Upper West Side resident who made the Haggadah for the private use of the Rose family.

In the style of wealthy families who for centuries commissioned their own Haggadah, the Roses wanted a personal one that would be a work of art. “We are told of the great Hebrew illuminated manuscripts … that survived the fires of the Inquisition and the bonfires in Paris and Rome,” Joanna Rose writes in a foreword to her family’s Haggadah. “They trace our survival as a people. What better way to honor [earlier generations] and their journey to freedom than to commission an illuminated Haggadah for the 21st century?”

Wolff studied several medieval Haggadahs as background.

After the Morgan exhibition of her works ends next month, her Haggadah will be bound for use of the Rose family and a facsimile version will be available for scholarly use at the Museum and in PDF-form online ( A documentary on the making of Wolff’s Haggadah, “An Illuminated Haggadah for the 21st Century,” will be screened at the Museum during the exhibition.

A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah. New edition, with storyteller’s supplement. By Noam Zion and David Dishon (Shalom Hartman Institute, 204 pages. $18.95).

In recent years many Haggadahs have included and featured stories — of famous and little-known people — about Passover or reflecting the holidays’ themes. The stories that now supplement the authors’ instant-classic Haggadah are superstar stories that deserve to be classics in themselves.

Zion, a longtime research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and Dishon, co-founder of the Institute’s Charles E. Smith High School, are master teachers and authors — this expanded edition of “A Different Night” is a fitting addition to their list of books. The stories, printed on light blue pages and displayed in the book’s attractive layout, can be read before the seders, as preparation, or, for best effect, on Pesach night itself, to magnify the seder themes.

In the early text of the published-earlier Haggadah, prefacing stories about the Jewish experience in Iraq and in Nazi Europe, the authors write that “Reading aloud one of the following stories may help us focus on the meaning behind the Kiddush on Passover.”

The supplement includes stories about, and excerpts from, such diverse people as Theodor Herzl, Vaclav Havel, Jimmy Carter, civil rights activists, Ethiopian Jewish immigrants and Holocaust survivors.

The Other Side of the Sea: A Haggadah on Fighting Modern-Day Slavery. Editor, Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson. (T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, 62 pps., no price given).

Remembrance of slavery past is the theme of the seder.

T'ruah, which puts human rights at the top of rabbis' spiritual agenda, takes this a step further, devoting an entire Haggadah to the subject in concrete and symbolic terms.

While this Haggadah faithfully follows the 15 steps of the seder, it does so in an often-truncated manner, making this more a Haggadah companion than an entire Haggadah.

Financially supported by the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel's Alumni Venture Fund and complemented by full-color reproductions of slavery-related artworks, it features stories and vignettes from one-time victims of contemporary slavery, modern-day abolitionists and other knowledgeable observers.Its thrust: to inspire action. At the end is a list of "Ways to Take Action," complete with suggestions and contact information for anti-slavery organizations.

"The memory of bitterness does not necessarily inspire action," Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, T'ruah director of programs, writes in an introduction. "God could part the Sea of Reeds, but the Israelites could not truly be free until they had liberated themselves, after 40 years in the desert, from slavery."

Rabbi Meirowitz Nelson, T'ruah director of education, presents many familiar Haggadah rituals in a new light: the 15 steps of the seder interpreted as an activist's battle plan,
"Four Questions About Modern Slavery," a timeline of slavery in the United States, "Ten Plagues of Forced Labor," and a preface to the meal — "As we enjoy our Pesach meal,we thank all of the people who labored to bring this food to our table, from the workers who planted our food to the people who served it."

Other new Haggadahs include:

The Gateways Haggadah: A Seder for the whole Family. Rebecca Redner (Behrman House. $9.95). Geared to families of special needs individuals, the Gateways Haggadah combines the biblical exodus story and “picture communication symbols” and photographs of the steps of the seder and simple directions broken down into small steps and seder hints to make the night’s readings and rituals accessible to people who deal with mental, physical and other challenges. The book grew out of a guide that Boston-based Gateways, a program that serves students with special needs, created for its clients.

Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggadah. By Erica Brown (Alef to Tav. $24.95). With a combination of commentary and holiday-themed essays, Brown, who writes the Jew By Voice column for The Jewish Week and is a community scholar for the JCC in Manhattan, includes art and poetry to trigger conversation. She also uses a series of questions and “life-homework” exercises, and ideas by an eclectic group that includes the Vilna Gaon, Stephen King and the Harvard Business Review.

The Sephardic Family Haggadah. Edited by Rabbi Yamin Levy (Kodesh Press. Twelve for $49.95). Rabbi Levy, senior spiritual leader of Great Neck’s Congregation Beth Hadassah – Iranian Jewish Center and an authority on Sephardic practice, has put together a pamphlet-sized collection of his community’s unique holiday practices and commentaries.

The Medieval Illuminated Haggadah: Family Edition. David Holzer (Holzer Seforim, 177 pages, no price given). A companion piece to last year’s Medieval Illuminated Haggadah, which featured extensive commentary based on the lectures of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and a wide range of images from medieval manuscripts, this volume is less bulky, but contains 70 additional beautiful pieces of artwork. The author, a rabbi who worked with “the Rav” for several years, published this version to make it more usable at a family’s seder table.

Canadian Haggadah Canadienne. By Rabbi Adam Scheier and Richard Marceau (Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, 168 pages. $20). How is this Haggadah different from all other Haggadahs? First, it’s in English and Hebrew and French. Second, it’s full of Canadian/Canadienne holiday-related content — like historical photos from Canadian-Jewish history, and commentary by a wide range of Canadian rabbis. “Canadian Jewry has an identity that distinguishes it from Jewish communities in other countries,” the authors write in the introduction.

The New Australian Haggadah. Editor, Joe Lazar; artwork, Talia Lipshut. (Stand Up, $35 Australian). Part of a trend of Haggadahs that reflect national as well as individual leanings, this one, produced by the Stand Up social justice organization, is proudly and identifiably Australian. Including readings and commentaries by a wide range of Aussies, it buttresses the standard readings with reflections on such progressive issues as poverty, tolerance and environmentalism, all decidedly progressive. "We sincerely welcome you to Aboriginal land for your special Passover dinner," one of the first pages states. In a unique twist, educator-activist Lazar has added the holiday-related questions of school children to the usual Four Questions asked at a seder.