Pesach conundrum: Which Haggadah? A tool for personal liberation

At Cody’s Books in Berkeley, there are more than 200 different haggadot available for purchase.Every year, another 10 or 12 new ones appear.

They come in 15 languages and approach the story of Passover from feminist, socialist, Chassidic and even vegetarian points of view.

Yes, says Rabbi Andrea Fisher of Oakland’s Reform Temple Sinai, “it’s a very confusing haggadot world these days.”

To deal with it, many congregations are running workshops such as one titled “Exploring the Passover Haggadah,” held at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael two weeks ago.

“I think people are really excited about all the choices,” said Rabbi Stacy Friedman, a spiritual leader at that Reform synagogue who led the workshop. “But I tried to impart that while the choice of a Haggadah is important, what’s even more important is how you use it.”

Ira Steingroot, the Judaica buyer at Cody’s, said haggadot are flourishing because many authors are finding the Passover Haggadah a convenient tool for relating one’s own tale of “personal liberation.”

Authors are able to root through the story of Passover and find elements that apply to whatever oppression they have suffered, whether individually or as part of a group, Steingroot said.

“One of the oddest ones I’ve seen is an adoption Haggadah, which takes the position that Moses was adopted and expands on that,” said Steingroot, who also stocks a lesbian Haggadah and a Haggadah for Christians who want to celebrate the Last Supper.

While Cody’s collection of haggadot is reputedly the largest in the world, local Judaica stores aren’t far behind. At bob and bob in Palo Alto, 86 different haggadot are on sale; at Afikomen in Berkeley, there are 61.

Some people are overwhelmed, but others seem to be reveling in the amount of choices — not that anyone is making it an annual tradition to purchase a different Haggadah every year.

At “Pesach Family Education Day” on Sunday at Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, congregants told Rabbi Dan Goldblatt that they like the wide selection.

“They talked about a sense of delight that they had so many choices,” said Goldblatt, whose synagogue is not affiliated with any movement.

“A lot of people felt stuck with what they had — 25 Maxwell House haggadot in the drawer, ‘So let’s just bring ’em out again.’ I encouraged people to think about buying new haggadot as a good investment. It can make your seder come alive and be engaging, and you’ll have it for years to come.”

Of the new haggadot this year, the one getting the most attention is “A Survivors’ Haggadah” (91 pages, Jewish Publication Society, $50).

Only recently discovered, it was written in the winter of 1945-46 for use by Jews in Munich who were to be celebrating the first Passover after liberation of the Nazi death camps.

“It is one of the most touching and interesting Haggadot I have ever seen,” Steingroot said. “It is a heartbreaking document.”

The Haggadah is written, designed and illustrated by Yosef Dov Sheinson, with help from a few other Holocaust survivors, in the months following liberation. It puts the Holocaust story in the context of the Passover story, substituting Hitler for Pharoah, for example.

As powerful as the book is, however, it may not be a very good seder-table Haggadah. Although informative and interesting, it isn’t user-friendly in terms of reading through the story.

Another new offering this year is the wonderfully illustrated “Why On This Night?” (112 pages, Aladdin Paperbacks, $12.99). Its target group is 6- to 10-year-olds, but it is a good Haggadah for the entire family, said Goldblatt.

“It’s lovely in that it seems to have different scripts telling the story,” he said. “There are a lot of songs and familiar tunes, making it very user-friendly for parents with kids, especially young kids.”

Fisher said choosing a Haggadah that is kid-friendly is of major importance.

“The whole reason to have the seder in the first place is to teach children about the Exodus,” she said. “The traditional Haggadah is basically excerpts from the talmudic passages themselves.”

Another Haggadah aimed at kids, “The Really Fun Family Haggadah” (48 pages, Ruach Publishing, $9.95), isn’t illustrated very vibrantly but is presented in a very methodical order.

Two of its best features include trivia questions sprinkled throughout that are aimed at kids, and two presentations of the Passover story. One is a child’s version and the other is longer.

“Probably the most important thing is not the text or which Haggadah you choose, but how you present the table,” Fisher said. “If you use the Maxwell House Haggadah, for example, then have butcher paper and crayons on the table so kids can draw.”

Two other new haggadot aimed at kids are “Uncle Eli’s Passover Haggadah” (61 pages, No Starch Press, $17.95) and “The Kids’ Catalog of Passover” (223 pages, Jewish Publication Society, $15.95).

“Uncle Eli’s” is a curious undertaking. Every section of the Haggadah is written as a poem, some of them quite lengthy. The Four Questions, for example, is collectively presented as a poem that goes on for five pages.

Some of it is creative, such as “On all other nights/you would probably flip/if anyone asked you/how often you dip.”

But in the same section, it gets a little out of control: “Sometimes we take/more than ten thousand tails/of the Yakkity-birds/that are hunted in Wales/and dip them in vats/full of Mumbegum juice.”

The “Kids Catalog” is presented more like an elementary school social studies textbook than a Haggadah but it is crammed with craft projects, seder history, trivia questions and loads of options.

Perhaps the most interesting of the newly available haggadot is “The Haggada of Passover” (68 pages, Kidsbooks Inc., $39.95). Twelve of the pages include intricate pop-up scenes, some of which can be moved by pulling on a tab.

The book is inspired by the 700-year-old Bird’s-Head Haggadah, which is on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. In it, Hebrews were portrayed with a bird’s head or some other animal head to omit human faces.

“They were fulfilling the commandment against making any graven image,” explained Steingroot. “It’s a really famous Haggadah.”

Another new Haggadah turning heads is “A Night of Questions” (Reconstructionist Press, 160 pages, $12.95). Edited by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld and Rabbi Joy Levitt, the new Haggadah of the Reconstructionist movement is so popular that even Steingroot wasn’t able to get his hands on one, although he does have companion tape and CD.

“The publisher underestimated the interest in the book and just didn’t print enough,” Steingroot lamented. “I blew it. I ordered it too late and they ran out.”

At bob and bob in Palo Alto, all 30 copies sold out a while ago, co-owner Ellen Bob lamented. Afikomen was down to a single copy earlier this week.

Rabbi Alan Lew of Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco said he personally likes “A Night of Questions.” But he and his congregants aren’t caught up in a haggadot quandary.

“So many of the new ones don’t have the traditional text, so my people tend not to gravitate toward those,” Lew said. “What a lot of people are doing is getting ahold of 10 different haggadot and preparing for weeks, drawing one bit from this Haggadah and another bit from that Haggadah.”

Other rabbis fully endorsed any approach that includes preparation.

“People would never consider having a seder without preparing the food but they think it’s fine to host a seder and not prepare the service,” Goldblatt said. “Without preparation, the power of the seder is going to be diminished.”

And that doesn’t necessarily mean going out and buying a new Haggadah.

“Different people have different needs for their seder,” said David Cooper, spiritual leader of Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Renewal congregation in Berkeley. “Sometimes those needs are best met with a different Haggadah, and sometimes it’s with the same Haggadah they’ve been using.

“I don’t consider the Haggadah as the determining factor in how good your seder is.”

Goldblatt agreed, proclaiming seders can become boring and a disaster when a Haggadah is read from start to finish without any creativity, sharing and outside influence.

“The Haggadah is not meant to be used as a prayerbook,” Goldblatt emphasized. “I encourage people to be freed from the tyranny of the Haggadah.”

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.