In the Exodus story, Moses decides to rescue his people after he hears God speak to him from a burning bush. But when New York City–based artist Jan Aronson imagined the famous scene, she didn’t see a magic fire, but rather the sun broiling the desert brush. In that moment of meditation, Moses heard the voice within him telling him to go confront Pharaoh.
That’s just one of the inspirations behind Aronson’s illustrations in the Bronfman Haggadah. The original hardcover book, published in February 2013, was released as an app for the iPhone and iPad in March.
Aronson and her late husband, the philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, who died four months ago, worked on the hardcover haggadah over many seders, prompted by Bronfman’s dissatisfaction with the texts of traditional haggadahs. He decided to write his own haggadah and Aronson was enlisted to illustrate the book.
The app version takes the themes of the book into a digital world. It includes video interviews with Bronfman and Aronson, narration, animation and singing Passover songs. The Exodus story does not appear in traditional haggadahs, but it is told in the Bronfman Haggadah. The story is narrated in the app — using animation, it shows the basket with baby Moses moving down the river.
“We get a sense of just how monumental it was that this baby was saved,” said Dana Raucher, the executive director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. Bronfman and Aronson wanted “to get this app out to audiences that are not necessarily visiting bookstores or buying hardcover books,” Raucher said.
“They were mostly thinking of younger audiences, which this book is very much geared to — people who are transient in their lives, living in college dorms, moving from city to city, and not necessarily lugging heavy books with them,” she said. “However, they are curious about the Jewish tradition … redefining certain rituals, and in general just taking an open and expansive look at what the Jewish tradition tells us is relevant in the modern day.”
Said Aronson: “Edgar brought not only the story of Passover, and what’s usually in the traditional seder, but he went beyond that. He talked about lessons of justice, equality and ethics in his haggadah and often quoted texts from all sorts of people.”
Bronfman and Aronson also espoused a humanist view of Judaism that favors godliness, or living an ethical life, over the idea of the supernatural God. The haggadah is intended to appeal to “all Jews,” said Aronson, who believes there are “many ways to be a Jew” and that almost every Jew “is a pick-and-choose Jew.”
“We need to create an environment that every Jew is welcomed into the tent,” she said. “Just because you don’t believe in a supernatural God doesn’t mean you don’t have faith, [which is] living an ethical life, where you give back to society [and] do unto others as you wish them to do unto you.”
The app, noted Raucher, “allows the user to take a more in-depth look at some of the ideas and images” in the haggadah. One can use it in “pre-seder preparation,” she said, or by “learning about the seder and the traditions of the seder” during the dinner portion. It’s also a tool for learning some of the songs and their tunes.
And it opens the door to critical thinking. For instance, Aronson said she and Bronfman questioned why the traditional seder requires that we open the door for the Prophet Elijah near the end of the service.
“Certainly we should open our door to the stranger at the beginning of the service when the children are most alert, when they are excited about being there, when the lessons of opening the door to the stranger are going to be the most welcomed,” she said. “And why should we give the stranger the leftovers? Let’s bring him in at the very beginning. That’s another big difference in the Bronfman Haggadah.”
For families who conduct a do-it-yourself seder by veering from the traditional order of event and asking a lot of their own questions at the table, there’s a glossary in the app (that doesn’t exist in the hardcover book), allowing users to look up information on various topics.
Aronson, a New Orleans native, created all the original illustrations in the hardcover haggadah with watercolors. But the app can be a more dynamic and interactive experience, she said.
“As you turn the page [in the app] you might see the wine glass being filled with wine. You might see the lights flicker from the candles being lit at the very beginning of the service. You might see a fish circling the page instead of it being static.”
Aronson said she cherishes the fact that she had the chance “to create something as a couple … to be able to collaborate with him in the last years of his life.”