Click, print, seder

It’s the first night of Passover and everyone has gathered around the seder table. With the aroma of Mama’s brisket wafting in from the kitchen, the candles are lit and the leader is ready to begin:

“Friends, family, please pull out your laptops, click on hagada.com, and let us commence with the digital washing of the hands.”

It may sound like some futuristic Pesach when Jewish cyborgs will rule the Earth. But the dot.com part is happening right here, right now. A new and growing trend of downloadable Internet haggadahs just may put those horseradish-stained Maxwell House babies out to pasture.

In recent months, a sizable gaggle of Googlers has been tracking down all manner of haggadahs, available as downloadable PDF files for printing. And like bound versions found in bookstores, Judaica shops and on Amazon.com, the downloadable haggadahs come in many flavors.

Online now are social-justice haggadahs, lesbian haggadahs, children’s haggadahs, vegetarian haggadahs and Humanist haggadahs. Some are free, some cost. Some allow seder planners to insert their own text, prayers and instructions; others have it all, from the candle blessing to “Chad Gadya.”

The Conservative movement offers a downloadable audio Haggadah for the visually impaired. And there are more messianic Jews-for-Jesus Christian haggadahs than you can shake a Mel Gibson DVD at.

“People have been making their own haggadahs for years,” says Rabbi Mark Bloom of Oakland’s Temple Sinai. “That’s not new, but the fact that it’s more accessible on the Web is a contemporary twist. Even the most traditional seder lends itself to asking questions and making commentary.”

Bill Blank is a Sacramento rabbi whose “Internet Hagada” is now available online.

“In two weeks, many people are going to panic and ask themselves, ‘what are we going to do for haggadot?'” says Blank. “You can go to a Judaica shop, which might have one or two copies. On the Web, you can order through mail, but it might be too late.”

His Haggadah is available for download at www.hagada.com. For a one-time charge of $18, seder planners can print as many copies as they want.

Blank was a natural to tackle such a project. Not only has he been leading seders for many decades, he is also a consultant working in the field of information technology. Blank knows his way around HTML and Javascript.

“I’m a technical writer,” he says. “When you buy software, I write the accompanying book. So I know how to write precise explanations and directions.”

Blank also has strong opinions about what makes a good Haggadah and what does not. He says there are three basic types: the Orthodox (“poorly translated, difficult to understand”), modernized (“trimmed too much”) and thematic (“good sentiments but usually too preachy”).

“The traditional Haggadah is written in a style similar to the Talmud,” he says. “It free-associates on a theme, then spins off into a half-dozen topics on a related theme. If you’re familiar with that style, it makes sense; if not, you keep shaking your head.”

So Blank sought to write a traditional Haggadah in clear, conversational English. “It makes sense,” he says. “You can still get through the first half in an hour.” Of course, all 15 mandatory steps of the seder are included, along with Blank’s own translations of the Hebrew, songs aplenty and illustrations by his daughter Eva Blank.

Much of his final text emerged over several years of tinkering and revising the Haggadah for his own seders. “One year I decided to write it to see if I could do a better job,” he recalls. “Then, three years ago, in a burst of inspiration, I wrote the first half.”

The idea of uploading and selling the Haggadah on the Web was “a no-brainer,” given his digital expertise. He put it online in January, and so far has gotten about 200 hits a day, though he expects that number to rise as Passover nears.

“If you go to Google and type in ‘Haggadah’ or ‘Passover,’ I’m there,” he says. “I’m selling a few a day, mostly through ‘word of email.’ It’s a short season, then it’s over for a year.”

Like Blank, Elizabeth Pearce-Glassheim has high hopes for her own downloadable haggadahs, though hers are decidedly less traditional. The San Francisco resident has composed two for the nichiest of niche markets: “A Passover for Students of A Course in Miracles” and “Haggadah for Jews & Buddhists.”

Both are available for download at www.ModernHaggadah.com at $7 per copy, or can be ordered in print editions through the mail.

A chartered financial analyst, Pearce-Glassheim had been conducting seders for years, but had sought a Haggadah that reflected her evolving spirituality.

She turned to elements of “Buddhism and A Course in Miracles” (described in its literature as a “nonsectarian, nondenominational self-study spiritual thought system” with the goal of finding “happiness and peace”). The course has grown popular over the years, thanks largely to the star power of the Jewish-born Marianne Williamson, who has written and lectured extensively on “A Course in Miracles.”

“A lot of people think of [‘A Course in Miracles’] as Buddhism with a Western vocabulary,” she says. “Some Jews pick it up and think it looks like Christianity.”

But, says Pearce-Glassheim, it assuredly is not, despite the frequent use of the terms like “Holy Spirit” and “salvation.” In her Haggadah, she inserts language drawn from the course. (For example, after the leader points out the seder plate, he/she is to say: “Ask for help in taking responsibility for your part in your current reality.”)

Her “Haggadah for Jews & Buddhists” is similar, with some pages nearly identical to the course Haggadah. But this one is chock full of quotes from the Dalai Lama and Jew-Bu David M. Bader (“The Torah says ‘Love thy neighbor as thy self.’ The Buddha says, ‘There is no self.’ So maybe you are off the hook”).

“It’s a dialectic between Buddhism and Judaism,” says Pearce-Glassheim, who was raised Catholic but developed an appreciation for many faiths and married into Judaism.

She reports good sales so far. The print editions of her books are available at mainline stores like Barnes & Noble, while the e-edition has been getting hits as well.

Not all Internet haggadahs are for sale. Many are free for the downloading. One is a Haggadah written by members of Reform Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos.

Congregant Cheryl Melnick, part of Shir Hadash’s Web team, was instrumental in writing and producing the Haggadah back in 1999.

“The rabbi [Melanie Aron] mentioned that she wanted a home service available to congregants,” she recalls, “one perhaps a little more progressive then haggadot in print. I worked with the Web team and the rabbi to create it.”

Melnick pored through her own Haggadah collection, as well as free, online Jewish-themed icons for illustrations, to construct her own modernized version. Then up on the Web it went. “It was picked up by Google and used worldwide,” she says.

The Shir Hadash Haggadah is brief — only 16 pages — just right for those adults that subscribe to the “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” brand of seders. And for the kids, she also composed a special family Haggadah geared towards children.

Melnick’s handiwork can be found at the Web address www.shirhadash.org/passover.

“We welcome anyone to download and use it,” adds Melnick, who works for the San Jose wireless technology company Itrezzo. “The point was to encourage people to celebrate, and if this make it easier, then that was our intention.”

Other Internet haggadahs span the spectrum of Jewish imagination.

Chabad has a fully illustrated Orthodox Haggadah at its Web site (chabad.org) that can be printed, but is not downloadable.

Amy Scheinerman, head rabbi of Conservative congregation Beth Shalom in Westminster, Md., assembled a concise Haggadah for families with young children, available at www.scheinerman.net/judaism.

The Humanist Haggadah from Machar, a Humanist congregation in Washington, D.C., features the seder steps, Hebrew songs and biblical quotations. In it, the word “God” is never mentioned, an orange is included on the seder plate (to represent inclusiveness) and the Exodus story begins “Legend has it that when Moses and his followers fled Egypt …”

Rabbis for Human Rights offers a downloadable seder supplement that draws attention to Israel’s hungry and poor, and also Palestinians whose homes have been demolished.

Blank, like all writers of haggadahs and the vast majority of seder participants, takes Passover seriously. One of his sidelines is hypnotherapy and, he says, Jewish clients under hypnosis often cite a seder as their earliest Jewish memory.

That’s true for him too. “I remember very vividly that when we opened the door for Elijah, the wine glass went down a quarter of an inch,” he recalls of a seder from his childhood. “I was no more than 4. He was there. I stand by it.”

The former pulpit rabbi, Hillel director and Jewish federation official says he hopes his Haggadah can play a small role in helping to intensify the spiritual life of Jews.

“It should be that religious experiences are the most powerful in your life,” he says. “But for most of us the most powerful are rock concerts or maybe the lifecycle events.”

So, if all goes according to plan, Blank’s Internet Haggadah will facilitate one of those powerful moments, one megabyte at a time. And, while he’s at it, maybe a little something extra for him.

“Even if a few hundred a year use it, I will get certain joy in that knowing I helped people perform a mitzvah in a meaningful way,” he says, adding, “If 10,000 people download it, then I can take a cruise around the world!”

Haggadah Web sites

A simple Google or Yahoo search will provide links to scores of Internet haggadahs. To save a step, the following are some of the more intriguing Web haggadahs:

The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis offers its Open Door Hagaddah online at ccarnet.org/publications/haggadah.

Chabad has its own Orthodox Hagaddah at chabad.org.

Shalom Bayit, the S.F.-based Jewish agency for abused women, has a Haggadah insert to be used as an adjunct or in place of the section on the 10 plagues. It’s available at www.shalom-bayit.org/haggadah.shtml.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman’s family Hagaddah is at www.scheinerman.net/judaism/pesach.

A secular Humanist Hagaddah can be found at www.machar.org/passover.html.

Rabbis for Human Rights “Haggadah Supplement on Economic Justice” is at www.rhrna.org/resources/pesach.html.

For true seder marathoners, there is Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner’s traditional Jewish Family Education Haggadah, weighing in at 156 pages. You can find it on the Web at
0640323187/5766Haggadah”>www.jewishfreeware.org/downloads/folder.2006-01-07.

0640323187/5766Haggadah.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism offers a downloadable audio Haggadah for the visually impaired: www.accessibility.uscjhost.net/beta/acknowledgements.html.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.