English, Hebrew or Klingon

One conundrum in conducting a seder with kids is that, while the very purpose of the ritual is to fulfill the mitzvah “You shall tell your children” (Ex. 13:8), in reality the language of the traditional haggadah can be too obscure to be absorbed by the little ones. This has led to a cottage industry of kid-friendly books that modify or supplement the haggadah. Here are a few new entries for your consideration — some for kids, some for those of all ages.

Veteran educator Seymour Rossel’s “The Storybook Haggadah” is sort of a twofer. That is, the entire normative Hebrew text (with English translation, but minimal transliteration) coexists alongside an explanatory text for kids. This parallel text, illustrated in a colorful computerized cartoon style, narrates the Exodus and discusses ritual in language that is geared for children, but doesn’t talk down to them.

By contrast, “Richard Codor’s Joyous Haggadah” is for those who are willing to discard most of the traditional text in favor of reaching children in less observant households “where they’re at.” It is illustrated in a brightly colored comic book style that is sure to get the kids’ attention, and features language that is abbreviated, but which gets to the point effectively. It is also almost entirely in English (except for the Four Questions, the Ten Plagues and the blessings), so anybody wishing to sing “Dayenu” or “Adir Hu” in Hebrew needs to use another source.

A good haggadah supplement to consider is Tilda Balsley’s picture book “Let My People Go,” which relates the Ten Plagues narrative in rhyme. The text is color-coded to facilitate reading it aloud as a reader’s theater piece at the appropriate time during the seder. What really stands out here are illustrator Ilene Richard’s vivid and dramatic images, which do not minimize the horror of the plagues (unlike some of the cute plague-oriented songs and toys that have proliferated recently).

I tried out the book with my 4-year-old daughter, and found that that it really helped her understand what boils were, for instance, and why it would be terrible to have them. We also used its depiction of how the Pharaoh’s decisions brought suffering upon both Jews and common Egyptians as the basis of a discussion about how leaders should act — which may make for a good (if divisive) seder discussion for an election year!

And, finally, why is this year different

from all other years? Because 2008 has seen the publication of two books presenting the Four Questions in multiple languages, bringing a multicultural dimension to the seder as never before. Ilana Kurshan’s “Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights? The Four Questions Around the World” presents the passage in 23 tongues, rendered both in their own alphabets and in English transliteration. The languages are drawn from most of the major diaspora communities, and a brief synopsis of the community’s history follows each translation.

The much larger “300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions” by Murray Spiegel and Rickey Stein is a labor of love presenting the familiar text in 300 versions. These include ancient languages, living languages (although some, such as Oneida, Cornish and Chinook, seem to be on borrowed time) and constructed languages such as Esperanto, semaphore and, for the Trekkie seder, Klingon. An enclosed CD models correct pronunciation, and a DVD renders the question in four different sign languages. It is a great way to learn about our planet, whether or not it’s Passover time — I felt humbled to learn that there are languages spoken by millions that I have not even heard of (Ndebele, Oriya, or Hiligaynon, anyone?).

Which one to buy? Kurshan’s book has considerably more Jewish content, while the Spiegel-Stein volume makes one feel like a citizen of the world. How about both?

Howard Freedman is the reader services librarian at the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

“Let My People Go” by Tilda Balsley (32 pages, Kar-Ben, $7.95)

“Richard Codor’s Joyous Haggadah” by Richard and Liora Codor

(48 pages, Loose Line Productions, $11.95)

“Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights? The Four Questions Around the World” by Ilana Kurshan (160 pages, Schocken Books, $16)

“The Storybook Haggadah” by Seymour Rossel (72 pages, Pitspopany, $9.95)

“300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions” by Murray Spiegel and Rickey Stein

(368 pages, Spiegel-Stein Publishing, $39.95)

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Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.