New haggadahs from the basics to illuminating storytelling from Jonathan Safran Foer

Among the multitude of new and revised haggadahs available these days, only one has garnered attention from the New York Times, NPR and “The Colbert Report.”

It’s the “New American Haggadah,” a coffee table–style haggadah edited by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by friend and fellow Brooklyn novelist Nathan Englander.

Other entries in the annual stream of new haggadahs this year include a Reform version with songs that can be downloaded from iTunes, and an attractive volume with an Ethiopian flavor.

Inside “The Bird’s Head Haggada: A Pop-Up Edition.”

But it’s the “New American Haggadah,” published at the beginning of March, that is getting so much attention that its first run quickly sold out, leading to shortages in Judaica stores and at online booksellers. The publisher, Little, Brown and Company, immediately ordered two large reprints, promising availability before Passover.

Foer (“Everything Is Illuminated”) and Englander (“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”) aim for their haggadah to not just tell a story — but to be about storytelling. As such, contributions from celebrity literati are included.

It is far too unwieldy to be deployed in full at your seder, but that hardly seems to be its ambition.

“New American” was typeset brilliantly by Oded Ezer, whose ethereal illustrations are a striking break with the concrete representations with which haggadahs are usually sprinkled. Though design occasionally trumps usefulness, each page is a delight. A meta-telling of the story runs throughout, a timeline of the history of Passover itself strung along the top margin of the pages. The imagery is based on Hebrew letter forms that match the period of the timeline on the page.

The haggadah is dotted with brief essays by the likes of Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg and children’s author Lemony Snicket. The latter’s inclusion led TV’s Steven Colbert, in an interview with Foer, to quip that it made sense given that Genesis is a “series of unfortunate events.”

Inside “The Bird’s Head Haggada: A Pop-Up Edition.”

The interruptions include installments in each of four streams of brief essays, each stream by a different author. The streams cover four themes: “Nation,” “Library,” “House of Study” and “Playground.”

Another new haggadah is titled “Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family.” Produced by the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ CCAR Press, the Reform haggadah is terrific for its introductions and artwork, bland in its content and promising in its use of technology.

With sections that help first-time leaders with planning, “Sharing” excels as a guide to Passover for those who are new to the seder, or need a major refresher. It covers the entire weeklong holiday, from searching for hametz before through the beginning of the counting of the Omer at the end.

But the seder itself is bland. Responsive readings, a hallmark of Reform ritual that seemed to have disappeared with the arrival of “Mishkan T’fillah,” the current Reform siddur, unfortunately are back. “Sharing” does, however, get it right by taking prospective seder leaders straight from a section on leading the seder to one called “What Matters on Passover Is That Questions Are Asked.”

Mark Podwal’s impressionistic illuminations in “Sharing” are a great addition to the tradition of haggadah art. Podwal interprets one of the four children as a headless suit of armor with a book at its feet and one as a Torah with a book for a head. The other two have book torsos and heads — one open and facing us, the other closed and facing away.

A few years ago, “Sharing” might have come with a CD, but instead it suggests downloading tracks from iTunes to learn melodies and lyrics. There is also an app version of the haggadah in the works, but a CCAR Press spokesperson said “we don’t know when it will be ready; most likely not for this Passover.”

While “Sharing” emphasizes singing, it also has some music that would probably have been better left out, such as two cringe-worthy songs sung to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

The story of recent immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel is a perfect thematic match with Passover. Unfortunately, “The Koren Ethiopian Haggada: Journey to Freedom” is a letdown. Although edited by Rabbi Menachem Waldman, who has written a number of books on Ethiopian Jewry, it is sad that no priests in the Ethiopian community were found to at least co-edit “Journey.”

In his introduction, Waldman says that “Journey to Freedom” includes “the traditions of and heritage of Ethiopian Jewry alongside the story of the Exodus from Ethiopia.” Sadly this is not at all what “Journey” does. Instead it tells of Ethiopian Jewry in a series of sidebars and photographs interspersed among a standard Modern Orthodox seder.

The Ethiopian observance of Passover, called Pasika, is given some attention, but an introductory section spends a scant page or so on the community’s actual traditions for consuming the paschal sacrifice and telling the story of the Exodus. Instead, “Journey” buries their traditions under contemporary Orthodox ones, as the Israeli rabbinate has long sought to do.

There’s also an updated version of the sensational pop-up masterpiece, “The Bird’s Head Haggada: A Pop-Up Edition.” Adapted from the famed 14th-century German haggadah, this 2012 revised edition has all the pull-tab, pop-up goodness kids of all ages would enjoy.

Bird’s head characters thrust Passover matzah in the oven, part the Red Sea and hoist wine goblets. A cruel Egyptian slavemaster even beats a poor Jewish bird’s head slave.

It’s about as interactive as a book can get without connecting to the Internet.

J. senior writer Dan Pine contributed to this report.

“New American Haggadah” edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, translated by Nathan Englander (160 pages, Little, Brown and Company, $29.99)

“Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family” by Alan S. Yoffie, illustrated by Mark Podwal (117 pages, CCAR Press, $50 hardcover, $18 paperback)

“The Bird’s Head Haggada: A Pop-Up Edition” (65 pages, Koren Publishers and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, $39.95)

“The Koren Ethiopian Haggada: Journey to Freedom” edited by Rabbi Menachem Waldman (230 pages, Koren Publishers, $29.95)

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.