Cover art from the "Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" edition of the classic Maxwell House haggadah
Cover art from the "Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" edition of the classic Maxwell House haggadah

Pop culture can enrich the seder, but the Mrs. Maisel haggadah is a gimmick

Maxwell House, makers of the most famous generic haggadah in America, recently unveiled the “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” edition. It’s basically the same English-and-Hebrew haggadah the coffee company has been publishing since 1932, but this one has a pink color scheme and illustrations of the characters from the Amazon Prime series. It also has Midge’s brisket recipe (yes, a recipe from a fictional character) and some “wine stains” printed on the pages.

As a collectors’ edition for superfans, this haggadah is fine. But if Maxwell House — or the Amazon creative team — asked themselves four questions in preparing this new haggadah, one of them clearly wasn’t how they could create something more meaningful than a marketing gimmick. The “haggimick” (my patent for this word is still pending) worked: It brought in new customers who bought coffee to get the haggadah. There’s a simplicity there that I respect, and I know some people love their Maxwell House haggadah. But I also think it’s a missed opportunity to mix popular culture meaning with traditional Jewish meaning. Luckily, we have the internet.

Cover art from the "Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" edition of the classic Maxwell House haggadahOn Twitter, I was tagged into a conversation with Pulitzer-Prize-winning New Yorker writer Emily Nussbaum and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” co-creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, who — after reading about the Maisel haggadah — started riffing about doing a haggadah with parodies of songs from the musical comedy TV series. (Count me in for next year, people!) The conversation was delightful, creative and passionate as Twitter’s Jews and Judeophiles applied the pop culture lens to Passover’s central document. This is something we see a lot of when it comes to the Four Questions, Dayenu, or — my personal favorite — the Four Children (formerly the Four Sons, but #Time’sUp).

The Four Children seems to suggest that there are four types of people and four ways to approach Jewish study. But that template also serves for robust discussions and interpretations: How do we define any of these categories? Is there wisdom in silence or in intellectual challenge? Is simplicity and lack of intellectual curiosity a form of wickedness?

As I was about to tackle the four main characters on “The Good Place” in a Four Children context, I came across a graphic that had taken the first step. It designates moral philosophy professor Chidi as wise, self-proclaimed “Arizona trashbag” Eleanor as wicked, socialite Tahani as simple, and dim Darwin Award winner Jason Mendoza as the one who doesn’t know how to ask.

In really thinking about these characters, I realized that Eleanor is wise enough to figure out season one’s spoiler twist and lead the group onto a better path. And Chidi’s inability to make decisions could mark him as a wild card: Is a life without decisions simple? Does his inability to form constructive questions keep him in purgatory? Tahani doesn’t know how to ask a question that’s not about herself or relate to people who aren’t obscenely wealthy. And Jason — who constantly asks questions — is the one who sees life simply and happily. The boundaries are blurred.

In his article on JudaismUnbound.com, Dan Metz also identified Jason as simple and Tahani as unable to ask, and in an email called Passover a holiday in which “your role in the ritual changes as you grow,” something that’s mirrored in “The Good Place” as a show. “Everyone has an opportunity to learn and grow from everyone else,” he wrote. “Every character has had their chance to be wise, simple, wicked and ignorant, and we still have four seasons to go.”

Perhaps these are not four children, but four stages of intellectual development: As we deepen our knowledge we ask different questions and challenge different phrases. Maybe it is context that determines who is wise, wicked, simple or lacks the knowledge or the ability to ask. Or maybe nobody is any one thing.

four identical copies of Janet, a character from "The Good Place," stand in a row with blank expressions. Written above each one: wise, wicked, simple, doesn't know how to ask
Do Four Janets = the seder’s Four Children? (Meme/Esther D. Kustanowitz)

For me, “The Good Place” image that best represents this idea is from season three’s “Janet(s)” episode, in which actress D’Arcy Carden, who normally plays an omniscient, not-a-girl/not-a-robot, Siri-Alexaesque character, plays all four of the main characters. (Why is complicated, but the result is brilliant.) Applied to the Four Children context, the four Janets represent a complex and nuanced inner life: four essences, four approaches to life. This image shows that the outside may seem the same, but internal character can’t always be discerned by looking at a person or hearing someone say a single sentence like “What does this mean to you?” Janets — and people —are much more complicated than that.

We might have to wait for a meaningful mashup between the themes of Passover and the characters of “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” or for the “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” Passover songbook. But we can come to our seder tables with a more modern lens, using our passions (and fandoms) to look inside the same old words for new meanings.

Spilling wine on the pages of the haggadah, though, that’s a tradition that never changes.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a TV columnist for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy.