Review of “The New American Haggadah” edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander

Passover is a Jewish holiday and festival that celebrates the story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. [Passover in 2012 will start on Saturday, the 7th of April and will continue for 7 days until Friday, the 13th of April. Note that in the Jewish calendar, a holiday begins on the sunset of the previous day, so observing Jews will celebrate Passover on the sunset of Friday, the 6th of April.] The Haggadah is a booklet that has been used for centuries by Jews to tell the story in their homes. It is traditionally read during the first night of Passover, at a Seder, which is a ritual meal to commemorate the occasion. “The Seder,” the author writes in his preface to The New American Haggadah, “is a protest against despair. The universe might appear deaf to our fears and hopes, but we are not – so we gather, and share them, and pass them down.”

There are more than 3,000 versions of haggadahs in existence, from denominational variations to children’s editions to those with feminist, ecological, humanist, social, and/or political orientations. The New American Haggadah is unique in several ways. While I am not qualified to speak to the accuracy of the translation, I can say that it is beautiful and quite poetic. Also, the book includes many special features, such as a timeline of Jewish history going across the top of the page, and illustrations using letterforms that reflect those used during the period shown in the timeline.

Best of all, there are four different commentaries that accompany the text, arranged in a way reminiscent of hypertext links, raising philosophical and religious issues inspired by sections of the story being covered. Contributions from the four commentary writers are labeled “Library” (for a literary/psychological perspective), “House of Study” (religious and philosophical observations), “Nation” (political interpretations), and “Playground” (humorous observations), and they reference contemporary literature and politics in a way sure to engage those who may find traditional haggadahs tedious.

As Foer said in an interview,

My family gathers every year and I always look forward to the Seders, but they always seem unfulfilled, despite my father’s best efforts. He’s the kind of guy who cobbles together every page from every single Haggadah. But the conversation is never as interesting as it should be….”

The New American Haggadah does an outstanding job of changing a religious ritual to an opportunity for intellectual engagement. With its singular and provocative commentaries, it will elevate the nature of your Seder to an opportunity to discuss eternal themes and issues with multi-faceted guidance from the well-thought-out annotations. The commentaries are by Nathaniel Deutsch (“House of Study”); Jeffrey Goldberg (“Nation”); Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (“Library”); and Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler) “Playground”. The Timeline was created by Mia Sara Bruch, and the beautifully-crafted design is by Oded Ezer.

Evaluation: Highly recommended for all faiths, not only because it is a biblical story relevant to most believers, but because the issues raised by the commentaries are relevant to believers of all faiths, and even non-believers. This book is not meant to appeal to each and every group that might want a haggadah, but remember that aside from this version, there are at least 2999 others! Foer wanted to be more inclusive, but ended up changing his mind:

I didn’t know what I was originally imagining, something that felt more like an anthology, more like a reference tool than a primary Haggadah. But the more I worked on it, the more I became afraid of that. … What the world does not need is a Haggadah that pats itself on the back. It needs a Haggadah that gets out of the way, that starts a conversation and gets out of the way.”

[Or as Foer said in a recent New York Times story, "The goal was not to obscure an ancient work in analysis, but to reveal — in a word, to illuminate." “That’s my joke with Jonathan,” Mr. Englander added. “With him, everything is illuminated.”]

And who doesn’t think about such questions as why is there evil and suffering in the world? How do acts of violence fit in with the idea of a merciful God? How do you determine which laws are just or unjust? How should free and fortunate people best respond to those in poverty and/or slavery?

If for any reason there are those who don’t get enough to eat at a Seder, there is enough food for thought in this Haggadah to last the whole year through.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2012

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16 Responses

  1. I really don’t know that much about the Jewish faith. It sounds like I could learn a lot if I read this book.

  2. I think as intelligent human beings, we owe it to ourselves to learn about other religions and not stick our heads in the sand. I love that Foer got involved. You are ever the educator in the blog world! I love that last line.

  3. Looks extremely fascinating. I really enjoyed Brooks’ People of the Book to introduce me to these, too.

  4. I have to agree with Sandy Nawrot. I am Roman Catholic, but have a few very close Jewish friends. It is a mitzvah to take opportunity to learn about all faiths! Knowledge and respect help build bridges, as well as unify.

  5. I also enjoyed Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book. I listened to it on audio, and whenever the narrator said “Haggadah” it reminded me of the way the Muppets say Mah na mah na. So now everytime I see the word Haggadah, my brain stars going, “Haggadah, doo doo de doo doo, Haggadah, doo doo de doo doo.”… Ridiculous.

    Here’s the mah na mah na song, if ya wanna watch and picture them singing “Haggadah” instead. :D

  6. I do really want to read this, I’m glad that you recommend it!

  7. This sounds fascinating and perhaps even accessible to a non-Jewish, non-intellectual like myself.

  8. Sounds terrifically interesting. My middle son, who actually professes to be an atheist but who I believe to be an agnostic, is curiously fascinated by world religions and their histories. Definitely think I’ll recommend this to him.

  9. I haven’t explored the Haggadah, but most of my knowledge of it came from listening to People of the Book. I loved that book in part because I learned so much from it.

  10. This does sound like a really interesting book, and I agree with Sandy. It’s important that we learn about religions other than our own because it brings understanding and a sense of connection with those who are different than we are. A very enlightening and intelligent review today. I really appreciated it!

  11. Thanks Jessica for the clue to pronouncing Haggadah. Fun. Seriously, I love the idea of this book. Even though I’m Christian, the Exodus story is an important part of our faith. Thank you again, Jill, for educating us and bringing more than the average book review.

  12. I think this sounds very interesting!!

  13. It is important to remember that Christ was a Jew. I am very interested in this book. Thanks for reviewing it!

  14. How very interesting! I’m a Foer devotee and love the crack about “everything is illuminated.” :)

  15. Two of Gage’s three babysitters are Jewish, as are a good proportion of our neighbors. I really should take the time to learn more about their holidays. I get the cliff’s notes version from his 13 year old ‘babysitter’ (more of a mom’s helper, but someday I’ll be able to leave her alone with him :)) and I appreciate it.

  16. You are so right that this book would benefit everyone to read. Just fascinating!

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