D.I.Y. Seder (Do It Yourself): Choosing—or creating—a haggadah that will speak to you and your guests

When Rachel Barenblat’s parents visited her from Texas five Passovers ago, several years had passed since the family had been together for the Seders. She and her sister—who both live in Massachusetts—had been using the “homegrown” haggadah Barenblat had written, a revealingly personal amalgam of the traditional text with feminist, creative and contemporary readings and poems. But she worried that her parents would miss the haggadah they were used to. “No one had ever questioned it, so I thought my haggadah would be strange and uncomfortable for them. It would be like…eating pasta on Thanksgiving instead of turkey.” But her mother’s face fell when she saw the stack of 20 old-fashioned haggadot Barenblat had bought and borrowed. “Oh,” she said, “I thought we were going to do something different!” Barenblat had one copy of her haggadah. She adapted it for the children who were going to be present, and had it reproduced and bound for everyone by the evening.

“One of the messages of the haggadah is, ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat,’” says Barenblat. “All of us have a spiritual hunger Passover can fill. It’s not just about the great matzo ball soup.” A poet and fourth-year student in the nondenominational Aleph Rabbinic Program, Barenblat, 34, continually adapts, updates and edits her haggadah; it is available to all on her website, www.velveteenrabbi.com.

More and more people are beginning to identify, acknowledge and satisfy their need for “something different” on Passover. An Amazon.com search for “haggadah” turned up more than 4,000 editions and commentaries—holistic, historical, illustrated, kid-friendly, mystical, educational, vegetarian, feminist, family, freedom, animated, interactive, concise, denominational, Sephardic, Ashkenazic—the list goes on and on, and does not include Internet resources.

That overabundance can be daunting. How do you choose a haggadah that will speak to you? To your guests? That will transform the Seder from a family dinner to a celebration with meaning? The haggadah tells us to feel as if we ourselves have left Egypt, points out Tamar Fox, 24, associate editor at myjewishlearning.com, but “the traditional text may not help you feel that. When you take the obligation seriously, you can look to fulfill the mitzvah in a more relevant way.”

The Evolving Haggadah

According to the JPS Commentary on the Haggadah: Historical Introduction, Translation and Commentary, edited by Joseph Tabory, the roots of the Seder go back to biblical texts. The Seder as we know it originated in Roman Palestine, in the first centuries of the Common Era; its structure and format are based on conventions of Greco-Roman banquets. As Jews moved to Babylonia, then to other countries in the Diaspora, the text changed to accommodate new cultures and conditions. The Four Questions, for instance, were originally Three Questions, each related to a part of the meal: appetizer; main course, dessert. When Jewish life spread geographically, the questions expanded and evolved. “The history of the Seder and the haggadah…is actually a story about the Jews themselves and the vicissitudes of their history, and how human invention and creativity created a religious tradition of lasting significance,” writes Professor David Stern in the foreword to the book.

Eschew Boredom

While many find the familiar haggadah text rich in meaning, Fox herself finds the traditional Seders “mind-numbingly boring” and repetitive, and holiday preparations “upsetting” because they have little to do with the redemption Passover is supposed to recall. “I deal with Passover with a lot of snarking and rolling of the eyes, though I don’t suggest that for others!” she says. “I’m a writer, so I want to be interested in the story.”

Fox says her family always gathered at her grandmother’s house for a Seder that revolved around “a haggadah from a food company.” This past Passover was poignantly different. Fox’s mother was fighting breast cancer, so the Seder was held at home instead, with a haggadah the family created. Fox’s mother did most of the work on it, focusing on the illustrations, often a commentary in their own right. “The holiday was miserable because we knew she was dying, but the Seder experience was much more engaging,” says Fox. “We color-copied illustrations from different books. It was fun to see the interpretations.” The Four Sons featured 40 or 50 illustrations from the family’s own collection of haggadot and from the Internet. “As a testament to my mother we will continue to use this haggadah, though we won’t keep it absolutely the same,” says Fox.

Mix and Match

Fox offers guidelines for how to choose a haggadah: Know your audience (a haggadah with great pictures and activities for kids; a more academically oriented one for adults); decide on length and themes. Choosing a specialized haggadah has its own risks, she cautions. “It’s important to tell the story in a way that’s relevant to you—but not at the expense of the rest of the story.” A feminist haggadah, for example, “misses the point if it looks at the Exodus as a women’s story.” Nor is there a rule, says Fox, requiring participants to take turns reading a paragraph from the same book. If you can’t decide on one haggadah, she suggests, get an assortment and let guests choose what they like. “Feel free to mix and match.”

Barenblat praises the haggadah’s versatility as a “catch-all for wonderful stories, prayers and songs that operates on multiple levels. It’s a rich and resonant piece of work that is a collaboration over centuries, but it remains adaptable to what’s important to us today.” To the haggadah’s focus on peoplehood and family, Barenblat adds a personal dimension: When she first wrote her haggadah, she was not yet considering rabbinical school. The positive responses she received to it validated her feeling that she would have something valuable to offer as a rabbi.

Get Creative

Mark Greenspan, rabbi of the Oceanside Jewish Center in New York and chair of a Rabbinical Assembly committee charged with writing a new haggadah for the Conservative movement, notes that the basic structure of the haggadah revolves around 15 ritual steps (Kadesh Urhatz). “Without kiddush or the Four Questions, the Seder ceases to be a Seder. But within that structure, there’s room for creativity, especially in the Maggid section, which tells the story,” he says.

Since the Middle Ages, commentaries on the haggadah have proliferated. The haggadah lends itself to commentary and creativity because the theme is simultaneously so Jewish and so universal that everyone can hear in it their own personal journey, says Greenspan. Ironically, he adds, it is a truly “strange text. Many elements are difficult to understand. There is no clear telling of the story. It’s told through midrash. There are good Talmudic reasons for each section, but for people sitting at table it is somewhat mysterious.” That very obtuseness leads to interpretation: “People try to make sense of the haggadah, and also recast it in a different light so it makes more sense. There’s a freedom in redoing the haggadah for one’s own needs.” Everyone connects to the Four Children, he says by way of example, but why is it in the haggadah? “You can take the time to understand it through a scholarly lens, but you can easily just identify with four types of children.”

 

Greenspan has been collecting haggadot for almost 20 years and has nearly 1,000. He traces his strong bond with the holiday to his father’s death on the third day of Passover; Greenspan was 11. “The last thing I did with him and my mom was celebrate Pesach,” he recalls. Memories of his father-in-law, Bernie Perl, also inspired a special Passover project. Perl had jokes clipped to each page of his haggadah; after he passed away, Greenspan used it to assemble the “Ha-Ha Haggadah,” collecting “every bad Passover joke” as an irreverent jumping-off point for illuminating the haggadah’s underlying themes. “A Seder without laughter and joy is an empty shell,” he writes. Popular Passover “shtick”—finger puppets, action figures, 10-plagues kits—can be engaging. But, he cautions, “there is a point at which you say, ‘What holiday are we celebrating?’”

Each year, Greenspan embarks on a six-month project to translate the Hebrew commentary of a different haggadah into English. The haggadah reflects the “paradigm of pluralism in Judaism,” he says. “One little book no more than a couple of thousand words, and everyone has something different to say about it.” Historical connections fascinate him, as in a 1948 commentary published in the midst of Israel’s War of Independence, or another in Czechoslovakia, 1945, soon after the camps were liberated. In his own home, he does not use the same haggadah both nights, and chooses a different one each year for the second night. Often it is the haggadah that he has translated, or one he wrote for his congregation in the form of a script with many voices, Around the Table. The process of writing it was liberating, he says. “It felt like everything I had in me from years of celebrating Pesach came out.”

Compare Versions

To choose a haggadah, he suggests focusing on one section (like the Four Questions) and comparing different versions—looking at the art, translation, commentary, questions. Even congregants who use a traditional text approach him for ideas before Passover. “They still view the text as a story through which they can wrestle with issues of Jewish identity and larger human issues.” With so many in financial crisis this year, he says, “All who are hungry come and eat” might be one meaningful text to discuss.

Try New Things

Author and poet Marge Piercy leads the Seder with a haggadah she has been refining for 20 years. In Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own (Schocken), which includes poems, translations, explanations and recipes, she encourages contemporary interpretation rather than what is “correct” or traditional: “Every piece of what ‘always’ has been or what is ‘supposed to be’ was started sometime in our history and kept because it worked for people. Other usages were gradually altered or dropped.” Try new things every year, she urges. “Keep the parts most people love or respond to and remember. Work on the parts that seem to put people to sleep.”

Most of her haggadah consists of her poetry. Matzo inspired this stanza: What we see is what we get/honest, plain, dry/shining with nostalgia/as if baked with light/instead of heat./The bread of flight and haste/in the mouth you/promise, home.” She replaces the fourth question with this one: “On all other nights when we dine together we have plenty of room. Why tonight are we wedged in elbow to elbow?” And, she offers a fifth child: either a child of the Holocaust or a Jew who has “dropped out, converted, over-assimilated, or is unwilling to bother.” After the haggadah is completed in her home, she says, everyone tries to come up with new jokes.

Tell the Family Story

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, author of A Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Lifecycle Events, suggests looking at the haggadah as a physical book. The food and wine stains are often the most compelling, “tangible reminders of past memories embedded in the pages.” One family she knows lists each year’s seating arrangement on a blank page in the back of the haggadah. Cardin writes down her menus. Flipping through the charts or menus, the haggadah becomes a repository of family history, with as much editorializing as each family wants. “The Exodus is the story of going from a family to a people,” says Cardin. “The first night, tell the story of our people. The second night, tell the story of your family.”

Writing a personal family haggadah is becoming more and more common. As the haggadah created by the Werber family of Great Neck, New York, explains, “After many years of tinkering with the contents and procedure of our Seder, by adding readings and songs that were particularly meaningful (or just entertaining) to our family, it seemed logical to shape and fine-tune the Haggadah…For better or worse, the family is on its own, without the benefit of clergy, to make the Seder interesting, enjoyable, and to deepen the understanding of all the participants.”

Over the years, the Werbers had experimented with various haggadot: Manischewitz; Let My People Go (Soviet Jewry); and Feast of Freedom (Conservative), adding songs and readings relating to the Holocaust (they are a family of survivors) and contemporary life, and, as children and grandchildren arrived, age-appropriate repertoire. The intergenerational endeavor is now in its fourth edition. “It’s a never-ending project,” says Bracha Werber. “We’re always looking for what’s new, what’s happening in the world.”

Some experiments work; some do not. The family liked Miriam’s Cup—but not the orange on the Seder plate. Last year, they conducted a mini pre-Seder for their young grandchildren, who ended up staying awake for the main Seder anyway. The second night, with fewer guests, the family did away with formal dining room seating, reclining instead on sofas in the living room, since the haggadah requires reclining at certain points to represent freedom instead of slavery.

For Barenblat, the haggadah mirrors her own evolving needs. At Williams College, she helped write the texts for the annual feminist Seders. “Every year the women would get together and argue passionately. One year we replaced all the masculine God language with feminine language [Queen instead of King]. The next year we used Creator and Source. By the time I graduated, I realized what was important was the process of studying the haggadah and thinking about what we wanted the Seder to be.” Still an ardent feminist, she says she is no longer a “one-issue haggadah creator. Miriam’s Cup is great, but we shouldn’t forget Elijah’s.”

Leave Time to Prepare

It’s important to take the haggadah seriously, says Barenblat, but don’t be afraid to have fun. Yet to be creative, some knowledge is essential—like identifying the haggadah’s basic steps. She draws an analogy: “You have to know the rules of a sonnet to break them and write in free verse.” Preparation time is also important. “Think about it a month before. Dedicate an afternoon to browsing in a bookstore or library or on the Internet. Don’t leave it until the last minute.”

The Foundation for Family Education (www.jewishfreeware.org) offers free Internet downloads with templates of the haggadah in various lengths—for beginners, intermediate and complete traditional text—in Hebrew, contemporary English translation and transliteration, as well as Seder readings, a songbook with lyrics of 110 selections, and a guide to preparation. “The concept of the foundation is that “people should learn,” says its creator, Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner. “Passover is not just ‘pass the brisket and remember the slaves.’” Lerner notes that transliterations are vital to the numerous Jews-by-choice, interfaith couples and non-Jews at today’s Passover tables.

The Web site had 25,000 hits when it was launched nine years ago. In the six weeks preceding Passover last year, it logged in 900,000 hits from 70 countries, including Ireland, New Zealand and even some Arab nations. A user-friendly haggadah can help build bridges, he says. “Too often Passover is not as happy a time as it could or should be. Everyone is tired. Siblings don’t get along. It’s a potent source of tension.” The foundation’s latest project, Hag HaHaggadah: A Creative Festival for 5769, is a haggadah-writing contest, co-sponsored by organizations including CLAL: The National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership, Jewish National Fund, Jewish Publication Society and Neot Kedumim. The winners in six divisions will be announced by Passover.

The haggadah’s perennial relevance stems from its ability to inspire and provoke. “Slavery, whether literal or metaphorical, is very much with us today,” writes Piercy. Passover “is a time to rededicate ourselves to tikkun olam, the repair of the damaged world. A time to remember our thirst for justice and equality.” But it is also a time to consider internal liberation, “fighting the inner as well as the outer Egypt…For one without the other is weakened.”