Growing up as the daughter of the only rabbi in the state of Utah (there are more now, but he was the only one for almost twenty years), Passover seders at my house were a raucous annual event. The holiday involved the out-of-town visit from my grandmother (who bore a striking matriarchal similarity to the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, with a Jewish twist), an elaborate dinner party of at minimum twenty-five guests, loud singing with banging on the table, bottomless glasses of wine and religious-sanctioned underage drinking, and even one year because of a lost bet, my dad leading the ceremonies while riding an exercise bicycle.
Over the years we tried out many different haggadot (the text that laid out the order of the event). As the evening progressed, the dinner party would often turn into a specialized book club, critiquing the various aspects of that year’s edition. My brother and I preferred the haggadah we knew from religious school because of the large font size, extensive pictures, and line numbers. That was the 1966 edition of Nathan Goldberg’s Passover Haggadah, which is sadly no longer in print. The line numbers made it easy for my dad to say, “Miriam, read lines 64-69.” For some reason we liked that.
The thing about the haggadah is, the contents are relatively eternal, but it’s the editions that have a life span. Many versions reflect the political and cultural sentiments of the publication date, or trends (like “going green”). A strong argument could be made that the strength of a haggadah lies in the tactile experience and the price point more than anything. Can the book stand up to being sat on during the meal, spilled on, bent, and chewed by the dog? Are the pictures pretty and entertaining? And, if twenty-five people are coming to the seder and you want everyone to have a copy, is it worth buying an expensive hardcover edition and skimping on the free-range kosher chicken?
It was with great surprise that I discovered that the bestselling author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer, is bringing out his own edition, New American Haggadah, on March 5th. Translated by Nathan Englander, the author of What we Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, these guys have both street cred and a youthful jumping off point for a new look at an old text. As Foer told the Jewish Chronicle: “The haggadahs we used didn’t meet the standards we apply to secular books. The discussion was interesting, but not interesting like Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic is interesting, not thought-provoking like Rebecca Goldstein is thought-provoking. I wanted a haggadah that would involve a richer engagement with the text and images.” (*Note: Goldberg and Goldstein both offer commentary in the new edition.)
Curious? Frankly, I am, although I’m turned off by the $29.99 price, but if the buzz is true it might be worth it even if that means photocopies for the guests. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m sure my dad has already ordered his copy, or will when he reads this post. Have a look and let us know what you think, or tell us which haggadah is your family favorite and why.