NEW YORK -- Authors Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, seated together at a Brooklyn diner, would like to continue a discussion that has lasted for centuries.
They have collaborated on a text dating to Biblical times and revisited each year by millions of Jews worldwide. "New American Haggadah," just published by Little, Brown and Company, is a new edition of the Passover narrative that has been edited by Foer and translated by Englander.
They are a contrast – the earnest Foer and the expansive Englander – but they share skepticism about organized religion and anxiousness about what it means to be a Jew. Both have included Jewish themes in their fiction, whether the grandson of a Holocaust survivor seeking answers about the past in Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated" or the tug of war between religious and secular culture in Englander's "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges."
Foer, inspired by Seders (the traditional Passover gatherings) he has attended, says he thought of the project about six years ago.
"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," says the 35-year-old author, whose novel "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" was the basis for the Oscar-nominated movie.
"It requires a good users' manual, a guiding hand. The entire point is to transmit values through a story and it's impossible to do that if people aren't engaged in a story and impossible if it isn't in a language that moves them and doesn't have commentaries that engage them."
A Haggadah includes special instructions, prayers, hymns and commentary unique to Passover. The books are given out to family and friends at the Seder table so all can participate in the retelling of Moses' deliverance of the Jews from slavery more than 3,000 years ago.
The term Passover refers to the Jewish homes that were "passed over" by God's angel of death, sent to snatch the Egyptians' firstborn as punishment for the pharaoh's refusal to free the slaves. Passover begins this year on the night of April 6 and continues for eight days. (It lasts seven days in Israel.)
"Like all Haggadot before it, this one hopes to be replaced," reads the introduction to the "New American Haggadah." During their recent interview, Englander and Foer not only acknowledged, but also celebrated the thousands of Haggadot published over the centuries, including feminist Haggadot, Haggadot for Christians, a "traditional egalitarian" Haggadah, a "freedom" Haggadah and a "significant contemporary version" by the novelist and poet Marge Piercy.
"It's a wonderful conversation to have, a never-ending conversation," Foer says of the Passover story.
"New American Haggadah," so titled to honor a tradition of naming Haggadot after the place they were compiled, features a timeline of Jewish history and ongoing commentary from four writers, among them "Lemony Snicket" (the pen name for best-selling author Daniel Handler). The Haggadah is illustrated by the Israeli artist and calligrapher Oded Ezer.
Commentaries are listed as "Playground," practical and humorous wisdom from Snicket/Handler; "Library," a literary/psychological perspective from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein; "Nation," political observations by Jeffrey Goldberg; and "House of Study," philosophical and religious takes by Nathaniel Deutsch. Joining past to present is their commitment. As the four consider, for instance, the plagues God brought down on the Egyptians, they raise timeless questions about justice and mercy and whether every citizen should suffer for a nation's crimes.
"And don't we sometimes behave today as the God of Exodus behaved?" Goldberg writes. "Don't we sometimes impose sanctions on dictatorships and by doing so cause hardship for the guiltless? Haven't we made heroes of men who have deliberately taken the lives of thousands of innocents?" Adds Goldstein: Jews "must not rejoice over the punishment of the Egyptians. It is not a moment for singing."
Snicket points out the requirement to spill 10 drops of wine, one for each plague, and how the drops are a way to "remember the suffering of the Egyptians."
"This symbolism may come in handy," he writes, "so that some night at dinner you can say, `When I spilled grape juice all over your beautiful white tablecloth, it was not an accident, but my way of apologizing for various terrible things that have happened to innocent people.'"
The new Haggadah is a product of love, and of sweat. Englander, who has called himself a "God-fearing atheist," expected to finish a translation within weeks. But he found himself awed by the original Hebrew and he dedicated himself to a faithful edition, one that took three years and was worked on, "head to head, word by word with a study partner," a "hevruta."
"It's such a deeply beautiful text," says Englander, whose story collection "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" was recently published. "I'm not religious, but it's really close to my heart. You should read it and weep, it's that beautiful and that stunning and that moving."
Foer, meanwhile, had originally planned and paid for many more than four commentators.
"There were more kill fees than fees for the book," Foer says. "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."
The standard Passover book remains the decades-old Maxwell House Haggadah, which has more than 50 million copies in print. According to Barnes & Noble Inc., customers also are seeking out texts that speed up a ritual that can last for hours. Popular Haggadots include Robert Kopman's "30 Minute Seder: The Haggadah That Blends Brevity With Tradition" and Alfred J. Kolatch's "The Concise Family Seder."
The 42-year-old Englander, who grew up in an orthodox Jewish community in West Hempstead, N.Y., remembers using the Maxwell House edition, but only reading the Hebrew. Handler prefers a Haggadah suited for "the typical West Coast reform Jew": "The Passover Seder: Pathways Through The Haggadah," by Rabbi Arthur Gilbert. Allegra Goodman cites "The Illuminated Haggadah: Featuring Medieval Illuminations from the Haggadah Collection of the British Library."
Goodman, author of novels such as "Intuition" and "The Cookbook Collector," wrote in an email that she especially loves the art of the "Illuminated" Haggadah. "For example, Moses and the children of Israel look like characters from the Canterbury Tales as they cross the Red Sea," she explains.
Cynthia Ozick, whose novels include "The Puttermesser Papers" and "Heir to the Glimmering World," says her house in New Rochelle, N.Y., is "dappled" with Haggadot, from the Maxwell House to "a sumptuous Israeli-published Haggadah bound in chased silver, embossed with representations of the ten plagues, a panorama of Jerusalem, a pair of bejeweled priestly breastplates, and all manner of trees, ships, beasts, castles, amphoras, sunrises."
"And then there is the Haggadah that is the scandal of my family. It was translated by my uncle, the Hebrew poet Abraham Regelson, who lived by his trilingual pen, feeding a family of five young children. In a period of great need he sold his elegant English to a publisher for $25. The publisher, taking merciless advantage of my uncle's desperation, refused to offer a royalty," Ozick wrote in an email.
"The Regelson Haggadah sold annually in the hundreds of thousands, enriching the publisher; it became ubiquitous, rivaling even the Maxwell House Haggadah. When, in later years, my uncle dared to approach the publisher, on grounds of fairness, for compensation, he was greeted with contempt and sent packing. His Haggadah can still be found, sometimes with his name, sometimes without it. But you can always tell it's the Regelson Haggadah when you come to the hand-washing part of the Seder. Instead of `wash,' it reads `lave.'"