Jews have a special relationship to books, and the Haggadah -- the user's manual for the Passover seder -- has been translated more widely, and reprinted more often, than any other Jewish book. Everywhere there have been Jews, there have been new Haggadahs. The Torah is the foundational text for Jewish law, but the Haggadah is our book of living memory. It doesn't merely tell a story, it demands a radical act of empathy -- I would argue the most profound demand made by any book of any kind. We are asked not to receive a story, but to be characters within it, to feel as if we, ourselves, are being liberated from Egypt.
Since 1934, the Maxwell House Haggadah has been the world's most-used version of this exceptional book. Distributed for free as a promotional tool, there are 45 million Maxwell House Haggadahs currently in print in America, and while they are perfectly functional, they are exactly as inspired as you would imagine a coffee company's promotional tool to be. Fortunately, there are another 7,000 (or so) versions of the Haggadah in existence, ranging from the utilitarian, to some highly embellished works of art.
In 34 years of attending seders, I never found an intellectually and aesthetically satisfying Haggadah, nothing that I would consider a great book by the standards I use to judge secular books. Or maybe just nothing that was a good fit for my family. Because of the dramatic story it tells, because of the questions it raises and images it inspires, the Haggadah could be a great book. It lends itself to creativity and thought. But more than that, because of the themes it explores (exile, slavery, the perpetual, universal struggle for freedom), and because the seder is, for most families, the only time of the year to gather and ask these biggest of questions, it should be a great book.
About nine years ago, I began work on New American Haggadah. I had no idea, in the beginning, how it might look or read. I thought, in the beginning, that simply gathering great writing and great art would do the trick. I thought that a Haggadah was the sum of its parts. So I wrote the creators I most admired, asking if they wanted to collaborate.
The project grew organically. At one point, the book had almost 30 contributing writers and artists. The pieces were phenomenal, but I was accidentally creating an anthology, or an interesting reference book. I was not creating a functioning Haggadah. So I radically altered the form, collapsing the book to only what felt essential. What I came to realize is that a Haggadah should not be an act of self-expression, but Haggadah-expression. Any writing or art that draws attention to itself does so at the expense of the Haggadah. The most one can hope to do, when working on a new Haggadah, is to tune this greatest of all instruments so that it is more easy to sing along to.
What makes New American Haggadah different?
- Nathan Englander's translation is careful and clear. It captures the lyricism and moral force of the liturgy by faithfulness to the traditional text.
Over the following weeks, The Huffington Post Religion section will run a series of commentaries from the Haggadah, as well as short essays on process by the Haggadah's designer, Oded Ezer, and its translator, Nathan Englander. It's been a pleasure and honor working with all of the contributors to this book, and I'm proud to share their work with you.