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What Is Different About New American Haggadah?

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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.
  • A timeline runs graphically across the tops of the pages, contextualizing the Haggadah by giving "the story of the story" -- how Exodus has appeared throughout Jewish and world history. It gives the reader a sense of the unique historical significance of the Exodus story, but also, hopefully, inspires him or her to feel like a continuation of it. The timeline ends without dates, but a space for users to write their names, the location of the seder and date, as well as some memories, making the book a living artifact.
  • New American Haggadah is the only visually embellished Haggadah I know of whose design is entirely text-based -- there is no figurative artwork. More than attractive, it is a record of Hebrew lettering through time. On each page, the design was based on the lettering used during the period represented on the timeline. We decided against figurative art in the interest of withholding any kind of heavy-handed aesthetic sensibility, and pushing forward the language.
  • The commentaries, and their relationship to the liturgy, are new. We offer four different perspectives: NATION (written by Jeffrey Goldberg), which asks what political questions we should be grappling with as a People; LIBRARY (written by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein), which approaches the Haggadah from a literary/psychological perspective, examining characters and motives; HOUSE OF STUDY (by Nathaniel Deutsch), which practices a more traditional rabbinic kind of questioning, referencing the stream of Jewish commentary, and finally PLAYGROUND (by Lemony Snicket) which is written for younger readers. The idea was not simply for the commentaries to be used differently by different seder-goers, but for the perspectives to reveal the fullness of the text: the more you push on it, the more it gives back. There is no earnest approach that wouldn't yield ideas.
The need for new Haggadahs does not imply the failure of existing ones, but the struggle to engage everyone at the table in an ancient story in a time that is unlike any that has come before. The Haggadah I've edited makes no attempt to redefine what a Haggadah is, or overlay any particular political or regional agenda. Like all Haggadahs before it, it hopes to inspire radical empathy. Like all Haggadahs before it, it hopes to be replaced.

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.