Quotable feast

Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, with a new translation by Nathan Englander, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£25, 160 pages

Every year, shortly before the Passover seder, I go to my bookshelves and get out a huge pile of Haggadahs, the order of service for the table feast celebrating the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom.

There’s the glorious facsimile Rothschild Haggadah; the children’s Haggadah I myself had as a child, with Moses in the bulrushes in a wicker basket pulled in and out of the water by a cardboard tab; Liberal Judaism’s Haggadah that I helped produce many years ago; and the Japhet Haggadah, put together by my great great grandfather in Germany. And this year Jonathan Safran Foer’s magnificent new Haggadah, beautifully designed by Oded Ezer, will join the pile.

What makes this Haggadah shine is the combination of commentary, design and illustration, and the splendid timeline by Mia Sara Bruch that goes sideways across the top of the pages. The commentaries are written by Nathaniel Deutsch, Jeffrey Goldberg, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Lemony Snicket. Some of their insights are truly unexpected, such as Goldberg on the wicked son, in the story of the four sons.

In Jewish tradition, the wicked son’s question, “What does all this mean to you?”, excludes himself. Goldberg points out that his question expresses a real dilemma for Jews – “the war between the universal and the particular”. For Jewish students in the 1980s, he argues, this was writ large with two major liberation movements – the first, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the second, the fight to free Soviet Jewry. Many chose South Africa as their cause, while others chose Soviet Jewry. Goldberg ends with the question: “How do we balance our faith’s demand to care especially for our fellow Jews, and care especially for the entire world, at the same time?”

The seder is full of questions but this one, about where our responsibilities lie as Jews and as human beings, could go on all night, and we would still have no truly satisfying answer. Take children’s author Snicket on the same passage: “Some scholars believe there are four kinds of parent as well. The wise parent is an utter bore ... ” A wry smile comes first; then a moment of embarrassed self-recognition as he carries on being less than positive about the way in which some parents teach their children about Passover.

Similarly, Goldstein’s commentary on the cup of Elijah unexpectedly conjures storytellers in Jewish communities around the world turning Elijah, herald of the coming of the Messiah, into a figure who appears – and disappears – mysteriously, as “more an imp than an avenger”. Hers is an unusual, and useful, approach given that the Cup of Elijah is often treated with overweening solemnity or ridiculous jokes we hear year after year.

But it is Deutsch’s moving commentary on the final words of the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem”, that really stands out. He reflects, not on the physical Jerusalem, but on the broken world we live in, exile, and the possibility of a return to wholeness, in a powerful, almost elegiac, study.

Novelist Nathan Englander translated the texts – mostly with great felicity, though some terms startled me. Can I really say “God-of-us” rather than “our God” when translating Eloheinu? Is “and they did us evil, those Egyptians ... ” really an improvement on the more standard “But the Egyptians ill-treated us ... ”? Much of this is about taste, and style; this Haggadah, marketed in the US as the “New American Haggadah”, is consciously American in its preoccupations.

It is certainly a beautiful book. Bruch occasionally gets things wrong in her timeline; the Bene Israel Jews of India speak and spoke Marathi, not Arabic, as she suggests. It is the Calcutta Jews who speak Judeo-Arabic. But we can forgive her, for she puts in such wonderful titbits as the story of the Jewish soldiers in the Union army in West Virginia in 1862 who went out to forage for ingredients to make a seder and ate weeds (to symbolise bitter herbs) that were so bitter that they all drank far more than the specified four cups of wine, and ended up with two men claiming to be Moses and Pharaoh getting into a drunken brawl. I shall certainly be using that story at our seder.

So it is amusing, touching and scholarly. I might have wished for it to be more egalitarian – with “children” instead of “sons” for the story of the four sons, perhaps. And I might have hoped for a discussion of the possible messianic significance of the Afikoman, the last piece of matzah (unleavened bread) we eat on seder night. But these are quibbles.

This Haggadah tells the eternal story of the journey from slavery to freedom, making us think, laugh, cry and ask questions. What more can we ask of a table service that encourages, even demands, questioning and discussion of us all?

Julia Neuberger is senior rabbi of West London Synagogue

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