Sarah's Reviews > New American Haggadah

New American Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer
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Apr 07, 2012

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Read on April 06, 2012

I have mixed feelings about this new haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander. Do you remember those old commercials in which "we've replaced this man's regular coffee with Folgers - let's see if he notices?" This haggadah seems to be a a project born of passion and enthusiasm, but I'm not sure there was enough forethought involved. They want to replace the Maxwell House haggadah and see if people notice, but ultimately I don't think they set a high enough bar for themselves. The Maxwell House haggadah may still be ubiquitous in some households, but I would think the goal would be to make a great haggadah, not merely one to replace the bland standard.
There are several interesting features. A timeline of Jewish history runs along the top of each page, from biblical times through the modern day. The Hebrew typeface for each page purports to represent the common look of Hebrew printing in whatever time period is being discussed. Cool idea, but in practice this means some pages are easier to read than others.
Englander's translations are vigorous and passionate. They reminded my aunt of Rumi. They are fairly literal. He translates "Eloheynu," for example, as "God of us," when the suffix "nu" is generally accepted to correspond to the English first person plural "our," and "Eloheynu" to mean "our God." Interesting choice, a little distracting. The plague of darkness -"choshech"- he translates as "a clotted darkness." So at first I thought he was just being extremely literal, and later I decided he was trying for poetry. At that point I got annoyed at his insistence on non-egalitarian translations. It's the twenty-first century, your audience is likely a liberal one. Would it have hurt to use a non-gendered pronoun now and again? In Hebrew, a mixed group is generally captured with a masculine pronoun, but in English it's easy enough to get some diversity in there. Instead of "sons" you can say "children," for example. You can say God instead of "Lord" and "Master."Not so hard.
There are a few pages of commentary interspersed between the traditional text. They arrive in groups of four, labeled "playground," "nation," "house of study," and "library." There is no explanation of what those four designations mean. "Playground" was written by Lemony Snicket, and is generally funny. I didn't recognize the other authors, or get a good sense of the character of their commentaries. Because they came in groups of four and only sporadically, they tended to all comment on different aspects of one particular piece. They were interesting but not really illuminating, in my opinion.
My aunt had heard several interviews with Foer and Englander, and bought their Haggadah on the basis of what she had heard. She said that they had each discussed growing up with the Maxwell House haggadah and its rigid form. As they got older they longed for something that would speak to them, and set about trying to create it. They said that a lot of Jews identify culturally but are divorced from deeper knowledge of their culture. And I know that I'm probably not the person to critique their effort; while I'm no Judaic scholar, I think I have a a lot more working knowledge than the average Joe(seph). But if I were somebody like Foer or Englander who had sat through sixty-some Maxwell House seders in my lifetime, and was curious about going a little deeper this would not be the haggadah I would turn to. I would turn to the lovely Passover Haggadah: The Feast of Freedom = or A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah. or The New American Haggadah, all of which include wonderful commentaries and examinations of the text. Or one of the dozens of others that have made the scene since Maxwell House. Again, I know that I may not be in the position to see what the majority of people are doing, so maybe most households are still stuck on Maxwell House, but I'm not sure those people are going to switch now if they haven't switched yet.
Ultimately, this haggadah comes across to me as the work of some people who set about making a haggadah that would speak to them without looking at what was already out there, at what works, or what people are looking for. They even named it the New American Haggadah and cited a tradition of naming new haggadot after where they were produced without noticing that there already is a lovely New American Haggadah by Gila Gevirtz. It faithfully reproduces all the traditional text, but doesn't bother to give a WHY for anything. It carries a timeline across the top of each page to connect history and present, but there's no real reason for any aspect of that timeline to be tied to any particular page. It doesn't reflect when a piece came into the seder, for example. And at most seders I've been to where people actually take the time to ask questions or read side-texts, the population of the Jewish world in 500 BCE would have no relevance to the questions at hand. It wouldn't spark conversation, which in my opinion is what any additions to the traditional text should do.
So, is it worth buying? Perhaps a single copy as a supplementary text. Some of the translations were interesting, and Lemony Snicket's rumination (pun intended) on the goat in Chad Gadya was entertaining. I wouldn't make it my primary haggadah for a seder, though. Ultimately, it's pretty, but lacks depth. At best, I would hope that it would frustrate others and convince them to continue their search for a haggadah that asks and answers and illuminates.

ETA:Okay, the second seder I went to this year was a Maxwell House seder. It was an absolutely lovely traditional evening, of the sort where you read every line of every page without much question or comment or discussion. We were a seder of eight women, though, and what little extra conversation took place hinged upon the archaic translations ("giveth" "lifteth," et thetera) and the masculine language. The grace after meals starts with "Gentlemen," for example. And one of the older women in our group - in her eighties, I think - told the apocryphal story of the orange on the seder with great gusto. I think all of these women would have loved Englander's more poetic translations, but they would have loved an inclusive translation even more.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Ben (new)

Ben Babcock Thanks for the fascinating and personal insights, Sarah. I saw this on Colbert but, being relatively ignorant of the intricacies of Judaism, I couldn’t fully appreciate what it was trying to do.


message 2: by Koeeoaddi (new)

Koeeoaddi Wonderful review, Sarah.


message 3: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan I'd meant to say: Thanks for saving me from buying this. I don't have/sue any, but I have been curious about this one.


message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

I appreciate the review, and have most enjoyed seders where each participant provides a section of a haggadah that is moving and meaningful to that person (with local exegesis, of course).


Sarah I've never done one like that, Osho, but I think I'd enjoy that a lot. This was interesting but didn't work for me. Others may have a different experience.


message 6: by Misha (new)

Misha It took until about halfway through your review that it dawned on me that your references to Maxwell House were not an extended coffee metaphor. That is my failing, not yours.


Sarah An understandable mistake.


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