The Haggadah Hobby
04/16/08
Staff Writer
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Are you familiar with the Haggadah commentary of Rabbi Benjamin David Rabinowitz, an 18th-century scholar in Warsaw? Or of Rabbi Ya’akov Lorberbaum, a Polish rosh yeshiva in the late 1700s and early 1800s? Or of Rabbi David Dov Meisels, a chasidic rebbe in Poland 150 years ago? Probably not. Unless you are a member of the Oceanside Jewish Center. Rabbi Mark Greenspan, spiritual leader of the congregation for a decade, every year studies, translates and publishes a “little-known” commentary on the Haggadah for himself, members of his synagogue, and a small but growing circle of people who share his arcane interest. “It’s my hobby,” says Rabbi Greenspan, a student of the Haggadah and a collector of more than 1,000. “I learn new things every year.” This year, as during the past six, he will distribute his product of many months’ work — the commentary for 5768 is Rabbi Naftali Hertz Ginzburg’s, published in 1704 in Warsaw — to worshippers at the Jewish Center’s erev yom tov siyum study session-meal for the First Born, and at Passover services. “I have people who look forward to this every year,” the rabbi says. Every year the rabbi picks a Haggadah — one in Hebrew, illuminated by commentaries on the text — from his living room shelves, and, dictionary at his side, studies a little nearly daily, typing his synthesis of the author’s insights into his computer. “It’s a lot of work,” he says. “Every year is a new challenge. It’s pretty heavy-duty, serious learning.” His wife, Marilyn, edits his work, and his sister, Bonnie Schiff, in California, proofreads. The seder’s symbolic rituals and readings lend themselves to a wide variety of interpretations, making the Haggadah, often accompanied by commentaries, reportedly the most-widely printed book in the Jewish world. Rabbi Greenspan, 54, doesn’t own all the extant Haggadot, but his collection is impressive. “I’ve always had a very special connection with Pesach,” he says. One of the rabbi’s fondest memories from his student days at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America was working in the school library, with access to its “amazing collection of Haggadot.” Like most traditional rabbis, he leads a siyum every year. Usually marking the conclusion of the study of a tractate of Gemara or a major portion of Mishnah, a siyum includes a meal where the First Born, who would otherwise fast on erev Pesach, can eat. Seven years ago Rabbi Greenspan decided to make his siyum on a Haggadah commentary. His remarks on the Passover text would be of more interest to congregants than an obscure tractate, and he’d prefer studying the Haggadah, as preparation for the holiday and for his holiday sermons. “It was purely practical,” he says. He chose scholars whose commentaries are relatively obscure and little-studied today. “They are not well-known, but they have something to say,” he says. The second year, he decided to preserve his translations on computer, then print them out, professionally bound. “I was becoming more adept at using a computer,” he says. Eventually, he’d like to publish his translations. Does he know of any colleagues who does a similar translation project each year? “I don’t know anyone else who’s crazy enough to do it.” A few years ago he gave a copy of that year’s translation, of Rabbi Meisels’ work, to a visiting fundraiser from Israel. The translation made its way to Rabbi Meisels’ namesake and great-great-great-great-grandson, Rabbi David Dov Meisels, an author and leader of the Satmar chasidic community in Brooklyn. “I called him,” Brooklyn’s Rabbi Meisels says. “This is David Dov Meisels,” he told Rabbi Greenspan. “He thought I was calling from heaven,” Rabbi Meisels says. He was “delighted” with the translation of the “very deep” commentaries. “I asked how a rabbi,” especially one from a non-chasidic background, “could take such high-level writing and translate so people could understand.” Rabbi Meisels invited Rabbi Greenspan to his home, and reciprocated by speaking at Rabbi Greeenspan’s Long Island congregation. “He charmed people,” Rabbi Greenspan says. “He was so warm and welcoming.” Rabbi Meisels says he has shown Rabbi Greenspan’s translation to his whole family. In past years, Rabbi Greenspan, who is chair of an International Rabbinical Assembly committee that is creating a new Haggadah for the Conservative movement, has translated only Ashkenazic commentaries. Next year’s choice may be one from Tunisia or Yemen. Now congregants offer Haggadah suggestions. Rabbi Greenspan says he has no plans to stop his unique Pesach project. “Part of the beauty of Passover,” he says, “is that you’re not telling the same old story, but you’re bringing something new to the seder table.”

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10/19/2009 - 10:57

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