The Passover Story, PDF Style
Wed, 03/13/2013
Staff Writer
Cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen brought out his own Haggadah after raising funds on the Kickstarter crowd-funding platform.
Cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen brought out his own Haggadah after raising funds on the Kickstarter crowd-funding platform.

Not so long ago, if you needed a new Haggadah for your seder, you’d head to a bookstore. On the shelves there you’d probably find a wide selection of new Haggadot in English each year, sometimes up to a dozen, usually filled with commentaries on the Passover readings and rituals written by a deceased sage or a contemporary authority.

The book, in most cases, was the product of a major Jewish or secular publisher.

Today, you go to your computer.

In a continuing trend that reflects changes in both the Jewish community (less fealty to traditional sources) and the publishing industry (a growing number of firms are unwilling to make the financial investment in a one-time-a-year-book; online publishing is cheaper and less complicated each year), the number of Haggadot and Haggadah guides issued year is down. There are only about a half-dozen. And most are available — at first, at least, until the authors are able to find a traditional publisher in the future — only in pdf format on the Internet this year.

This year, only two mainstream publishing houses, Rizzoli and Gefen, came out with new Haggadot.

Gone are the usual commentary-based Haggadot. In are artsy, individualistic interpretations of the seder themes by authors who have varied Jewish backgrounds. Gone, in many cases, is the standard text, the well-known readings that were compiled into the familiar Haggadah two millennia ago. In are authors’ reflections on their own theological perspectives, secular poetry, references to post-biblical Jewish history, and hands-on guides to fashioning an innovative seder experience.

Goodbye, Moses, hello, Frederick Douglass.

More themed-seders — based around ecology, hunger, social justice, etc. — can be downloaded, a few Haggadot that bill themselves as compilations of articles available on the online Wikipedia encyclopedia are offered for sale, and Haggadot.com offers thousands of “pieces of original writings, artwork and videos” that can be adapted into a Haggadah of the seder leader’s choosing.

All these changes are good — and predictable — for Jewish life, says Carolyn Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council.

“Because the world is changing, the Haggadah keeps up with the changes,” Hessel says. She sees the new crop of Haggadot each year, and she’s seen the changes in how many of them appear. “I’m not the least bit surprised. That’s what keeps us alive.

“It’s still the Haggadah,” the basic contours of the freedom-from-slavery narrative remains, she says. The stylistic changes don’t “change the Passover story.”

“I don’t think it’s written in stone” that a Haggadah must be a collection of some expert’s thoughts about the holiday’s symbols and symbolism, says Daniel Levine, owner of J. Levine Books & Judaica.

Many readers have had a surfeit of such commentary-based Haggadot, Levine says. “They say ‘dayenu,’” enough.

Levine says it’s too early to write the obituary for the old-fashioned paper Haggadah. Last year’s “New American Haggadah” by novelist Jonathan Foer was a big seller, he says. Who knows what new product, what new trend — maybe a children’s Haggadah — will catch readers’ fancy?

Hessel says some traditionalists still prefer the Haggadah of their youth. She adds, “I don’t think you have to read the Maxwell House Haggadah.”

The number of people whose Haggadah-of-choice is the traditional bound-paper-pages type is decreasing every year, wrote Rabbi Jason Miller, Jewish high-tech maven, after Pesach last year.

“The latest trend seems to be Haggadahs of the digital variety,” he wrote. “If you used a Haggadah made of paper last week at your seder, you’re still in the majority.” But, Rabbi Miller wrote, “the technology has arrived to make a digital seder possible.”

For people who would not use electricity on yom tov, an e-Haggadah or Haggadah app is not an option. But most American Jews feel comfortable bringing a Smartphone or iPad or Kindle to their seder.

“It is entirely possible,” Rabbi Miller wrote, “that your seder [this year] was the last one in which you will use a paper version of the thousand-year-old Haggadah.”

The Bronfman Haggadah.
By Edgar Bronfman, illustrated by Jan Aronson. (Rizzoli, $29.95)

No Kiddush, no Four Questions, No Dayenu.

Not only is this not your grandfather’s Haggadah, it’s not your father’s.

Bronfman, scion of the wealthy philanthropic family (his father Samuel founded the business that grew into the Seagram Company) and veteran Jewish communal leader (onetime president of the World Jewish Congress), has written the type of Haggadah he wishes his father had used. As a child, Bronfman sat at his family’s seder, where every word of the traditional Haggadah was recited. “It never made much sense to me,” he says.

His Haggadah – more accurately, it’s a guide or supplement to a standard Haggadah – explains what the familiar words and rituals mean, but doesn’t contain many of them. Instead, there’s a commentary that Kiddush is “a blessing that designates a person, place, thing, or time for a higher purpose.” And “One Question, Four Examples.” And a brief synopsis of the biblical exodus story – with Moses, traditionally missing from a Haggadah text, playing a highly visible role. And a map of the possible routes the Israelites took from Egypt to the Promised Land. And Miriam’s Cup. And the door opened to Elijah at the start of the seder (not after the meal) as a reminder to “open the doors of our hearts to those in need.”

And evocative, eclectic watercolor drawings by Aronson, an accomplished artist who is his wife.

Their Haggadah, they say, is meant for people like them: committed to Jewish life but not committed to strict Jewish observance. Based on several years of research, it evolved from notes Bronfman used at the seders he led for friends and family.

At times, he’d use a score of Haggadot. “I was looking for that one I really liked.” Finally, “I decided to do it myself.”

References to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which took place seven weeks after the exodus, and to pogroms and the Holocaust, which happened centuries later – none of this in a regular Haggadah – are in Bronfman’s Haggadah.

His message: the exodus was “more than one event.” It was the story of the Jewish people throughout history.

Bronfman says he’s shown his Haggadah to like-minded friends. One man, he says, shared the Haggadah with his adult son, who did not have an intensive Jewish education, and who always found the contents of a standard Haggadah confusing. Bronfman’s friend said Bronfman’s Haggadah helped his son understand the seder’s meaning. “It finally made sense to him.”

Hakol Baseder: A Treasury of Activities for the Passover Seder.

By Mitch Heifetz and Michael Toben (Gefen, in partnership with the Jewish National Fund and the Bnei Akiva youth movement, $39.95) Kit includes Haggadah, leader’s activity booklet, CD, corkscrew and pack of Birkat HaMazon bencher booklets.

Longtime friends who had made aliyah decades earlier and had worked as overseas representatives of the Jewish Agency, Toben (from London), a now-retired professor at Bar-Ilan University, and Rabbi Heifetz (U.S.-born), veteran director of the overseas program at Yeshivat Kibbutz HaDati, had collaborated on educational materials for a few Jewish holidays.

Rabbi Heifetz was sick with a cancer relapse about seven years ago, and Toben came to the rabbi’s home on the kibbutz with an idea – they should create their own Haggadah, with accompanying family activities.

It would educate seder participants about the holiday’s theme in an engaging, entertaining way, Toben thought, and distract his friend from “his daily pain.”

“I gave him homework,” Toben says. “He kept persevering.”

Toben visited Rabbi Heifetz on the kibbutz biweekly to discuss ideas for the Haggadah and activity booklet, and he completed the writing after the rabbi died, at 61, in 2007.

The finished product features original graphics based on medieval Haggadot, with brief explanations in the Haggadah for the various readings and rituals, and scores of activities in the separate booklet graded A or B or C: A for adults, C for children, B for adolescents and young adults. A separate, Hebrew-language version appeared this year in Israel.

The activities, based on hands-on activities the authors had used at their own seders, and on activities from Jewish communities around the world, range from a “Seder Plate Memory Game” to a “‘Who Knows One’ Pantomime.”

The point, Toben says in a telephone interview from his home in Ramat Gan, is to encourage the seder participants, especially the kids, to ask questions, “to arouse interest.”

“Good fun,” he says – “when the fun is over, the concepts remain.”

Enough activities are included, Toben says, to go at least 10 years without repeating. “It will take more than one year,” he says, to get full use out of the Haggadah and activities booklet.

Why the corkscrew? It was the publisher’s idea, Toben says. Kosher-observant families have separate Pesach-appropriate dishes and silverware, but often discover at the seder that they lack a kosher l’Pesach corkscrew.

HaTikvah is in the Haggadah; many of the activities are Israel-centered. “I believe the Haggadah is an extremely Zionist work,” Toben says.

He chose to put Rabbi Heifetz’s name first as co-author. “It is a salute to Mitch,” Toben says. “We haven’t forgotten him. This is my gift to him.”

The Dry Bones Passover Haggadah.

By Yaakov Kirschen. (available in pdf format: drybones.com)

Your standard Haggadah does not feature a cartoon character holding a sign with a number to indicate the 15 steps of the seder. Your standard Haggadah does not present cartoon characters alongside commentary on the seder messages. Your standard Haggadah does not remind you of something you read in the newspaper.

But Kirschen, Brooklyn-born cartoonist who made aliyah in 1971 and has served as an illustrator/commentator on Israeli/Jewish life for four decades through his Dry Bones strip, did not set out to create a standard Haggadah.

Kirschen’s Haggadah is a combination of the traditional (all the Hebrew text, with directions and explanations) and the innovative (some old Passover-related cartoons, some new ones, and his ubiquitous Uncle Shuldig figure, the Jewish people’s Greek chorus).

“The Haggadah should be something that brings us all together,” Kirschen says in a telephone interview from his Tel Aviv home. “The Haggadah is the only book that is in every Jewish home.” And many of them are illustrated. “It is the graphic novel of the Jewish people.”

He says the readers of Dry Bones range from “extreme progressives” to “the most black-hat haredim.” And that, says Kirschen, a graduate of Queens College, is what the Dry Bones Haggadah is shooting for. There’s no political or religious agenda in it – just the serious yom tov themes presented “in a light way.

“I needed to create a Haggadah that speaks to people the way Dry Bones speaks to people,” Kirschen says.

Instead of seeking a regular publisher, he decided to see if he could find financing to publish his Haggadah himself. He sought financial support a few months ago on Kickstarter, the Internet-based crowd-funding platform for creative ventures. “Make a choice for the future of our civilization and the Jewish people,” he modestly stated on his blog. His goal: $5,000 within one month.

“I took a gamble,” he says.

“Within a day and a half one hundred and one backers had provided more than the initial goal,” he reported then. His month-long, online plea for funds reaped a little more than $20,000.

Next year, Kirschen says, he plans to self-publish his Haggadah in standard, bound-book format.

This year, he says, he’s offering the Haggadah as a downloadable file to give his readers a taste of what the finished product will look like.

“Next year it will be in everybody’s home,” Kirschen says. “This is just a vorspeis [Yiddish for appetizer].”

steve@jewishweek.org