Parceling Out The Passover Story
Wed, 04/13/2011
Staff Writer
The Szyk Haggadah. (Abrams, 128 pages, $16.95)
The Szyk Haggadah. (Abrams, 128 pages, $16.95)

In a trend that has been growing in recent decades, the publishing industry – which has brought printing into everyone’s hands and allowed publishers to gear their products to particular segments of the market – now offers Haggadahs and related Pesach books that appeal on the whole, to specific parts of the Jewish community.

In past decades there were the standard Haggadahs (barebones Hebrew-English text, with limited commentaries) that were used by the wider Jewish community; then, starting in the 1960s, Haggadahs took aim at segmented, smaller parts of the community (vegetarians, feminists, progressives, etc.); then, starting with ArtScroll’s burgeoning in the 1980s, the majority of new Haggadahs featured the accompanying interpretations of learned scholars, both contemporary and of historical vintage, finding a natural constituency in Orthodox circles but making in the wider Jewish community, among anyone seeking such rabbinical insights.

For a limited amount of people, there were the Haggadahs issued by the individual denominations of Judaism, largely promoted by and sold to members of each denomination; and limited-number special printings like Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz’s 2010 “American Jewish Legacy Haggadah” (ajlegacy.org), which supplemented the basic Passover text with snippets of relevant American Jewish history.

This year, the accustomed commentary-rich Haggadah is in the minority.

Of this year’s crop of new Haggadahs and similar seder-related books, including a few that came out last year too late for use on the holiday, only two follow the established seder-text-embellished-by-commentary format; Rabbi David Silber’s “A Passover Haggadah: Go Forth and Learn” (see profile on page 39) and the Lubavitch movement’s “The Passover Haggadah,” a lavishly produced book that will appeal to Jews with a midrashic bent.

The rest of the new Haggadahs are a potpourri combination of academic (for the historical-minded) and the — for want of a better word — gimmicky (mostly for families with small children).

After three decades of prominence, large-scale interest in the standard text-and-commentary Haggadah has probably diminished, and the still-present recession, which has seen book sales victimized by the growth of Kindle and similar electronic readers, makes a publisher’s investment in a standard printed product risky, says Danny Levine, owner of J. Levine Judaica in Manhattan; niche books, even the pricy ones, are a better bet, he says.

“It’s not random – it’s targeted,” Levine says. “You have to reach the market in unique ways. The traditional Haggadahs are less exciting.” Enter the kid-oriented Haggadahs like “We Were Slaves” and “Passover Haggadah in Another Dimension.”

“For a child,” Levine says, “people will go out of their way”; i.e., buy even an expensive product.

Children, after all, are supposed to be the focus of the seder.

While some of the new Haggadahs are relatively inexpensive, most are in the $30-$40 range, too much to be bought for every seder participant, but an affordable investment for the seder leader who will use it as a reference source for many years.

Is this year’s crop of Haggadahs a long-term trend or short-term anomaly?

It’s too early to tell for sure, but niche Haggadahs are likely here to stay, says Altie Karper, editorial director of Schocken Books, a division of Random House.

“As the technology improves” in the publishing and self-publishing fields, she says, “it becomes more cost-affordable to do things in color. People are interested in [buying] a Haggadah that relates to their particular experiences.”

But the standard Haggadah with commentaries is likely to return in larger number, she says. “As long as people seek to enlarge the seder experience with other examples of liberation from tyranny – both historic and contemporary — and as long as rabbis and other spiritual leaders come up with insights on the Haggadah text that they want to share, we’ll continue to have commentary-style Haggadot.”

There is room for both breeds, Karper says, since the number of people leading their own, often-individualized seders, continues to grow in American Jewry.

In the historical-and-scholarly group this year are “The Szyk Haggadah,” “The Washington Haggadah,” “The Medieval Haggadah,” “Making Seder of the Seder,” and “Freedom Journey.” In the less-traditional group: “Passover Haggadah in Another Dimension,” “We Were Slaves,” and “300 Ways to ask the Four Questions.”

“Szyk,” “Washington” and “Medieval” are reprints of classical Haggadahs.

Szyk’s is the most aesthetically intriguing, the one you’ll most want to show at your seder but least want to get wine stains on. Its color painting by the 20th-century master of Jewish art, and eloquent explanatory text, are a visual and intellectual treat. Szyk, a Polish Jew who witnessed the rise of Nazism, created his Haggadah as a visual commentary on freedom, depicting the ancient Hebrew slaves in Egypt as his Eastern European peers in need of their own Moses and Exodus.

This is the first widely available version of “The Szyk Haggadah.”

“The Washington Haggadah” (created in 15th-Century Italy by scribe-illustrator Joel ben Simon, but getting its name from its final home in the Library of Congress) and “The Medieval Haggadah” (four illuminated 14th-Century European Haggadahs) offer an insight into the Jewish lives lived in a different place, and different time. These original hand-made Haggadahs are what Jews held in their hands on long-ago seder nights.

Rabbis Amsel, Waskow and Berman approach their subject, intellectual discussion of the seder themes, from different directions. Rabbi Amsel, who is Orthodox, offers Orthodox but original insights, reinforced by evocative black-and-white photograph’s from Israel’s early years, into the Haggadah’s symbolic language and actions. Rabbis Waskow and Berman, from the Jewish Renewal movement, take a decidedly progressive tack, introducing their accustomed causes like gay rights and feminism.

Lubavitch’s Kehot Haggadah, the latest in a series of Haggadahs the movement has issued, usually based on the words of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, follows the traditional path — commentary combined with midrashic tales and stories of more-recent vintage. It is attributed to no single author, is obviously the work of a group of scholars, and offers a wide swath of interpretations. Divided into small, bite-size paragraphs, and written in a serious-but-breezy style, it is fit for use at non-Orthodox/non-chasidic seders.

“We Were Slaves” and “Passover Haggadah in Another Dimension” were clearly written with the younger seder participant in mind. Both feature captivating artwork (3D, in the latter’s case, thanks to an accompanying set of red-and-blue eyeglasses) and abbreviated text. Both offer kid-geared explanations, while We Were Slaves adds questions (e.g., “What is your favorite Seder memory?) designed to provoke discussion by seder guests of any age.

Though pricey, Spiegel and Stein’s “300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions,” is probably the biggest bargain, a valuable Haggadah companion at any seder. Reissued with 40 additional languages and dialects (including Moabite and Middle English, SMS Messaging and Reggae), it will capture the interest of anyone who cares about foreign cultures or geography.

The Szyk Haggadah, Arthur Szyk, translation and commentary by Byron Sherwin and Irvin Ungar (Abrams, 128 pages, $16.95).

The Washington Haggadah
, Joel ben Simeon, introductions by David Stern and Katrin  Kogman-Appel (Harvard University Press, 158 pages, $35.95).

The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination, Marc Michael Epstein (Yale University Press, 344 pages, $65).

The Passover Haggadah (Kehot Publication Society, 224 pages, $24.95).

Making Seder of the Seder: Deeper Answers To Simple Questions You’ve Always Asked About The Haggadah, Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel (Old City Press, Jerusalem, 191 pages, $36).

Passover Haggadah in Another Dimension (Kippod3D, 48 pages, $24.95).

We Were Slaves: An Interactive Haggadah
(Torah Aura Productions,  48 pages, $9.95).

300 Ways to ask the Four Questions
(2nd edition), Murray Spiegel and Rickey Stein (Spiegel-Stein Publishing, 400 pages, $39.95).

Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia
, Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights, 248 pages, $24.99).

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org