MARCH 24, 2013
READING THE HAGGADAH not on Passover is a little like reading IKEA instructions with no furniture to put together.
In Herzog, Saul Bellow has the novel’s eponymous narrator remember his childhood Hebrew studies in Montreal this way: “The children of the race, by a never-failing miracle, opened their eyes on one strange world after another, age after age, and uttered the same prayer in each, eagerly loving what they found.”
That is the best expression I know of for why people care about holy texts and religious rites and dinners like the Passover Seder.
Passover is the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and their eventual claiming of the land of Israel. The Haggadah is not the book that tells that story.
If you want to know the story of Moses’s life, from his birth through his receipt of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, you should read “Exodus,” the second book of the Torah. Lots of folks do: Jews on Friday nights and Saturdays, Christians on Sundays, culturally Jewish agnostic book nerds like me in the weeks before they’ve got an essay about the New American Haggadah due.
But the Haggadah is not quite a holy text, like the Torah or Mishnah or Koran or the Book of Common Prayer (okay, it’s a little more like the BCP than the others). It is performative. In enacting the Haggadah’s dinner instructions, in eating a dinner together every year to mark the exodus of Moses and the Jews from slavery in Egypt — in simply reciting it, doing what it says — you are doing what you’re meant to, while also, ostensibly, symbolically transporting your family back some 5,000 years. The Passover Seder was the setting for the Last Supper of Jesus/Christian fame, and it is in my family now a good opportunity to get my parents to fly to Philadelphia from Los Angeles. It is the most specifically regimented dinner we eat all year. The Haggadah, whether it be the one we used for decades, made by Maxwell House Coffee in the 1930s as an enticement to buy Maxwell House Coffee, or the new one under consideration here, is a book whose job it is to get you through what can be either an enjoyably short or a painfully long dinner. Well, to do that while also accomplishing the job of potentially making possible: time travel, family reunion, and the taking of copious quantities of sweet wine we wouldn’t otherwise take.
When I was a kid growing up in the towns west of Boston in the 1980s, my family used to go to Seder every year at the house of my pious joyous ruddy Uncle Alan. He and my grandmother’s sister lived in Newton, a community with a lot of Jews but not only Jews. His sons and daughter were very close with my mother and her sister, and my father loved them too, so for Seders we went to a house that I remember as enormous but which my mother tells me was quite cozy each April for the first Seder. More than a dozen of us crammed around a dining room table early evening, when Uncle Alan returned from an afternoon of prayer at shul. I don’t know how late it was by the time we ate, but I do know that it was well past dark, well past that time of night when rooms turn a grainy dark before the lights come on. He returned and began to read from the Haggadah, and it wasn’t long before my sister and I were removed to the television room to watch cartoons until the Haggadah had been read in its entirety.
During the time early in the Seder when we still squirmed at the table, clawing at tie and high-necked dress, what I remember is my Uncle Alan occasionally asking people to raise their wine glass, but mainly not to drink from it. Between glass-raisings, my Uncle Alan would sit at the head of the table davening. Only after the publication of my first book, a short novel at whose center is a long scene that takes place when a pair of recent Jewish Russian immigrants in Baltimore attend a fraught Seder at the narrator’s home, did I learn that this word — davening — is not known to everyone from the time they’re old enough to sit at the table for Seder. For my Uncle Alan, davening meant reading Hebrew from the Haggadah very fast and rhythmically under his breath, rocking just barely perceptibly forward and back, while everyone at the table at first half-listened, and by, say, 8 p.m., simply talked amongst themselves or finished up the matzah ball soup or, if they were me, watched TV.
As I remember it, sometime long thereafter, my Uncle Alan would finally look up from his Haggadah and, without rocking rhythmically, would shout in a very loud voice that could be heard all throughout that house in Newton, “L’shanah ha’baa birushalayim!”
Which means, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Then we’d eat.
The Nirzah, the final prayer of the Seder on which one declares “Next year in Jerusalem,” appears on page 122 or on page 26 of the New American Haggadah, depending on whether you’re reading from left to right or right to left. Each page of the book, which was translated by the fiction writer Nathan Englander and edited by the fiction writer Jonathan Safran Foer, contains, for the most part, Hebrew on the recto and English on the verso, though I’m actually not sure how those terms function when talking about a book set up to be read like a Hebrew book — backwards. And also there are some pages where the English appears right under the Hebrew.
So now might be a good moment to answer this question: What comprises this New American Haggadah, anyway? There are, as I mentioned above, Hebrew and English versions of each step of the Seder, from the removal of chametz (food not kosher for Passover) that takes places in the week before the holiday, all the way to, at the rite’s end, the repetitive lyrics of traditional Passover songs, including “Chad Gadya” and “Who Knows One.”
So let’s take, as our example of how this Haggadah works, the Nirzah. In the Nirzah, as on each page of the entire New American Haggadah, there is a timeline of Passover in Western history, running vertically and requiring a page-turn that made me physically dizzy each time I tried to use it. Which seems to be a design flaw, whether of the book or this reader’s inner ear, I can’t say. In the entire book, this timeline takes us from 1250 BCE (“the telling begins”) to 2007 CE (“publication of the first Haggadah designed for Jewish Buddhists”). On the top of the Nirzah page, we get, for 1959, a synopsis of the publication of Leon Uris’s novel Exodus. There are also lovely images created by Oded Ezer, based on the progression of Hebrew typography through that same timeline.
In addition, throughout the book is a series of commentaries by four Jewish writers, including Lemony Snickett, which appear every 10 or 20 pages to enlighten one’s reading. In the case of the Nirzah, on the two pages that follow the prayer we have Snickett joking that “it is very likely that you are reading this in the Diaspora, a word which here means ‘everywhere in the universe except Israel.’” Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg considers the place of Zionism in 2012, saying that we declare the ending of the Nirzah “sometimes nervously, sometimes self-consciously, often ambivalently.” Scholar Nathaniel Deutsch writes that rabbis teach us that “Jerusalem marks the spot where God laid the foundation stone … upon which he created the rest of the world.” Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein tells us that “if Jerusalem is a metaphor, so, too, is Egypt.”
These four writers comment each time under playful rubrics (“Playground,” “Nation,” “House of Study,” and “Library”) and, while it is virtually impossible to imagine reading more than one or two of these commentaries aloud at a Seder, they’re quite thoughtful and informative. Goldstein’s observation that an early prayer is itself “one of those strange locutions linguists call a performative [in which] the uttering of it itself constitutes an act” strikes me as a kind of description of this Haggadah in specific, and for the Haggadah itself, and at the risk of sounding grandiose, for religion and prayer and holy rite more broadly.
My easily accessible formative texts are not so much the Hebrew I couldn’t understand under my Uncle Alan’s breath as they were the novels I gobbled up from age 10 to the present, and I can’t help but think here of Franny Glass’s insistence on repeating the Jesus Prayer until the meaning of the words sinks away and the recitation itself becomes the means and the ends in one.
Almost makes me want to go have a Seder.
My Uncle Alan was sharp-nosed and handsome and emphatic and funny and charming and he died when I was only 10. He died far too young, of a botched minor surgery, and his absence left a gaping chasm at the head of that table in Newton, Massachusetts. My grandfather, who by family lore had accompanied my uncle to shul all day before Seder, had died of a heart attack the year before I was born, and there was no obvious leader of Seder in that town for us anymore. We carried on; someone pretended to daven, I’m sure, though I can’t remember who.
Our Seder grew a little thin.
My parents moved out of town.
I went away to a college in Ohio that had, until the 1960s, been affiliated with an Episcopal seminary. There, I snuck behind the food lines at the cafeteria to make matzah-and-peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. There was no Seder. Only my non-Jewish friends grimacing at my gefilte fish, a food that looks a whole lot greyer and lumpier and more like a large fresh slimy owl pellet than it tastes.
In graduate school, a friend conducted fun Seders that lasted under an hour. Only three of us were Jewish. The rest just liked to partake of Manischewitz’s cloying sweetness.
Finally, when I was in my late 20s and my wife and I moved to Philadelphia so she could attend medical school, it was my turn to play patriarch. Or at least the Seder was at our house, and my wife is Episcopalian, so the task fell to me. I was all prepared to pull out the Maxwell Houses, when I learned that a med school friend planned to bring a stapled-together personal Haggadah to our home. I was suspicious, but over the course of four years, I came to love it. It opened with a description of the need for an orange on the Seder plate and ended with me pulling out a guitar and us all singing “By the Waters of Babylon” and “We Shall Overcome” and sometimes even “I Shall Be Released.”
This, it seemed to me, was better than davening.
I still missed my Uncle Alan every night when the guests left, with an ache in my chest that felt nearly physical.
I won’t pretend my six years of Bar Mitzvah–preparatory Hebrew is enough to allow me to comment with any authority on Nathan Englander’s apparently lovely and ambitious translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic in the New American Haggadah. (Material Example #1: I did not know the Next Year in Jerusalem prayer was called “the Nirzah” until I read this version of the Haggadah. Material Example #2: The Nirzah is actually said after the Seder meal, which means I either mis-remembered the order of my Uncle Alan’s Seders, or his Seders proceeded in an odd order). I slowly transliterated some of the Hebrew just to roll the words around in my mouth like Moses’s rocks (performative!). My ability to close-read English and not Hebrew suggests to me that much of the language Englander has crafted here is quite beautiful —“And they did us evil, those Egyptians, and they tortured us, saddling us with punishing work” sounds both pragmatic to the point of being nearly colloquial (“those Egyptians”) and somehow lyrical (“saddling us with punishing work”), as does “With seventy souls your fathers descended to Egypt, and now the Lord your God has set you as the stars in heaven, a multitude.”
The translational choice that stands out most is that for each barucha, Englander has translated the tetragrammaton — the word the Torah uses for God’s name, which isn’t to be spoken—as “Lord God-of-Us.” Again, I won’t pretend to be a theologian or scholar, but in a book about God doing some acts to allow a whole people to shirk oppression, the translation of God’s name does seem important. In the version of “Exodus” I read for this piece, The Stone Edition, which was recommended to me by a novelist friend a couple of years back and which contains much terrific commentary, God is referred to almost exclusively as “Hashem.” As I understand it, this name for God literally means “the name.” As The Stone Edition explains, there are three names the Torah uses to refer to God, each with a different connotation. “Shaddai” connotes that he is being referred to in relation to his “mastery over nature.” “Elohim” is “the Name that connotes strict justice.” And, according to The Stone, “Hashem” is “the Name of mercy.”
I’m wading into territory far beyond my depth in even considering this idea of God-naming, but I find this idea deeply interesting and telling, and I assume that it must in some way help illuminate Englander’s translation that, in “Exodus,” God is, while killing Egyptian boys and making everything smell bad by creating and then quickly killing lots of frogs (Ten Plagues numbers 10 and two, respectively), referred to by his name connoting mercy. And that, as a corollary, the New American Haggadah has this name repeatedly as “Lord God-of-us.” The relationship of God as God “of-us” to the idea of God as a merciful Lord is complicated and feels somehow true in a way I’m not sure I can parse beyond simply pointing to it.
To put it a different way: For a brief period when I was in high school, I started writing God “G–d,” as I’d seen some of my classmates who’d transferred to public high school from a Jewish school do on their papers. There was something intimate and authoritative about doing so. It strikes me that this must be something like what Bellow’s Herzog meant when he was overcome by the fact that “The children of the race, by a never-failing miracle, opened their eyes on one strange world after another, age after age, and uttered the same prayer in each, eagerly loving what they found.”
If reading the Haggadah not on Passover is a little like the IKEA instructions without the furniture parts, then the thought experiment must become in the end one of imagining the furniture parts in front of us. And of acknowledging that the IKEA couch needs assembly just once, where the Haggadah is meant to be used infintely. And that religion is likely more important than home furnishing. So here the simile breaks down. The subject matter of the Haggadah has held up for, say, 5,000 years, whereas the furniture I’ve bought from IKEA has never lasted more than five.
Isn’t this what’s at stake in looking at any Haggadah, Englander-translated or otherwise? The job of translation and presentation of such a book is to allow for such a dinner, for such an every-cell-in-the-body pining as I’ve felt for my Uncle Alan each Passover since he died — for that moment that is all moments and just one prayerful moment Bellow so eloquently elegized in Herzog. In those moments that feel most central, when Four Questions are asked, or Chad Gadya is sung, that same history — personal and people-wide — arises as we read, New American or Maxwell House or otherwise. There may be quibbles with word choices I’ve overlooked. I struggled with questions of the usefulness of certain design elements in the New American Haggadah. But at bottom, the triumph of this translation is an ontological one: the simple heft of the project, of its having been attempted and done. Putting the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Haggadah to English, anew, so we can look at the book with new eyes.