American literary heavyweights produce radical new haggadah

Seder complete with ready made wine stains, courtesy of US writers

By Gerald Jacobs, December 16, 2011
Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer

A great many Seder tables next Pesach could feature an imaginative presentation of the Passover story in the form of the New American Haggadah, which will be published in the UK in February.

The brainchild of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, in a new translation by Foer's fellow writer Nathan Englander, the haggadah has been given a bold and colourful design - incorporating ink and ready made wine stains - by artist Oded Ezer.

An informal but challenging commentary is injected at key moments in four sections - House of Study, Nation, Library and Playground. These are written, respectively, by Nathaniel Deutsch, professor of Jewish studies and literature at the University of California; Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine; philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, author of the acclaimed novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God; and the renowned children's author, Lemony Snicket - real name Daniel Handler.

Running alongside the entire text is a "timeline" compiled by Mia Sara Bruch, an award-winning writer and teacher of Jewish history. This relates salient stories of the endurance of the Seder from 1250 BCE up to the present century.

Jonathan Safran Foer told the JC this week that the idea for the new haggadah came to him six years ago at his own family's Seder "which was nice, all of us gathered around a long table, but it could have been exceptional. I felt it was a missed opportunity.

One of the illustrations in the new haggadah

One of the illustrations in the new haggadah

"The haggadahs we used didn't meet the standards we apply to secular books. The discussion was interesting, but not interesting like Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic is interesting, not thought-provoking like Rebecca Goldstein is thought-provoking. I wanted a haggadah that would involve a richer engagement with the text and images."

At one point, Mr Safran Foer had gathered 20 or so collaborators - including several leading literary and academic names - for the project, which he expected would produce a radical departure from the normal Seder text and experience. But this early experiment was abandoned.

"I didn't want it to have the feel of an anthology," he explained. "Though no part of me believes in the literal truth of the events described in the Passover story, they are time-tested metaphors and symbols to help us think about our lives. So we ended up with something more conservative, spiritually and aesthetically."

The result is certainly a serious and substantial piece of work. Its commentators cite Kafka as well as Moses, Wittgenstein as well as Elijah. It is universal, too - it is named as American, says Foer, simply in line with the tradition of naming a haggadah after the place where it is made.

Jonathan Safran Foer will launch the haggadah with Jeffrey Goldberg at Jewish Book Week on February 25. It will be published by Hamish Hamilton.

Last updated: 2:35pm, December 16 2011