213 of 219 people found the following review helpful
Larry Mark MyJewishBooksDotCom
- Published on Amazon.com
I will forego making a joke on the "Foer Questions."
Several years ago, Jonathan Safran Foer said that most translated Haggadot lack the imaginative punch to inspire people toward a greater commitment for social change. He said, "We talk about slavery every year, we talk about the movement toward freedom every year. But when was the last time a Seder made you really feel those things in a deep way" about Darfur or Energy Independence (because we are slaves to energy right now.)
And so began Foer's quest to create a new American Haggadah, "American" because Haggadot, such as the Sarajevo Haggadah, are usually named for the place they were published. (This one is published in America, but printed in Singapore.) Seders have been celebrated for over 100 generations, and perhaps there have been over 7000 known versions of the haggadah, whether it is from a religious movement, a kibbutz, Maxwell House, Mesorah, a commune, Cokey Roberts, or your own family. Foer writes that a new haggadah does not imply that earlier ones are failed, he just saw a need for one that looks at current issues in today's idiom
This haggadah is an exciting new one and will prompt many seder-table discussions for years to come; the "hyper-literal" translations into English will fascinate.
But first, some information on the style: The Haggadah flows from right to left. On each page are illustrations, or Hebrew with English translations. There are NO transliterations, not even for a Kiddush or Had Gadya. The Hebrew has vowels. The Haggadah is a hardcover and delivered with a removable red paper wrapper (bellyband); when removed, you are left with a cover with Hebrew printing on a white background. The spine has the Haggadah's title and editors' names. The Hebrew printing on the front begins "B'chol dor v'dor (In every generation, a person is obligated to view her/himself as if s/he were the one who went out from Mitzrayim... interesting choice, no?). I am sure some enterprising young or old scholar at a seder can derive a drash on why the words with the largest fonts sizes are B'chol, Zeh, and M'Mitzrayim.
There are a few blank pages at the end of the Haggadah where you can write comments, thoughts, or record who was present at your sederim over the years. I highly recommend using it, since decades later, you can open it and recall family members, friends, or guests who are still present, older, moved on, or passed on. The paper stock makes the Haggadah feel a tiny itty bitty warped, but with use, it flattens out. Across the top of each page is a progressing timeline (by Mia Sara Buch), flowing like sweet malaga wine, from 1250 BCE to 2007 CE. The timeline is in a smaller font and gives a running history of Passover and Jewish communities. For example, for 1387 CE, the timeline mentions Chaucer's publication of "The Canterbury Tales," and his story of a blood libel against the Jews, even though Jews were expelled England a century earlier. At the end, you can add to the timeline as years go by. I can imagine each participant adding their own timeline to their copy each year, and seeing how attitudes and comments change over the decades. A keepsake.
The text of this Haggadah opens with the removal of Hametz and Prepping for the seder. It flows through the seder, the cups of wine, the Hallel and Nirtzah, and closes with Counting the Omer, and a few songs. There are also several discussion sections designed in a neo-Talmud style. There are discussion four sections: Library, Nation, House of Study, and Playground. They are authored by Lemony Snicket, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Nathaniel Deutsch. Deutsch, a Guggenheim Fellow and An-sky specialist, is currently a professor at UC, Santa Cruz and Co-Director of the Center for Jewish Studies. Goldberg is a journalist at The Atlantic. Newberger Goldstein is a novelist, professor, and mother of two authors; and Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) is author of a books on quotations that are bitter like horseradish; on a latka that screamed a lot; and a series on unfortunate events (like slavery?)
The design is by Oded Ezer, a master of inventive Hebrew lettering (Beit Hillel), typography and design, who wrote that the notion behind this book's design was to visually merge the history of the Jewish nation with the traditional Haggadah text. The graphic letterforms (not the Haggadah text, but the drawings around them) on the pages therefore "reflect" the timeline's period at the top of the page. The book becomes a graphic record of Jewish history. Plus it seems to have ready-made wine stains, albeit of ink.
But now for the meal: the translation by Nathan Englander. This, the translation, is primarily what attracted me to this Haggadah. Englander thought this would be an easy translation task, like it was going to be hip and sassy, but he soon realized the project's scope and intensity, and entered a havruta style, multi-year process with Baruch Thaler, to debate and decide on the translations. They refer to it as a hyper-literal translation.
Nathan Englander was an interesting choice. An acclaimed novelist and short story author, he moved to Israel as a young man and he quickly gave up on organized religion. (He may not have a mezuzah on his door, but now he has dozens of Jewish Haggadot and texts.) For Pesach, Englander used to use the Hebrew side of the traditional Maxwell House coffee haggadah. He never really looked at the English translations. He found that the Hebrew is so moving, yet the English translations he saw did not communicate this beauty well enough. The line that clinched it for him was "HaMavdil Bein Kodesh l'Kodesh." In English, many Haggadot translated it as "to differentiate between the Sabbath and the holiday." But in Hebrew what it says is, "to differentiate between holy and holy." To him, the English was missing the poetry and the metaphysical space between "holy" and "holy."
This is his chance to convey meaning -- meaning that informs future action. For example, in "Nishmas kol chai," he translates it as "Were our mouths were filled with a singing like the sea, and our tongues awash with song, as waves-countless, and our lips to lauding, as the skies are wide, and our eyes illumined like the sun and the moon, and our hands spread out like the eagles of heaven, and our feet as fleet as fawns. Still, we would not suffice in thanking you, lord God of us and God of our fathers, in blessing your name for even one of a thousand, thousand, from the thousands of thousands and the ten thousands of ten thousands of times you did good turns for our fathers and for us"
While most haggadot translate blessings as "Blessed (Praised) art Thou, O Lord Our God, King of the Universe...", Englander writes "You are blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos..." His translations are unique and will wake the reader up, and make them really think about what they are reciting. He uses "God of us" instead of "our God" because it's not "our God" like "our cellphone" or "our Lexus" that we own, rather it is "the God over us." "Ha Lachma Anya" is not the Bread of Affliction, but becomes "This is the poor man's bread that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt... Just as You lifted nation from the belly of nation, and piloted Your people through the deep, may it be desirous before You..." The translations are male, as in He, King, Father and Sons. The Four Sons are sons. The ten plagues are "Blood, frogs, lice, a maelstrom of beasts, pestilence, boils, and hail-full-of-fire, locusts, a C-L-O-T-T-E-D darkness -- too thick to pass. The killing of the firstborn."
I hope this has given you an unleavened taste of this haggadah. It contains a wealth of information and will be a call to action for families that use it.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
John L Murphy
- Published on Amazon.com
"Our translation must know our idiom, our commentaries must wrestle with our conflicts, our design must respond to how our world looks and feels." So Jonathan Safran Foer as editor and Nathan Englander as translator preface their ambitious version of "the oldest continually practiced ritual in the Western world." Certainly their choices of phrasing will spark a lively discussion at this virtual seder table. Concentrating upon Englander's choice to follow male-gender "faithful" translations ("Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos") forces readers and users of this handbook to rethink their relationship with thousands of years of this venerable account. Many readers will be surprised at this linguistic fidelity from a hipster-era tale teller who writes from the complicated position of a former Orthodox student turned critic of the culture he once participated in.
It starts off with verve. The opening call to all participants previews the seder table as it is made holy, Kadesh. This is rendered: "Sanctify/ And Wash/ Dip/ Split/ And Tell/ Be Washed/ And Bless/ The Poor Man's Bread/ Bitter/ Bundle/ And Set Down to Eat/ Hide It/ And Bless/ Praise It/ Be Pleased." One problem looms large for many who will follow along at a possibly more hipster seder: no transliteration. While juxtaposing Hebrew with English alone makes, as in the example quoted, a dramatic presentation enhanced by Oded Ezer's graphics (of only the letters, no images, as if faithful to traditional commands not to venerate images), the power of the page layout all the more prominent. This lack of phonetic equivalents, training wheels for the uneasy, makes this a challenging seder guide to the "order" of Passover that must be recited in each generation anew "as if it happened". It's named for Americans, but perhaps many Jews here will not be able to follow the Hebrew. Still, that itself marks the drama of exile; Jews title an Haggadah from its community of origin, as "our book of living memory".
As compromise with the elimination of textual assistance for those not brought up as Englander and many Jews have been schooled, the commentary can prove intriguing. Here, those less familiar with Hebrew could enter and ask questions. The commentary allows room for all to hear from four Jews, four (at least) points of view. For, Foer as editor embeds nuggets of intrigue similar to the way his novels join typographical daring with narrative innovation. "Eating Animals" (see my Amazon review) did this too, and the way that certain sections such as the Four Sons and Ten Plagues split into four areas of tilted type makes this a modern revision of a Talmud with commentary boxed in around a core text.
There, however, the core vanishes, at least to another two page spread. Key sections segue into passages labeled Nation, Library, House of Study, and Playground. These blocks of text have been included from contributors Nathaniel Deutsch, Jeffrey Goldberg, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Lemony Snicket [Daniel Handler] in turn. More Jews, more opinions. They prove welcome guests.
Innovative remarks meet your wandering eye. The Wicked Son turns into a meditation on the universal versus the particular, part of the Jewish predicament. "The tale of the Jews is not my concern" paraphrases the usual meaning, but Goldberg sets this into a fresh context. How would a Jewish college student in the 1980s pick which cause to support: ending South African apartheid as part of greater movement, or liberation of Soviet Jewry as part of a smaller campaign? Both rallied Jews, both were necessary, but one showed a connection with a continent's revulsion, the other with an insider's activism.
Similarly, the Ten Plagues again by Goldberg find memorable comparisons. The power God that hardened the heart of the evil Pharaoh grows mysterious. Lincoln, FDR, and Truman all are shown as presidents who took the lives of many innocents in their determination to bring about a greater good. If emancipation ends or fascism succumbs, do the ends justify the means?
Any Passover commemoration that raises questions adults can debate, and which families can discuss, invites a mature respect for this bold project. Debates will and should continue over the language, but Englander forces audiences to react to the Hebrew as it was written, not as it is interpreted by most liberal Jewish readers in other texts and rituals. I find this subversive, and this fits Englander's own approach as he sets before progressive audiences the difficulties of traditional Jewish life as supposedly perpetuated by his former Orthodox community today--much to the disdain of liberal Jews, and vice versa.
The design of the timeline by Mia Sara Bruch tilted down from atop some pages disorients us to "look" at a book which "feels" familiar if you've held other haggadot. The pages go right to left in numbering but a faint ghost of our language, our habit, seeps through as the enumeration peeps through of conventional page markers.
The English, the Western, the larger world, therefore, rubs up against the Hebrew, the Semitic, the narrower place, the Egypt from where the slaves dare to flee. The text presents the conflict. English wins with small print, but as untransliterated, the ancient Hebrew dominates. In Oded Ezer's design, the letters wander. This reminds me in its watercolored calligraphy of Leonard Baskin's work. It flows and halts, a tribute to a narrative about repression and escape, control and flight. This element of drift and stability adds impact to the uneasy reception this haggadah has received, as those who thought they would find its message most comforting wind up debating, as Jews, into the night.
The same questions repeat for a hundred generations. The answers continue to perplex, as they should. A people seeks to restore its own dignity, and faces its own difficulty as the table reminds Jews of suffering they inherit, even at a meal full of plenty. At a time of comfort, those at the seder are commanded to talk about hunger, anguish, despair, and the death by divine decree of the guilty and the guiltless. Participants must enact the plagues, the escape, and the break into an uneasy freedom. The team bringing us this Haggadah may have cleverly succeeded in perpetuating a very old conversation--at least until the next generation, probably not next year in Jerusalem and certainly not Gen X, Y, or Z-- but surely a hundred and one.