Made-to-order Liberation Stories

Website allows users to mix and match material to build their own Passover Haggadot.

Trying to inspire her secular family in New York to celebrate the Passover seder this year, Cori Widen decided to piece together a Haggadah that would appeal to her loved ones. While the 25-year-old Widen became religious and moved to Jerusalem, her family back home is still so unaffiliated that she'd be surprised if they have a Passover seder, and "if they do, it probably won't be kosher."

Widen took on her task by recently signed up at Haggadot.com, where surfers can create their individual Passover Haggadah, compiling different pieces of content the users themselves or others have contributed.

A modern rendition of searching for the Afikoman by Will Deutsch.
Will Deutsch

Haggadot.com works like an online scrapbook: users upload original illustrations or texts from homemade or non-copyrighted Haggadot. All content is grouped in a personal folder sorted in a searchable Web gallery for others to borrow from. When users are ready to create a new Haggadah, they can mix and match pages from other people's Haggadot and print it out.

As of this week, over 75 people posted more than 700 so-called clips on Haggadot.com, which is the brainchild of Eileen Levinson, a California-based designer and artist. Contributions range from comic strips to a translation of the seder classic "Ma Nishtana" into Luganda (a language spoken in Uganda ) and a scholarly article about "How Matzah Became Square: Manishewitz and the Development of Machine-Made Matzah in the United States."

"Until now, families have often had to search through several different Haggadot to find meaningful texts for their seder. Some users even commented that their family passed around several different texts in a single evening," Levinson, 30, told Anglo File. "Now users can easily search for content by keyword and compile their own customized Haggadah into one PDF printout."

"Many of our users come from traditional Jewish backgrounds, while others expressed a sense of hybridized Jewish identity and do not subscribe to one single denomination or community. Users range from tech-savvy Jews in their 20s and 30s to long-time Haggadah fanatics looking for an outlet to share their collection."

Widen said her main goal "is to come up with a Haggadah my family can relate to." She used the complete traditional text of the Haggadah and an English translation as the starting point of her personalized edition. "I uploaded something about our family history that's related to the theme of Pesach and also something about modern-day Israel," Widen said. "My goal is integrate modern themes that relate to us and where we come from so maybe it can inspire them to care."

Widen's great-grandparents wanted to prevent her grandfather from being drafted into the Polish and thus moved to Russia, she told Anglo File recently. At the time, her ancestors felt the pressure to assimilate in the army would be too strong while in Russia it was still possible to live as a Jew, explained Widen, who works for an educational institution in Jerusalem.

"This story is a little bit more accessible for my family," Widen said. "It's about people who actually weren't very religious - my great-grandparents weren't observant - but still found a great deal of significance in their Jewish identity. So much so that they left, that they made their own exodus somewhere else where they could be Jews. I wrote a lot about that for the Haggadah I plan on printing and sending them."

Rabbi Shmuel Bowman, a Jewish educator and scribe from Efrat, intends to include a few clips he came across on the site into the seder he plans to lead for Livnot U'Lehibanot, a Safed-based program for young Jews with little or no background in Judaism.

"Haggadot.com has material that is perfect for accomplishing what we want to do: making the Passover seder as interesting and vibrant, as personal, relevant and I should add as entertaining possible, the Toronto native said.

Bowman, 47, said he was particularly inspired by posts trying to explain whats behind matzah and maror, or bitter herbs. I also really love some of the parody songs that were contributed by Rabbi [Barry Dov] Lerner, such as Our Passover Things, which is sung to the tune Our Favorite Things from The Sound of Music, he said. These are things were people know the tunes and hear words that are appropriate for Passover. That can make it fun especially since its a long evening.

Inspiring reflection

Since March 1 the site was viewed more than 45,000 times. Many visitors especially appreciate texts that inspire reflection on modern-day challenges, Levinson said.
Within the ancient story of Passover, each of us can identify with contemporary themes of compassion, inclusion, personal growth and transcendence from negative thoughts or behaviors.

The Jewish Outreach Institute uploaded a text about Passover as A Lesson in Inclusiveness. Levinson herself posted a text from the Love and Justice in Times of War Haggadah about The Four Adults instead of good, wicked, simple and unable to ask they are angry, ashamed, fearful and compassionate. We focus so much on teaching the story to children but often forget that we adults ultimately have the responsibility to mend our own hurtful thinking and behaviors, she told Anglo File.
But among her personal favorites is also a clip called Kosher Sutra, in which a yeshiva-trained yoga teacher recommends trying out some sun salutations before the seder, as an opportunity to begin the process of liberation as we commemorate leaving Egypt.

Winnipeg native Erin Kopelow, 29, said she does not yet know what she wants to include in her own Haggadah but that the concept behind the site is exactly what she was looking for.

The ability to bring different sources from many different places together to form a Haggadah that really speaks about our values is something we really believe in, the Tel Aviv resident said.

When my husband and I got married in September we also built our own ceremony. It was based on tradition but we really wanted it to reflect our time and us. Its important to be able to personalize Judaism and to express that within your family in your own way.