Jonathan Safran Foer Celebrates Passover With a New Edition of the Haggadah

The U.S. author is celebrating seder night in Israel, presumably using the new edition of the Haggadah edited under his hand.

Ever since he was a kid, writer Jonathan Safran Foer has been taking part in Passover seders, like most every Jew. Speaking by telephone from his home in New York, he relates that his family was not particularly observant, and that he himself is not an observant Jew, but “Passover was important not only for observant people. It is the most celebrated of all the Jewish holidays, so I always would look forward to it and I always enjoyed it.

“The story is such a good one, the story of the Exodus and ingathering, and with family − even those you are not necessarily anxious to see − it’s always a great thing. And by putting aside time to ask the really big questions, not what are we going to have for dinner, but what kind of people are we, it is wonderful. I think that the seder is very much constrained by the Haggadah that you use. It’s more than just a user’s manual. It determines the the conversation’s tone and content. So I thought, what would happen if I wrote a good one, not good by the standards of other Haggadot, but by the standards of the best writing and the best design.”
The “New American Haggadah,” edited by Foer, was recently published in the United States by Little, Brown, and in a Hebrew edition in Israel by Zmora-Bitan. His friend, writer Nathan Englander, spent three years on a new translation of the Haggadah into English, and his text appears alongside the Hebrew and Aramaic original.

The New American Haggadah.

Foer also chose several writers to provide thematic commentary on the text: Nathaniel Deutsch, a professor of history and literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz; the Atlantic magazine’s political writer Jeffrey Goldberg; novelist and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein; and children’s author Lemony Snicket, the pen name of Daniel Handler.

The new Haggadah also provides a timeline tracking the holiday’s development and the various ways in which it is celebrated. It also includes stories and moments that underscore the subjects of the holiday: liberation, leaving slavery, dispersion, wanderings and homecoming. The Haggadah was designed by the Israeli typographic artist Oded Ezer ‏(see article on opposite page‏).

Nathan Englander, left, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
New York Times

White House version

In early March, The New York Times reported that at the conclusion of a lengthy Oval Office interview given by President Barack Obama to Goldberg, the journalist still had one more question. “’I know this is cheesy ...’ Mr. Goldberg started, but before he could finish, the president interrupted him. ‘What, you have a book?’ Mr. Obama asked. Goldberg said yes, he had a book, but not just any book. He handed the Haggadah to the president.”

Pages from the New American Haggadah.

The Times article relates what happened next: “After thumbing through the sleek hardcover book, Mr. Obama looked up and asked wryly, ‘Does this mean that we can’t use the Maxwell House Haggadah anymore?’”

Maxwell House, the American coffee brand, began printing its own Passover Haggadah in 1932, as part of an effort to market the brand to Jewish consumers. The soft-cover edition was handed out for free to purchasers of a can of coffee.

Since then, about 50 million copies of that Haggadah have been printed, and it is this version that was used at the seder hosted by Obama at the White House last year and in 2009. The Maxwell House Haggadah also underwent a re-translation last year, into a more contemporary English.

Foer says it’s natural for people to want to re-interpret the Haggadah: “I don’t think there is any book in the entire history of books that has more revisions than the Haggadah; I think there are something like 4,000 versions. It’s a book that invites new versions; it even demands them.”

He says that his preparation and research included reading as many Haggadot as he could find, and conversations with as many authorities as possible. “I tried to learn every thing I could,” he says, and explains that the final product came out more traditional than he anticipated.

“I like the design, I like the text and I like the translation. To my mind, they manage to be contemporary without losing any of their reverence. The challenge was to make a book that is not self-expression but Haggadah-expression. This is not making a book from nothing. This is making a version of a book that has sustained itself for thousands of years. There is no hope of improving on the book, you can only do a better job of presenting it.”

Nathan Englander, speaking by phone from Madison, Wisconsin ‏(where he resides when he’s not living in Brooklyn‏), also expected a less traditional final version, but is pleased with the result.

Englander says he realized that he wasn’t interested in making a Haggadah just for Conservative or Reform Jews. “I wanted to translate a Haggadah that would be for all Jews. My sister is religious, my nephews wear kippot and tzitzit. I should work for years on a Haggadah and then I go to my family and they won’t be able to use it? I’m not religious, but this is a cultural thing. It is simply gorgeous poetry, something unique. A large part of the story was to fashion a version that is both kosher and modern.”

Englander was born in 1970, and grew up in an Orthodox home environment, on Long Island. He is an alumnus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, and lived in Jerusalem for several years, where he wrote some of the stories in his first book “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” ‏(1999‏). That was followed by the novel “The Ministry of Special Cases,” in 2007. And earlier this year, Englander brought out a new collection of stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”

Jonathan Safran Foer, born in 1977, lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the writer Nicole Krauss, and their two children. He’s written two novels − “Everything Is Illuminated,” from 2002, and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” ‏(2005‏) − both of which have been made into films. Three years ago, Foer, a sometimes vegetarian, published “Eating Animals,” about the meat industry and the reasons why we should stop consuming meat.

Two types of Jews

Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander grew up in two very different environments, and represent two different types of American Jews. Whereas Foer comes from a secular family, Englander was born and raised in a very religious family. He recalls that when he arrived in Israel, at the age of 19, he could have abandoned religion.

Englander: “All those years, I grew up in the United States in a religious Jewish neighborhood, a very close neighborhood such as you find in Brooklyn. With Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, the interest was in being American, and after the Jews felt American, it was easier for them to come back, to build their Jewish identity. In America, I always felt Jewish. When I arrived in Israel, it was the first time I felt American.”

Englander equates his leaving religion to coming out of the closet. “It’s as if you are in a conservative religious community and you’re gay, and you say, my mother is straight, my father is straight, this is the way to be, this is the only way to be. You don’t think, Okay, I’ll just be gay. You think, oh, I’m different and I’m going to be miserable. And that’s how it was growing up in a closed community on Long Island. I really felt that everyone around me was religious.

“I knew only one kind of Jew,” he continues. “It was the only way to be. And in my first week in Israel, it was the first time I saw cultural Judaism in a way that I could understand. And that’s when I began to desecrate the Sabbath.”

Englander said he sees Jerusalem as a catalyst for change. “I feel like whenever you show up in Jerusalem you are going to leave it the opposite of what you were. You show up secular, you will become ba’al tshuva [newly observant] within two seconds. It’s the land of opposites. In America, Christmas is not my holiday, and to suddenly be in a place where you are the dominant culture was a really strange thing for me. Hey, on Rosh Hashanah the bank is closed! It was the first time
I didn’t feel Jewish.”

Foer too sees a big difference between Jewish existence in Israel and in the United States. As a frequent visitor to Israel, he says it is his impression “that people don’t walk around wondering what it means to be a Jew. But it’s something that Americans very very actively wrestle with.”

Some of the commentaries in “An American Haggadah” engage in the conflicted loyalties of American Jews. Jeffrey Goldberg writes about the Wicked Son: “The wicked son is not wicked in any of the usual ways. He is not violent and is not wanton; he does not own slaves and does not steal. His wickedness is expressed through his apathy to the fate of the Jewish people. ‘What is this worship to you?’ he asks ... What he is actually saying is, ‘The fate of my own people is of no interest to me.’ And there you have it − a problematic demand, which a lot of young American Jews are now hearing from the adults: you should be concerned more about Jews than non-Jews. This is why a war is underway within the hearts of the Jews of America, a war between the universal and the particularistic.”

This Haggadah entertains themes that pertain to the conflicts of American Jews, but also some that would no doubt upset or enrage quite a few Jews in Israel. In this respect, it is a courageous text that impels its users not to read it out of habit, just so that they can hastily move on to the gefilte fish. Among the subjects and persons cited in the commentaries are Martin Luther King, Jr., the poor, the claim to being a chosen people, Franz Kafka, Ketziot Prison and civil disobedience.
It’s a pretty radical Haggadah, don’t you think?

“I actually don’t,” says Foer. “I think in many ways it came out more traditional than I thought it would. If there were easy questions, then there would be no need to ask them. Conversation is good, and I think seders have existed for this long, and Jews have existed for this long, because of the sincerity of the questions. These are questions that make us better people.”

Foer comments on the timelessness and omnipresence of slavery. “Nobody, anywhere, is living in a place that is absent of slavery, and it’s our responsibility to recognize it,” he says.

Maybe a people that thinks it is the chosen people cannot recognize the enslavement of others.

“Maybe there is another way to interpret this chosenness. Maybe there is a way of interpreting ‘chosen’ as chosen to recognize the other. Chosen because of your history, to be more sensitive to it than other peoples. None of these things are simple.”

In the Haggadah, you relate to the notion that the seder is a time of moral optimism. Why?

“Because, first of all, it is looking to the future: The key metaphor of the seder is ‘Next Year in Jerusalem,’ and it implies that we want to work and participate in the universal movement toward freedom. I also think the holiday is about questioning, which I think is inherently optimistic because it’s the opposite of complacency. It’s the opposite of being okay with things one shouldn’t be okay with. So I think it’s not a coincidence that there is no story that is more often borrowed by social justice movements then the story of the Exodus. Like the American civil rights movements and the gay, lesbian and transgender movements, and the movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. They’ve always borrowed the story of the Exodus from Egypt because it’s an optimistic story and its annual retelling is a reaffirmation of our commitment to it."

Englander says that he sees a big difference between his editor's attitude toward Judaism and his own, and this is what gave rise to his own hesitation when Foer proposed that he take on translation.

"People who are not from a religious home don't have the traumas; it's different," says Englander. "Jonathan is not religious at all. He is a little bit traditional but his connection to Judaism is really healthy. It's untroubled. Sometimes he celebrates holidays, sometimes he doesn't. And he really wanted me to translate it, and here I am telling him I'm not religious, I don't want to do this stuff, I've never translated anything except a menu. And here I was being asked to translate the Haggadah."

Englander adds that Foer knew how to convince him: "He just knows my brain well. He said, 'You know the religious text, you know this text well, you have modern Hebrew. I want you to do it.'

"We felt it would be something that we would both be proud of, and you know what? We really are proud of it. It's different than my book of stories, for example, which was just released. I would not say to you, 'Maya, have you read the stories yet? I am simply a genius!' I'd be embarrassed to say such a thing. But the Haggadah is a book where we are trying to show respect to the Haggadah itself, and that's something else."

A significant portion of the conversation with Englander is held in Hebrew. He says that the only person with whom he speaks Hebrew regularly is writer Etgar Keret. "It is a private language that I use only with him ... For me it is fun, to speak at the level of a third-grader. Etgar's son once asked if I was sick, and then we realized that he meant my accent in Hebrew."

Englander explains that he made a barter deal with Keret: In exchange for his translating Keret's stories into English, Keret would translate some of his stories into Hebrew. (Englander is in fact one of the translators of Keret's newly published book of stories in English, "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door." )

"Jonathan turned me into a translation junkie," he says. "In my home, we always used the Hebrew version of the Haggadah. Never in English. So I never really looked at the translations into English. But for most Americans who use a Haggadah, even if they can read in Hebrew, all of their understanding of what they are saying comes from the English translation. So now people stand up to pray to God, or to say the blessing, in my words. I thought about the responsibility that that entails. When I looked at the text in English that is found in Haggadot, I did not feel what I felt in Hebrew. I was surprised at the fact that the English does not convey what I am seeing and feeling and living when I read it in Hebrew."

He offers an example. "In Hebrew, there is a blessing in which you say 'hamavdil beyn kodesh lekodesh' ['who distinguishes between holy and holy'] and the English translation was, 'who distinguishes between Sabbath and the Festival day.' Anyone who reads that in English won't get the point. I thought that this is a huge, metaphysical thing, the gap between holy and holy."

Before sitting down to translate, Englander felt that he needed a study partner. And he also knew which partner he wanted. "There was this guy who came up to me in this coffee shop 10 years ago, when I got back to America. He recognized me, 'Oh, you're that writer.' Many people come up to me and say, 'We used to be religious,' but what they mean is, 'Once we lit candles,' or 'We had matza once, or ate a bagel.'

"This guy looked like a real hippie, and kind of an artist, with leather pants. He told me he'd been religious, so I said okay, fine, another one. But when I spoke with him, I realized I was talking to a world-class genius, a sheer genius. I have seldom come into contact with a mind such as his.

"The point is I didn't see him for years and when I started the translation, I thought to myself, I wish I could see that guy, and out of nowhere the guy walked into the coffee shop where I was sitting. I hadn't seen him in years. And I said, 'Hey, I've been waiting for you!' I told him I was working on a project, and that I knew in my heart he was the guy to do it with. I asked if he would learn together with me. This fellow, Baruch Teller is his name, agreed to it.

"We went at it head-to-head. We sat there and argued over every word and over every sentence and over every idea. Baruch Teller is a person whom I could ask what was written in a mishna, what was written in the Torah, and this fellow really knew everything by heart."

Asked about his editor, Englander says, "He is a brilliant writer who understands rhythm and poetry and meaning. If not for him, there would have been a lot more embarrassingly big and bombastic words in the text. I would make up these insane words that were so important to me, constructing new words, and Jonathan would talk me out of it."

Englander says that choosing him to translate the Haggadah was one of two crazy ideas that Foer had. The other idea was choosing Israeli Oded Ezer to design the volume. "Jonathan knows a lot of people and can reach a lot of people. People will take Jonathan's phone calls. He could have had a lot of artists, and he went with Oded Ezer, who is simply a genius."

When Foer is asked why he chose Oded Ezer, he simply replies, "I think he is the best. One of the best things you can do for the Haggadah is to get out of its way. I think that Oded did a really wonderful job in contextualizing the book and giving it another layer of sense and meaning and making it really attractive."

Have you ever been to a seder in Israel?

Foer: "Well, I'm actually going to be at a seder in Israel this year. My brother-in-law lives there, and we're going to be with him."

When I ask Englander if American Jews also ask one another, as do Israelis, 'Where are you for the seder?' he breaks into a paroxysm of laughter.

"That is an astounding question for this interview, because it is related to translation. 'Where are you for the seder?' ... I feel what you are saying, but it's one of those untranslatable things. If you would ask me to translate it, I would have to sit down and think about it for a while, because that line comes with all sorts of feelings. It's like mirpeset in Hebrew is 'balcony' in English, but a balcony is simply not a mirpeset, just like a barbecue is not a mangal."