The medium is the message
The search for the perfect Haggada leads a rabbi to the computer screen
April 13, 2011
A number of years ago, I started collecting various Passover Haggadot. It seemed like a good thing to do at the time, and I quickly found there was no shortage of different texts available for retelling the story of our ancestors’ Exodus from Egypt. I started with the “Baskin Haggada” (A Passover Haggadah, edited by Herbert Bronstein with drawings by Leonard Baskin), since that is what I grew up with. Along the way I had the opportunity to collect some rather unusual Haggadot. One of them, The Santa Cruz Haggadah, was especially for spiritual seekers. Another, Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb, was designed for vegetarians.
What made collecting different Haggadot possible is the fact that there are so many different possible interpretations. The Passover Haggada is, in effect, a midrash, a rabbinic interpretation, on the Exodus and as such a great degree of liberty can be taken in how any one Haggada is put together. The central text is the canonized biblical narrative along with such core elements as “Halahma anya,” “This is the bread of affliction” and the Four Questions. These elements remain the same from Haggada to Haggada.
However, because this is midrash, our longstanding tradition of flexibly and creatively interpreting text comes into play and allows us to take a tremendous degree of liberty. The result is a wide range of Haggadot, each with its own unique personality, all retelling the same story of our journey from slavery to freedom and the responsibility that comes with such redemption.
Having such a large and varied Haggadot collection came in handy a number of years ago when I began to lead our family’s first-night seder. For the first years after I was married, my father-in-law led the seder year after year using the same family Haggada. To call what we did a “speed-seder” would be an understatement. When I took over, I decided to change things a bit. I carefully looked at all the Haggadot I had collected and chose one I thought would work well for my family. I ordered enough copies for each person at the seder table and set out to lead a seder that was interactive, no longer be a “speed-seder,” but also not “too long.”
And so a new tradition was born. It was not, however, the one I had expected or hoped for. This new tradition had less to do with the seder and more to do with my family’s new “Haggada critique session.” At some point during my first term as seder leader, members of my family commented negatively on my choice of Haggadot. This turned into a full-blown “tear-down” session. (I would like to say I didn’t take it a bit personally but that would not be entirely true.)
One last try
So the next year I choose a different Haggada, one with a different look and feel. I began the seder and hoped for the best. And then…the first critical comment came even sooner than it had the previous year. So it was — each year my family would begin its “review” of that year’s choice of Haggadot, and the conversation (read “critique session”) would go in one of two directions: along the lines of “I didn’t really enjoy this year’s Haggada” or “I really hated this year’s Haggada.” Neither “like” nor “love” seemed to find its way into the conversation.
Two years ago I decided to give it one last attempt. When we sat down at the table, someone asked which Haggada we were going to use.
I replied, “We need to go into the den for that.”
When we got into the den, the seder plate was already there.
“Okay, so where’s the Haggada?” someone asked.
Without a word I turned on the large flat-panel TV and started the seder.
Yes, that year our Passover Haggada came in the form of a Keynote (that’s Apple’s version of PowerPoint) presentation. I had put together a “virtual” Haggada that included all the key elements of the seder, along with a few unique aspects. Early on in the process I decided that if I were going to do something as “out there” as this, I might as well make it fun and truly memorable.
(After all, according to my teachers, that was the purpose of the rituals in the first place: to keep everyone’s attention, especially the kids’, as we retell the story of our journey from slavery to freedom.)
With this in mind, I included a few videos I had grabbed from YouTube. I used a lot of family photographs. I had my wife, Elana, portray three of the four children in the Haggada. Our golden retriever, Maisy (I still miss her), made a cameo appearance as the fourth child. Along the way there was a series of inside family jokes. I included my mother’s favorite readings from the Baskin Haggada (“I am a Jew because…” and a reading from Anne Frank). And, of course, I used a few clips from the movie The Ten Commandments.
It was silly, it was fun, it kept people engaged, and it actually got them talking about the central story. And when I did not use it again last year at Passover, my family almost led a rebellion of their own. Yes, I had finally found a Haggada they liked.
Make your own Haggada
Matza purchases once included a free Passover Haggada. Today, new haggadot offer contemporary interpretations.
Now comes haggadot.com, a free service that allows users to publish their very own, unique Haggada. They can upload personalized textual and graphic elements that reflect one’s family-religious-philosophical-political preferences or combine their elements (known on the site as “clips”) with traditional options.
Haggadot.com is a nonprofit venture, the brainchild of Eileen Levinson, a Los Angeles designer and artist. The idea emerged when Levinson was a graphic design student in the graduate design program at California Institute of the Arts, and is one of the first sites for collaborative publishing in the Jewish world, according to Levinson.
“Haggadot.com is for today’s Jews, who may or may not be defined by the traditional boxes of a particular denomination, synagogue, or organization,” says Levinson.
In addition to English, haggadot.com contains material in many languages including Hebrew, Italian, German, Yiddish, and Ladino.
ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators, the signature project of philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, provided the seed money for Levinson to produce and test haggadot.com’s beta site last year. ROI Community is a global network created in 2006 to identify outstanding people in their 20s and 30s who share a passion for a better, more Jewishly fulfilled world.
“Haggadot.com exemplifies the model ROI seeks to nurture,” said Justin Korda, ROI Community’s executive director. “We are all about investing in individuals who we believe are creatively impacting the Jewish world.”