The Rise of the D.I.Y. Haggadah

The Rise of the D.I.Y. Haggadah

What makes this Passover different from all other Passovers?

With the coronavirus resembling a plague of biblical proportions and requiring stringent social distancing, the only guests at this year’s festivities may be from the Haggadah: a prayer book that guides celebrants through the 12-part ceremonial dinner known as the Seder. The Haggadah’s pages are filled with classic Passover characters like Moses, Pharaoh, Elijah the Prophet … and Harry Potter.

Even as the Haggadah continues to document millenniums-old traditions in Hebrew and Aramaic text, editions released in recent years have also begun to incorporate modern themes like abstract concepts (memory), political realities (refugees, presidents) and pop culture icons (Jerry Seinfeld, emoji!), as well as works from authors like Jonathan Safran Foer, or the late Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. They have been produced with the zeal and creative interpretations that are often seen in fan fiction.

“That’s the wonderful thing about Judaism: It’s the most do-it-yourself religion,” the humor writer Dave Barry said.

You don’t even have to be Jewish to rewrite Jewish texts. Mr. Barry, for example, is the son of a Presbyterian minister, though that did not stop him from writing “For This We Left Egypt?” with Alan Zweibel and Adam Mansbach, both of whom are Jewish. (Mr. Barry is married to a Jewish woman, has a Jewish daughter and has attended a fair share of seders.)

“The Haggadah in America is like Kit Kats in Japan,” said David Zvi Kalman, the publisher of the Asufa Haggadah, which presents rich illustrations from a collective of Israeli artists. “It’s a product that accepts a wide variety of flavors. It’s probably the most accessible Jewish book on the market.”

There’s the update on the old classic. The Maxwell House edition, which pairs product placement of coffee kosher for Passover with Jewish liturgy and has become one of the most ubiquitous and instantly recognizable versions, last year released a volume inspired by the television show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

Nods include a mauve cover to replace the original pale yellow, pages “stained” with wine rings, an inset with a recipe for Midge’s Brisket and vintage advertisements from the era when the show is set. (This particular volume could only be purchased with the coffee grounds, prompting social media debate about whether to drink or discard the coffee.)

For Gabrielle Birkner and Elissa Strauss, the authors of the child-friendly Kveller Haggadah, the theme was memory. “If you look at the Seder plate, you’re eating memory food,” said Ms. Birkner, referring to staples like matzo and parsley. “We wanted to understand how they connect us from generation to generation.”

In the political sphere, there’s the “The Trump Passover Haggadah,” a scripted parody whose cast of characters includes Steve Bannon, Steven Mnuchin, Stephen Miller, God and Jerry Seinfeld (its author, Dave Cowen, also wrote the “Seinfeld”-themed “Yada Yada Hagaddah”). And a social-justice-oriented Haggadah from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, ties references to modern-day refugee populations, like the Rohingya or those in Syria, to the greater story of the Passover slavery story.

For Jordan B. Gorfinkel, a comic book editor, lecturer and the mastermind behind a popular graphic novel Haggadah published last year, translating the mix of rituals and songs into a three-arc narrative with dialogue felt like a homecoming of sorts, given the Jewish roots of comic-book art.

“It is a utilitarian Haggadah,” he said. “Nothing is left out. Even the boring parts are included.”

Another Haggadah, by Martin Bodek, has no words at all. Written in bits and bobs over the last two years, the emoji Haggadah was redrafted with each update of the emoji keyboard, and reads like a book-length rebus. Unlike traditional Haggadot, it’s read from left to right.

“Instead of people sitting around and arguing, why not work out a puzzle?” Mr. Bodek said.

Producing the work was not without its challenges. “There’s no symbol for matzo!” he said. Even harder: There’s still no emoji for “the,” he said.

This year, Mr. Bodek has produced a coronavirus Haggadah: “Everyone washes their hands, for 40 seconds this time.”

In the world of Jewish prayer books, customization is nothing new. At some weddings and bar mitzvahs, party favors include prayer booklets that commemorate hosts’ names and the event date. But the Haggadah inspires unparalleled versions of devotion and creativity.

“It has such a powerful hold on the imagination because it tells a story of freedom through slavery,” said Arthur Kiron, the curator of the Judaica collection at the libraries of the University of Pennsylvania, whose famed Arnold Levin Haggadah Collection contains 1,800 volumes in 15 languages.

For creators who have spent months, and sometimes years, to create their own, often self-funded works, the format of the holiday, the storytelling tradition and the advent of the internet have all helped.

Much like Thanksgiving, the Seder is a cultural touchstone: widely celebrated, accessible to those on the fringes or even outside of the community. That it takes place in the home invites familial traditions, and much as parents may feel the need to impart the story and its message to the next generation, there’s also the reality of competing with limited attention spans and hungry mouths during the hours before dinner is served. (For the last two years, “30 Minute Seder” has been the best-selling Haggadah on Amazon. Most of these titles are available there. For indecisive or enthusiastic buyers, an online store called Haggadahs-R-Us offers a selection of five titles: a haggadah sampler set.)

“The Haggadah almost demands that it be interactive,” said Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, the author of the HIAS Haggadah. “It’s designed to utilize all your senses. It’s a really sensory holiday. It’s a really a home-based holiday. It’s something that anybody can do.”

Many communities, especially those outside of Israel, host Seders on two consecutive nights. “Two nights really lends itself to having a fun second night,” said Mr. Cowen — enter the alternative Haggadah.

Avid collectors have even bequeathed rare titles and entire collections to the University of Pennsylvania; Emory University; the University of California, Berkeley; the British Museum; the Morgan Library; and the Library of Congress, whose Washington Haggadah dates back to 1478.

They have become easier to publish and distribute. “Self-publishing is fun,” Mr. Cowen said. Haggadot that people would normally keep in their family, “are now things that people are sharing,” he said.

For Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg, the author of the Unofficial Hogwarts Haggadah, “the trick with Haggadot is to express these eternal themes in a language that you share with your audience. They can absorb things from the literature that they read from the movies that they watch. There’s magic around every corner.”

Other Haggadah-writing hopefuls have already started writing the next chapter. For the last two years, Ilya Schwartzburg, a lawyer in Manhattan and the chair of the Manhattan Libertarian Party, decided to write a Haggadah that would reflect his political views.

Realizing that his Libertarian Haggadah wouldn’t be ready for this year’s festivities, he offered the same thought that many say at the end of the Seder: “Next year.”




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