The last phrase you’d expect to hear describing your Seder is ‘authentic American Hipster literature’. And yet that’s precisely how the New American Haggadah can be accurately described. It’s also what it’s translator, Nathan Englander, thought he would be creating.
Englander adds that he initially thought the project would be simple. “I thought we were making the hipster Haggadah and it’d be six weeks or something and we’d be done,” he says. “But it became this all-consuming project of just trying to give voice to this text that is so stunning to me. Any beauty that’s in the translation is simply a representation of the Hebrew and Aramaic.” // NPR
Englander is correct. His Haggadah is much more than just a ‘Hipster’ Haggadah. It’s a piece of authentic literature that has more importance to this generation of practicing Jews than any Jewish outreach organization could attempt to replicate. The book is edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and translated by the sensational writer Nathan Englander, whose most recent work (What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) entails a relationship between our post-post-Holocaust generation and Anne Frank, the butt of many a joke. The Haggadah also includes the writings and musings of several prominent Jewish intellectuals (read: liberal commies) as features throughout the book.*
Englander himself has an interesting relationship with Judaism. Having once gone to Yeshiva, the highest order of Jewish learning, he has since removed himself from many aspects of his religion. Notwithstanding, his dissection of current American Judaism, and it’s tenacious hold on pop culture, are a perfect synopsis of youthful Judaism in the 21st century.
Our grandparents were immigrants to America, but natives to Judaism. We are the opposite: fluent in “American Idol,” but unschooled in Jewish heroes. And so we act like immigrants around Judaism: cautious, rejecting, self-conscious, and feigning (or achieving) indifference. In the foreign country of our faith, our need for a good guidebook is urgent.
The integration of Jews and Jewish themes into our pop culture is so prevalent that we have become intoxicated by the ersatz images of ourselves. I, too, love “Seinfeld,” but is there not a problem when the show is cited as a referent for one’s Jewish identity? For many of us, being Jewish has become, above all things, funny. All that’s left in the void of fluency and profundity is laughter. // NYTIMES
The man. The myth. The Jew.
The Haggadah has an updated translation along with 21st century idiom. This clear, concise writing helps the traditionalist in me feel secure. Don’t get me wrong. I laugh every Passover when I read how the “Omnipresent, blessed is he, smote the Egyptians with not just the finger, but the entire hand!” [paraphrasing]. Omnipresent is a word my mind seamlessly associates to those Omnipoint commercials from the late 90s trying to sell you
spotty digital homephone service. The ones with that gawdawful parrot whining *CRRRRR* (supposed to be static). *THIS IS OMINPOINT* . The immature 12 year old in me also still finds it hilarious that the translation throws around ‘the finger’ in such a cavalier manner. Oh, God showed the Egyptians the finger alright. And then he hung some dong.
I first open the book and already I’m already wishing they had gotten some prominent Jewish comedians to write for them. I get it, religion is supposed to be serious. But Judaism isn’t something you should take too seriously. Laugh through the good times in and the bad. If you aren’t getting drunk, acting riotous, and offending someone at your Seder, you aren’t doing it right.
The inside itself is beautifully designed and printed. The little bit of typography knowledge that the Duckman harasses me with on a regular basis has helped me appreciate the flawless design that the talented Israeli Oded Ezer brings to the dullness of your typical Jewish text. It’s nice that when I get bored of all the Hebrew being spoken I actually WANT to read the text. Sure, it’s still a bit pedantic, old-fashioned, and repetitive. But it’s written at a college-grade level; therefore it is interesting. There are pages throughout the book full of entirely original commentary. I already find myself picking it and enjoying it thoughtlessly. Maybe this Haggadah is written for the skeptic literary Jew.
The commentary may be the most controversial aspect of the Haggadah. It moves in a short time from questioning Israeli politics towards African Jews, to quoting Kafka, and even a comparing God’s actions towards Pharoah with the greatest U.S. Presidents; how much human suffering they both caused in the name of personal ideals and protecting those ideals.
This Haggadah is certainly not afraid of offending or alienating some people. When discussing the difference between Wise Parents (those who admit to know little) and Wicked Parents (those that indoctrinate their children), it says, ‘”Listen closely, because you are younger than I am”, says the Wise Parent, and “I will go on and on about Jewish history, based on some foggy memories ofmy own religious upbringing, as well as an article in a Jewish journal I have recently skimmed.”‘ (Okay, turns out that every Jewish writer can be funny and you don’t NEED comedians to make Judaism entertaining. Touche.)
This is the Haggadah for the Hipster whose interactions with Judaism are as awkward as a first date. It is for the Jew who was raised religious, and now living on their own must attempt to locate meaning in a religion that currently prefers extremism to rational thought, Rabbi-worshiping to open-mindedness, and gay-bashing to tolerance.
If you love God entirely and believe everything any Rabbi has ever told you, this isn’t the Hagaddah for you. Safron Foer and Englander aren’t afraid to undeify God, to question God’s existence, God’s motives, and to personify God in a way that is quite uncomfortable to many ‘Wicked Parents’ and their ‘wicked’ children.
And the questions the authors ask! Questions you always wondered about Judaism, (but your Rabbi was too afraid to answer). Questions that most Jews are uncomfortable thinking about. Heavy questions connecting the here and now with the future and past. Religious questions. Philosophical questions. The type of questions that will invoke more thinking than 10+ years of Jewish day school ever could. Because the people asking these questions aren’t religious hermits, societal recluses with petty dreams of power, indoctrination, and control. They are real, educated Jewish people, living in the world and just trying to make sense of it all. Something we can all relate to and respect.
One small problem: This book is larger and heavier than your typical Haggadah. Not ideal for your children who will be travelling to visit you on Passover. It’s worth schlepping to your parents’ house this year. Even if you are only bringing it to troll them.
* The commentary is categorized and organized according to a theme relevant to each writer’s respective area of expertise; the intellectual “House of Study” for Deutsch, the globally conscious “Nation” for Goldberg, the heady “Library” for Newberger Goldstein, and the silly, sometimes poignant “Playground” for Snicket. // Heeb Mag