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Friday, 15 April 2011 18:42

Finding the perfect script for the Seder

Ruth HorowitzRuth HorowitzOn a shelf in their New Jersey sunroom, my parents kept a pile of Haggadahs. Several were printed in Tel Aviv in the 1950s and ’60s, illustrated with old etchings so poorly reproduced it was hard to tell the hail from the locusts. One of these was in French, bought when my family lived in Paris. A later edition, in Russian, recalled my grandmother’s work with the United Jewish Appeal. We kept these stapled booklets for sentimental reasons, but rarely looked at them.

The books we actually used were more substantial. The lime-green Glatzer Haggadah meant business, with its extensive footnotes and essays by Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber and other heavy-hitter theologians. But in time, the ponderous Glatzer Haggadahs were supplemented with the more user-friendly Silverman. I’m not a huge fan of the Silverman. The red-and-purple color scheme is garish. The pictures of the Four Sons are goofy. And the commentary tries a little too hard to convince the reader that a traditional Seder is worth the trouble.

Soon after the Silvermans came on the scene, I got married and moved to Los Angeles, where we celebrated with an Orthodox friend. I don’t remember his Haggadah – probably because he spent more time discussing the text than actually reading it. Who knew Seders could be so unscripted? So educational?

From Los Angeles, our growing family prepared to move to Vermont. Far from my parents and with no friend to host us, I would be leading my own Seders. For the first time, I could do them my way. But what was my way? The answer, I was sure, could be found in the right Haggadah.

A bookstore in L.A.’s Fairfax district offered options from every corner of Judaism. But no one corner was exactly mine. I ended up buying several Haggadahs. The Yeshiva University Haggadah provides the sort of erudite analysis our Orthodox friend taught us to appreciate. The Telling uses non-gendered God language. Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist New Haggadah resonates with my theology.

I rounded out the collection with a handful of Maxwell House Haggadahs, offered free at the supermarket, between the matzahs and the macaroons. They bear a striking resemblance to the stapled booklets in my parents’ sunroom.

Coordinating a Seder with multiple manuals takes some doing. I charted out the corresponding page numbers in the different books, and decided which version of each section to use. It was hard to do – but not nearly as hard as getting my guests to follow the plan, especially as the evening progressed. By the time we broke the matzahs,   my orderly scheme would be shattered.

That seems about right. In his essay reprinted in the Glatzer Haggadah, Franz Rosenzweig suggests that the Seder’s typical slide into silliness reinforces the festival’s liberation message. At the start of the meal, the leader speaks and the household listens. But questions and songs and four cups of wine free up the atmosphere until, as Rosenzweig puts it, “the last shred of autocracy … dissolves into community.”

When my parents died, I inherited their Haggadahs. At first I tried adding the ancestral books to my mix. But I soon realized that all my editing and orchestrating was missing the point.

So for years now, we’ve been happily using the Silvermans. Yes, the art is still ugly. Yes, the commentary can be condescending. The language is no less sexist, the theology no closer to mine. But the pages are stained with my mother’s haroset, the margins filled with reminders of loved ones we miss. I mean that literally.

Several of the books bear my dad’s distinctive, mangled handwriting – layers of names scratched in and crossed out as, year after year, he pre-assigned various passages. Above the Four Questions, you’ll find my older sister, me, my cousin and my niece, a record of children learning to read. My Zionist grandmother repeats God’s promise to Abraham. My argumentative uncle plays the part of the rebellious son. An old family friend invites all who are hungry to come and eat.

When we read the text now, with our grown children, we add our own comments, and rephrase sexist sentences on the fly – a challenge that becomes more difficult and entertaining as we approach the fourth cup.

This mix of remembering and revising seems right, too. After all, the point of Passover isn’t how the old story is reprinted. It’s how we remember it and make it our own.

Horowitz, a former journalist with Seven Days, a Vermont newspaper, now works as a freelance writer and blogs at Contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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