Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Review: A Dynamic Approach to the Seder

Sitting down to write this blog has, for some reason, been incredibly difficult. I'm not sure if it's because I'm not in a book-review mode, or if it's just that I'm so busy in my work life that I dread having to do anything that isn't sleep. But since I'm staying in tonight at TribeFest (more to come on this, including my awesome encounter with the hilarious Rachel Dratch), I figure if not now, when?

I received a copy of the New American Haggadah -- which people are incorrectly calling the "Jonathan Safran Foer" haggadah -- for review, and I have to say that I'm a fan in some respects and a critic in others. But that's why you guys read my reviews, right? Despite this being a freebie, I do my best to be as honest and forthcoming about my opinions, so here we go.

The unique thing about this haggadah is that it offers a multi-facted approach to the Passover experience --  there are beautiful, visual pieces and images throughout the book, fascinating historical notes, and big questions for big conversation.

I appreciate the introduction, written by Jonathan Safran Foer (who also edited this new version of the classic text), which declares that "This Haggadah makes no attempt to redefine what a Haggadah is, or overlay any particular political or regional agenda (v)." The emphasis of the creators of this haggadah is on the always-evolving and creative nature of the haggadah, because with a changing time and lifestyle comes new versions of haggadot with new artistic interpretations and question-inspiring conversation pieces.

There are a lot of graphics issues with the font spacing throughout the haggadah, which really bothered me. On page 6, for example, the "e" in Exodus appears on a different line than the rest of the word. It seems that there was a rush job or someone jacked something up at the last minute resulting in some really weird issues like this.

I do like that throughout the haggadah are little sections (that annoyingly require a turning the book sideways) that approach a significant issue from four perspectives: Playground, House of Study, Library, and Nation. I'm not entirely clear what each of the categories is geared toward, but Playground tends to be pretty loosey-goosey and cute, although sometimes they seemed a little too flippant (like the Four Children and there being Four Parents). One of the sections I really appreciated was on the idea of the significance of bread, the matzo bread.
Without bread there is no Torah. (Mishna, Pirkei Avot 3:2)
This is the bread of affliction. All who are bent with hunger, come and eat. 
The Nation section discusses this but misses the point. It's too literal. I won't spoil it for you, but I will say that as a note for Passover, when we're told that all who are hungry should come and eat, it is not meant to be literal. Hunger -- like the blindness experienced during the book of Exodus -- is multi-facted. To be hungry is to yearn, to need to fill a void. This might be physical nourishment, but I believe that the idea here is to fill the spiritual void, the neshama is hungry! Don't you think?

I'm also perplexed by the translation of Elo-enu as "God-of-Us." I know that translations are peculiar, but this is one that I've really never seen and I'm not sure what the significance is of not saying "Our G-d." What is your take on this?
A page spread, the design done by Oded Ezer.

The art is strange, and although I don't understand much of it, I appreciate the illumination of certain prayers and powerful words like "And they did us evil, those Egyptians, and they tortured us, saddling us with punishing work" (in the Hebrew of course). Some of the images resemble fractals -- beautiful, brush-stroked fractals.

I want to share so many of the interesting and bizarre historical details, but I don't want this post to be too long and, of course, I don't want to spoil things for you if you plan on buying this specific haggadah. The truth is, I really like this version of the classic, but I don't know how I feel about the aesthetics. Having to turn this large book to its side to read the topical breakout pieces or the historic pieces is quite the pain, and I can't imagine how difficult it would be at the seder table.

However, I think this version will be most excellent for throwing morsels of knowledge around at the seder table! (One I'm excited about is the Livorno Haggadah that was printed for former Conversos.)