JBuzz Reviews April 5, 2012: Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander’s ‘New American Haggadah’

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Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander on their ‘New American Haggadah’

Source: The Takeaway, 4-5-12

The Haggadah, the Jewish religious text read at Passover, is 3,000 years old. It has been translated more than any Jewish book, from ancient times, to 14th-century Sarajevo, to the just-published “New American Haggadah.” The new version, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander, began as a personal project for Jonathan. He started to realize how little he truly understood about his own belief system, and that many American Jews feel like immigrants to their own religion. “I went to Hebrew school, I was bar mitzvah’d, I’ve been to Israel a number of times, but as I started to work on this book, I realized that I really had to confront my ignorance, my lack of Jewish literacy.”

Nine years after the project began, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander have constructed a new Haggadah, religious, yet modern, for the American Jews of their generation.

Produced by:

Jillian Weinberger

Opinion

Why a Haggadah?

Oded Ezer, from “The New American Haggadah” (Little, Brown and Company, 2012)
By JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER

Source: NYT, 4-1-12

I SPENT much of the last several years working on a new Haggadah — the guidebook for the prayers, rituals and songs of the Seder — and am often asked why I would want to take time away from my own writing to invest myself in such a project.

All my life, my parents have hosted the Seder on the first night of Passover. As our family expanded, and as our definition of family expanded, we moved the ritual dinner from our dining room to our more spacious, mildewed basement. One table became many table-like surfaces pushed awkwardly together. I always knew Passover was approaching when my father would ask me to take the net off the ping-pong table. All were covered in once matching, stained tablecloths.

At each setting was a Haggadah that my parents had assembled by photocopying favorite passages from other Haggadot and, when the Foers finally got Internet access, by printing online sources. Why is this night different from all others? Because on this night copyright doesn’t apply.

In the absence of a stable homeland, Jews have made their home in books, and the Haggadah — whose core is the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt — has been translated more widely, and revised more often, than any other Jewish book. Everywhere Jews have wandered, there have been Haggadot — from the 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah (which is said to have survived World War II under the floorboards of a mosque, and the siege of Sarajevo in a bank vault), to those made by Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses.

But of the 7,000 known versions, not to mention the countless homemade editions, there is one that is used more than all others combined. Since 1932, the Maxwell House Haggadah — as in the coffee company — has dominated American Jewish ritual….READ MORE

Jonathan Safran Foer is a novelist and editor of “New American Haggadah.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on April 1, 2012, on page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: Why a Haggadah?.

Two Novelists Take on the Haggadah

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Nathan Englander, left, translated the liturgical text for the “New American Haggadah,” which Jonathan Safran Foer edited. Four writers contributed commentary.

Source: NYT, 3-9-12

AFTER a lengthy interview with President Obama in the Oval Office two weeks ago, Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, had one more question, and it had nothing to do with Iran.

Related

Jake Guevara/The New York Times

The new version of the text for the Seder liturgy.

The latest version courtesy of Maxwell House.

“I know this is cheesy …” Mr. Goldberg started, but before he could finish, the president interrupted him. “What, you have a book?” Mr. Obama asked. Turns out, Mr. Goldberg did, but “it’s not just any book,” he replied.

Mr. Goldberg reached into his briefcase and handed the president an advance copy of the “New American Haggadah,” a new translation of the Passover liturgy that was edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and contains commentary by Mr. Goldberg and other contemporary writers.

After thumbing through the sleek hardcover book, Mr. Obama looked up and asked wryly, “Does this mean that we can’t use the Maxwell House Haggadah anymore?”

Mr. Goldberg was impressed. “Way to deploy the inside-Jewish joke,” he later said. Since the 1930s, Maxwell House has printed more than 50 millions copies of its pamphlet-style version of the Haggadah. It has been the go-to choice at the Obamas’ White House Seders, though Mr. Goldberg hoped the president would consider using their version this time around.

In the end, the White House decided to stick with the Maxwell House next month. But the book’s advance buzz is an unlikely triumph for a version of a ritualistic text that was spearheaded by two lauded experimental novelists from Brooklyn, Mr. Foer and Nathan Englander.

“The Haggadah is the user’s manual for the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday, Passover, ” Mr. Foer said on “The Colbert Report” last Tuesday. “It’s one of the oldest continually told stories, and one of the most well-known across cultures.”…

One might assume that Mr. Foer’s version would end up being almost unrecognizably postmodern. A critical darling since his mid-20s, Mr. Foer, 35, has been celebrated and excoriated for his use of avant-garde literary devices in novels like “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” which ends with a 14-page flip book.

And starting out, that was the direction in which its creators were leaning. As Mr. Englander, who grew up in an Orthodox house on Long Island, put it, “I originally thought we’d be making some sort of hipster Haggadah.”

Indeed. The book’s minimalist design, by Oded Ezer, looks like a catalog for a MoMA typography exhibition, and the text is rendered both vertically (for the Exodus story) and horizontally (for commentary and a timeline). In place of storybook illustrations of Moses are abstract watercolor illustrations based on Hebrew typography.

The idea was to draw readers into the story and invite them to linger, since “the Haggadah must be the most skimmed book of all,” Mr. Foer said. After a pause, he added, “maybe Stephen Hawking’s ‘Brief History of Time’ beats it.”…READ MORE

A version of this article appeared in print on March 11, 2012, on page ST10 of the New York edition with the headline: Two Novelists Take On the Haggadah.
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