Thursday, April 17, 2008

Battle of the Haggadahs: The Revenge

Slate decided to reprint Mark Oppenheimer's rant about how having too many different Haggadot at Passover ruins the unity and uniformity of the holiday. It was stupid then, and still is. Oppenheimer's argument basically boiled down to, "My version of cultural Judaism is about bubbe, zayde, and Bernard Malamud," not, heaven forbid, mixing goyishe politics with the part about how we should all appreciate our freedom- wouldn't want things to get too relevant, after all.

Oppenheimer's article also included a loving tribute to the most staid of Haggadot, the Maxwell House Haggadah.

I think the best response to this attitude was from Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, via Velveteen Rabbi:
I am here to free you from the Maxwell House Haggadah, to free you in your Pesach celebration!
...But you are not just free to use better Haggadahs, (the ones with good translations and more openness), you are also free to use the material as a jumping-off point for playing, for elaboration. Like the Siddur, the Haggadah is a kind of a cookbook filled with recipes. You can’t eat a cookbook, even ones with the tastiest, the most nourishing recipes. You must do the cooking to turn recipes to dishes. And it’s similar with the Haggadah: You make the words three-dimensional, four-dimensional. Every Seder you have is a different way to bring the words off the page with different “spices,” different life-conditions.

Amen. Oppenheimer's entitled to want to use as many Maxwell Houses as he wants (take ours, we got them free from the supermarket), complete with weird, old-style Ashkenazi transliteration, (who writes hadlik as "had-leek", or "Adir Hu" as "A-deer hu"?) and those iconic (boring?) pictures sprinkled around ever-so-slightly. Enjoy. But there's no reason to discount what everybody else is doing as invalid just because you want stay cloistered in the land of coffee-scented Haggadot.

BZ from Jewschool also found Oppenheimer's pooh-poohing infuriating:

I think his diagnosis is completely backwards. Oppenheimer suggests that the diversity of creative haggadot can be attributed to the Jews who are primarily “secular Americans” and feel “unease” around Judaism, and that those who are more secure in their Jewish identies will opt instead for the unadorned Maxwell House. On the contrary: “Secular Americans” who have a minimal connection to Judaism but nonetheless attend a seder out of nostalgia or ethnic identification are more likely to, like Oppenheimer, read the Maxwell House from rote, while those who make Judaism more a part of their year-round lives are more likely to add layers of meaning on top of the traditional haggadah text, whether by using a creative haggadah or simply by making discussion an important part of their seder.

Pretty much.

For the curious, here are some segments from my own Haggadah. Needless to say, it's a bit more, shall we say, Leitzniyut than Mr. Oppenheimer or the Maxwell crowd might approve of.

The Seder Plate
You may have noticed that our main platter looks weird. We assure you, we did not steal it from a cafeteria. The Seder Plate is used to hold the six depressing symbols of the meal. As we explain what these are, please remember that yes, Passover is supposed to be a happy holiday. Just… give us a few minutes.
The symbols on the seder plate are:
  1. Z’ro’a, a roasted lamb bone, usually a shank bone, a symbol of the lamb sacrifice that used to be offered in the Temple in Jerusalem at this time, then roasted and eaten with the meal. Traditionally, the function of the bone was to remind the Jews that their seders were not complete while they were still in exile. Some might choose to see the bone as a symbol for anything missing or incomplete in their own lives. (Vegetarians sometimes use beets, which isn’t nearly as cool.)
  1. Karpas, a green vegetable. This is dipped in salt water to symbolize the tears of the Hebrews in Egypt. As if slavery wasn’t depressing enough, now you get to eat tears.
  1. Haroset, a mixture of chopped nuts, apples, wine and spices. It is a symbol of the mortar and bricks made by the Hebrews as slaves. Tastes slightly better than it looks (and sounds).
  1. Beitzah, a roasted egg, another piece of food we can’t eat because there’s no Temple. (To compensate, we have prepared a whole bushel of hard-boiled eggs. Take that, you stuck-up egg!)
  1. Maror, bitter herbs, usually Romaine lettuce or horseradish, to symbolize the bitterness of slavery. Slavery is sad, but watching people eat maror is pretty darn funny.
  1. Hazeret, extra maror for the korech sandwich, one of the weirdest sandwiches you will ever see (but more on that later).

The “Four” Questions and their Misleading Answers: A Smart-Ass’ commentary
Asking questions is a very old Jewish tradition. Unfortunately, not all good questions always get accurate answers. Even the title “Four Questions” starts things off on the wrong foot by confusing everyone. There is actually only one question, there are four answers, and they are mostly wrong.
How is this night different from all other nights?

  1. On all other nights we eat hametz and matzah. On this night, we only eat matzah.
This, of course, is a lie, because no one ever eats matzah unless forced to.
  1. On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables; on this night, maror.
Not only does horseradish barely count as a vegetable, the Haggadah also seems to be presuming a lot about the Jews’ table habits. Just how many summer salads were there in the ancient world?
  1. On all other nights we do not dip our food even once; on this night, twice.
Apparently no one told the Haggadah about chips and salsa. Or pita and humus.
  1. On all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining; on this night we all recline.
Only those of us privileged enough to have personal Roman orgy couches. The rest will have to make do with the floor or by slouching on chairs. Sorry.

Maybe tomorrow I'll post my version of the Exodus story.

1 comment:

Batya said...

We use a great variety of Hagadot. I'm the only one in the family who reads English commentary now. When I got bored, I quoted Shlomo Carlebach. Urim put out a great Hagadah filled with his stories.