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April 11, 2012

Is The New American Haggadah Worth Buying?

New American HaggadahIs Jonathan Safran Foer's years-in-the-making project featuring a translation by Nathan Englander and commentary by modern writers like Jeffrey Goldberg, Rebbeca Goldstein and Lemmony Snicket worth the money? And if it not, why not?

New American Haggadah

The New American Haggadah
Little, Brown and Company
$29.99 ($17.99 on Amazon.com)


• Not constrained by existing rabbinic commentary

• Not burdened by multiple halakhic opinions on how parts of the seder should be done

• Simple and easy to follow in either English or Hebrew if you don't want to read the commentary or the timeline during the seder


• Unusual translation choices (i.e., Elohaynu as "God of us," etc.)

• A too large size that makes it nearly impossible to use at any but the most uncrowded seders

• A bizarre design that forces the reader to rotate the book to read the commentary

• A bizarre design that forces the reader to rotate the book to read the timeline

• Commentaries that do not reference existing rabbinic or historical works because the commenters are often unfamiliar with them

• Commentaries which are, to those educated in Judaism, weak (except perhaps for Jeffery Goldberg's, which does not suffer from as many of the problems the others have)

Should you buy it for next year?

Hard to say. If Little, Brown comes out with a smaller, easier to handle paperback edition that fixes the bizarre book design problems and prices it low enough to make it viable to purchase multiple copies for use at your family seder, then yes, it probably is worth buying.

If it remains similarly sized and similarly priced without fixing any of the design problems that plague it, then you might want to wait for a secular haggadah to be published, a haggadah that is produced by knowledgeable scholars and which makes use of and cites historical research.

As it is, Foer's haggadah may win awards. But like the poorly designed English language translation of Steinsaltz's Hebrew Talmud translation and commentary (which was also acclaimed by people with little Talmud learning background or expertise, and who sometimes had undeclared connections to Steinsaltz and/or his editors) look for it on your bookstore's remainder/bargain table in a Passover or two, if not sooner. Steinsaltz only had design and publication problems; its content was first rate. The same cannot be said for Foer's haggadah.


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Pro: nice Hebrew font; some interesting additions from outside the Ashkenazic canon

Con: No transliteration, no musical notation, not gender-neutral.

Good friends were kind enough to bring this Haggadah to our second-night seder this year as a gift. I agree with all the cons listed here. It's heavy and unwieldy, the translations are bizarre, it's hard to find your place, the text is tiny. I can't imagine who would want to use it.

I read something instructive, though, in an article promoting the work last week. The authors said they were ambivalent towards the existence of God. Moreover, the Introduction notes that the authors wanted to create a Haggadah that would jibe with modern language and sensibilities, I suppose to make sense out of the long, traditional Haggadot they probably grew up with.

Meaning, it's essentially a very high-minded, primarily secular siddur that I can't see would speak to anyone who actually takes Pesach--not to mention Judaism--in a halachic or at least religious sense. I assume I'm probably in their target market. I'm a middle-aged liberal Jew who wouldn't be able to make his way through a Hebrew-only, full-liturgy, traditional Haggadah. But...I would much rather try than have this one on my Seder table.

I think the authors assumed all liberal Jews were like them--disaffected, unaffiliated, ambivalent towards the concept of God. But some liberal Jews (I bet many more than the authors suppose) actually take God and halacha seriously and don't feel a need to roll our eyes at our tradition. A Haggadah on my Seder table written by two "cultural" Jews who couldn't care less about God? I'm in no way in the market for that.

There are much better, more meaningful Haggadot out there that will more clearly speak to different types of Jews. This one's all author ego and not much else.

(Oops, I of course meant "Haggadah", not "siddur.")

maxwell house hagadah forever!

>some liberal Jews (I bet many more than the authors suppose) actually take God and halacha seriously and don't feel a need to roll our eyes at our tradition.

Glad to hear this. There also exist Jews who are classic, regular Chareidi or Chasidic orthodox, Torah observant in the conventional sense of these words who _are_ very liberal, either politically and/or socially and/or very well educated, or various combinations of these things. Now one could ask: well, how many like that exist. Hm.. I don't rightly know, that's a tough statistic to obtain. Certainly this is far less prominent. But it's a serious mistake to assume it doesn't exist, or if it does exist it too small to be relevant. It does exist, and is relevant.! (I am not sure if this is what you meant by Liberal Jews who take halacha seriously)

For those who are interested, there is a 45 minute video of Foer discussing some of the questions raised here on the Jewish Theological Seminary's website.

All translations are commentaries. I rather liked the quirky translations, even where they were grammatically debatable (but no more far-fetched than, say, many Hassidic interpretations, or, at the other end, many of SR Hirsch's bi-nomial theories). They made me stop and think. The typography of the comments etc is a disaster, and renders them unusable at the table. Also -- if you are mainly using the Hebrew side -- the 'instructions' are on the English side only, and are easy to miss. No sefirat ha'omer. On the whole -- an original contribution. Re-design badly needed.

Is The New American Haggadah Worth Buying?

No - too expensive. I went to shop at Keyfood and they were giving haggadahs away for free.

If you are looking for something modern yet including traditional commentaries, A Different Night; and it's most recent version "A Night to Remember" are excellent choices. There is a separate "Leader's Guide" for the Different Night, but it's really not necessary. Both include humor and discussion and suggestions for those who want to make things shorter or embellish. Major plus is the explanation of why you may add a lot of vegetables and dips to the karpas. After consulting our Rabbi, we've done it for years. Makes people a lot more attentive and less impatient for the meal.

We had fun with it. We had three editors sitting at the table who appreciated the typography, and the intent. It raised questions and created insights into the Pesach story. And I think that was the purpose. Besides, frum and "serious" Jews are in the minority. How many turn water into blood and throw fake frogs and lice around? Growling and mooing at the table? NONE that I am aware of. The kids get so tired and sleepy that they act up. So let's make sure there is ZERO innovation, stick with Birnbaum, Maxwell House and Art Scroll, and sleep through the whole thing. Let's make sure we turn off the curious. Let's offer Jews who never do anything, the same boring, and I do mean boring, hi falutin translations that go on and on and on and on and on and on. Let's drive people away from Judaism because they want to do something interesting. After all, if you have fun at a Seder there must be something wrong with you.

Frum and "serious" Jews are in the minority?

Do you know what kind of a blog this is?

Believe it or not, frum and "serious" Jews do have fun and many have fun being marbeh Torah at the Pesakh table. There is a special joy that comes from using your head as a Jew to have a deeper understanding of life and our tradition.

We may not all be frum according to haredi standards but most of us are "seriously" concerned about the present state and future of Judaism and Jewish tradition.

If you throw fake frogs and lice around and take special pleasure in mooing then I am thankful that I do not know you or attend your seder.

Maybe you find that that brings you closer to hashem; I don't.

Actually I was at a seder where both deep divrei torah and plastic frogs were flung.

To each his own!

" A too large size that makes it nearly impossible to use at any but the most uncrowded seders"

enough reason for not buying it.

Bizarre layout, Hebrew font is hard to read, and its way oversized. The biggest con in my mind is the poor translation. It is unintelligible for someone reading the English translation without already understanding the context of the original Hebrew. I can not understand why it became such a hit. I heard the authors on NPR and went out and bought it sight unseen, maybe they just did a great job promoting it.

What is the point of the Seder if not as a vehicle to connect with

I really like this Hagaddah. The Hebrew font is wonderful and easy to read. The commentaries are new, different, and not what I've found in the many other Haggadot I own.
Would I use it for a seder? Not likely.
It is still a great addition to a collection or for someone who likes to pick and choose from various Haggadot to create their own seder? Absolutely.
To the detractors, if you viewed it as more of a coffee-table book rather than a "for use" Haggadah would it be better?

Some of us Karaites and Proto Karaites are doing that. The only thing you need is to either know your Yetziat Mitzarim plus some lead in from Breisheit and you have a Haggadah already. Why wait till some God Awfull hour to eat when you can feast and tell tales of our redemption without the prattle of the Rabbis fossilized version. Use some of it sure, the songs are great, but its up to you not a how to manual to tell the tale.

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