Seders derive their name from the Hebrew word for “order,” and Seders derive their order from the Haggadah, the book of songs, stories, and illustrations that gives structure to the meal. Passover begins Friday night, and North Shore Jews are dusting off a diverse range of Haggadot that will provide wisdom, meaning, and soul to their Seders.
There is a wide array of Haggadot available today that tell the Passover story using every tool imaginable, from the musical “Hamilton” to the “Harry Potter” wizarding series. However, if you mention the word “Haggadah” to many American Jews, just one thing will come to mind: the iconic Maxwell House Haggadah, named after the coffee company that has been offering it for free since 1932. According to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, the famous Haggadah was originally an advertising ploy to convince Jews that coffee was kosher for Passover.
“Their advertising agency had the brilliant idea that if you distribute a Haggadah … that this would reassure Jews that coffee could be used on Passover,” said Sarna. “Maxwell House won not only a tremendous amount of goodwill, but purchases as well. It’s the best-known Haggadah.”
Though the Maxwell House is known for its extensive text drawn from the original Talmudic sources of the Haggadah, it has taken steps to reinvigorate its staid image. It recently updated its translation into more contemporary English, and this year, it released a special-edition version based on the hit television series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” complete with 1950s-style cartoons of the series’ characters and faux-handwritten recipe inserts.
Still, many North Shore Jews have mixed opinions of the Maxwell House Haggadah, and their current Haggadah choices are partially a reaction against it. “It is not aesthetically pleasing, there are no supplementary readings and directions for the Seder leader of substance, the English is included as an afterthought … in my opinion, it has led to two generations of boring Seders,” said Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.
Instead, Meyer values Leonard Baskin’s “The New Union Haggadah” because he feels it does everything a Haggadah must to ensure a dynamic, interactive, and entertaining Seder, including watercolor illustrations, gender-inclusive language and songs taken from several different traditions. “It’s aesthetically very pleasing, there are very good additional supplementary readings in addition to the traditional text, the music and the songs it includes are a combination of traditional and contemporary,” he said. Meyer believes that a good Haggadah asks questions and suggests alternative and supplemental readings, because a Seder is, in Meyer’s words, “not a performance; it’s a symposium.”
That is the goal for Al DeGroot, a food sales rep from South Hamilton, who also grew up bored and uninspired by the Maxwell House Haggadah. In order to create a Seder full of vigorous debate on contemporary issues, Degroot combined readings from several different Haggadot, most notably “On the Wings of Freedom” by Rabbi Richard Levy and “The Velveteen Rabbi” by Rabbi Joseph R. Soloveitchik. The former is a politically-minded Haggadah focused on questions of freedom, while the latter features meditations on human connection and healing.
“We try to make it alive, we try and make it relevant to each person and to healing the world,” said DeGroot, who noted that amidst a wide-ranging, free-flowing debate, the Haggadah can sometimes fall to the wayside. “The feeling of permission to speak I think is the first piece. Our heads aren’t in the Haggadah – our heads go in and out of the Haggadah, and the Haggadah can get put down for 45 minutes while we have a discussion.”
Marblehead pediatrician Karen Gruskin’s Seder follows her chosen Haggadah, “In Every Generation,” by PJ Library, a little more closely. However, Gruskin adds her own questions that lead to discussions of contemporary issues like the #MeToo movement, LGBTQ rights, Israel, and refugees. “There’s jumping off points where it allows for discussion, and I pose the question and allow people to at will speak up,” she said.
Gruskin chose “In Every Generation” because it allows for a concise 30-minute Seder (which happens to be the exact title of another popular Haggadah by Robert Kopman), has a good ratio of Hebrew and English, and is accessible and up-to-date. “It’s a Reform Haggadah that covers the high points, that is culturally sensitive to where we are as Jews in America in the 21st century,” she said. “It has Hebrew and English, which I think is helpful for an interfaith family or families where there’s non-Hebrew speakers, or people who didn’t grow up with that level of Hebrew education. There’s not a lot of fluff in it.”
Lynn Nadeau of Marblehead, who is a member of the Jewish Journal Board of Overseers, also went the “no-fluff” route when creating her own Haggadah called the “Promised Land Haggadah,” which she wrote in the hopes of bringing out hidden meaning in the Passover story. “I wanted to subtract rather than add – go barebones so as to uncover the real meaning of the telling,” she said. “I wanted short sentences so the reading would be shared around the table without a leader. I wanted the basic Hebrew blessings.”
In Greater Boston, specialized Seders have created their own Haggadot that tie the Passover story to the experiences of marginalized communities. Rebecca Redner, an educational specialist at Gateways, a Newton-based organization promoting Jewish education for people of all abilities, worked with a committee of disability rights activists to create “The Gateways Haggadah,” a Haggadah for children with disabilities, and “The Inclusive Haggadah” for adults. “There’s a lot of parallels between the experience of slavery and the experience of disability in modern society,” said Redner. “We wanted to highlight that connection and have people think, ‘Where in my life do I feel limited, and what can I do about it?”
Keshet, a Boston-based Jewish LGBTQ rights organization, has compiled on its website a list of several LGBTQ-themed Haggadot, including the “Stonewall Seder” and the “JQ International GLBT Haggadah.” Keshet has also published LGBTQ Haggadah supplements, like the “Four Allies: The Four Questions” or “A Family Coming Out Journey,” which discuss how to support the LGBTQ community on its quest for freedom from persecution.
For its Nation of Immigrants interfaith Seder, the Anti-Defamation League created a Haggadah that retells the story of Passover through the lens of immigration. In addition to traditional Hebrew prayers and English texts, the Haggadah provides quotes and readings from Martin Luther King, Emma Lazarus, and John F. Kennedy to show how the Passover story is an allegory for immigration, and participants are invited to share their personal stories. “We begin with the verse from Leviticus that says, ‘You shall not oppress the stranger, because you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt,’” said Rabbi David Sandmel, ADL’s director of interreligious engagement.
Nadeau had a similar vision when creating her Haggadah. “I wanted to include the stranger so that they related to the struggle for the creation of a society which emerged from slavery carrying their memories and ideals forward. I wanted to tell our story in a way that all could connect to.”