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The 1923 Union Haggadah.

A century later, this prayer rings truer than ever

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A century later, this prayer rings truer than ever

The 1923 Union Haggadah.

Passover is well in the past, and, curiously, the holiday lingers. For some the echoes are the Chad Gadya reprise, repeatedly replaying in an irritating audial loop giving new meaning to the phrase “getting your goat.” For others it is the three syllables of Dayenu, clanging away in a maddening ricochet through the sub-conscience like some errant cranial pool ball. For me, for this year, what endures is a passage from the 1923 Union Haggadah, offered right before the fourth glass of wine, and it goes like this:

May God lift up his countenance upon our country and render it a true home of liberty and a bulwark of justice. And may He grant peace unto us and unto all mankind.

I’m playing that over and over again in my mind, many days after the end of the Seder. You may not have noticed it; it doesn’t appear in the Maxwell House Haggadah and is adjusted, perhaps even diluted, in the 2014 version of the Union Haggadah.

The difference between the two principal haggadahs used in the United States is a story worth telling after Pesach, perhaps worth telling at all seasons and for decades to come.

That passage, with strains of the Priestly Blessing from the Book of Numbers and alluded to in Psalm 4, is a familiar element of weddings, b’nai mitzvah services and Shabbat observances. The 1923 Union Haggadah was written at a time when Jews were seeking to – were eager to – assimilate into American life. It was published just before Congress passed the 1924 Immigration Act that limited the number of those who could enter the United States through a quota system that was particularly burdensome for Jews from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe. It was a time both of great promise and great denial, the two colliding in the middle of the Coolidge years, with a president whose first name was Calvin.

By inserting that passage in the 1923 Haggadah, the authors plainly were seeking to identify with, and to bless, their newfound country. They wanted the United States to be a “true home of liberty,” as they were hungry for that liberty themselves; including this invocation in the Passover ritual is the Jewish equivalent of Abraham Lincoln deliberately referring, in the Gettysburg Address six decades earlier, to a “new burst of freedom.” In both cases, the inclusion was made with fervent hope – perhaps even in Lincoln’s address, infused as he was with Biblical images and language, as a prayer itself – that asserting it would make it so. As for being a “bulwark of justice,” the meaning of that was clear to those who suffered injustice in their European home countries and whose relatives would suffer the worst kind of injustices in Europe less than a decade in the future.

The Maxwell House version emerged in 1932 with an entirely different outlook and an entirely different audience: Jews who had assimilated and whose identity was firmly American. The Haggadah reflected, as Kerri Steinberg, the chair of the Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of the Otis College of Art and Design, put it in a history of the Maxwell House Haggadah in the online journal The Conversation, “how Jews modernized and adapted to their new country, while also upholding traditions.”

Those nine years, ending just before Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, were a period of great transformation in the position of Jews in America.

“Those who wrote the early Union Haggadah were striving to be good Americans,” said Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Pittsburgh’s Temple Sinai. “Their focus was not on Israel. They were saying that the United States was our new Israel. They were saying, ‘Put your energy toward your country and God bless this country.’ The Maxwell House Haggadah doesn’t do that.”

But to us, in a world when the Holocaust is two generations in the past, but still raw – in a country and a new century where democratic values are in jeopardy – that phrase in the Union Haggadah, but absent from the popular Maxwell House Haggadah, has special resonance.

There seldom has been a time when Americans felt that their country’s commitment to being a “true home of liberty” was in such danger.

Its appearance in the 2014 Union Haggadah conveys a subtly different meaning than its presence in the original version. There in the modern edition, as in the earlier edition, it is part of a traditional three-part benediction, introduced by speaking of “the whole House of Israel” and with the prayer that “May God’s light of love shine upon all people, dispelling the darkness of ignorance and prejudice.”

The benediction in the more modern edition is a noble but far more universal passage, adjusted slightly to be not quite so American, not quite so embracing of the promise of America and of the notion that America might be – or truly is – the new promised land. It is more in a spirit of what we might today describe as globalism. And it sets out a formidable challenge to Jews and to peoples around the globe.

But there is much work to do here at home. Elections must be sealed away from partisan manipulation. Minorities need to feel safe in the country and invested in it, their cultures respected, their opportunities unfettered, their lives insulated from subtle insults and overt instruments of bias. The judicial system needs to assert its independence from partisan influence. The country needs a sense of peace, which is to say to feel at peace with itself, its values, its sense of national purpose.

Once again, Passover comes down to questions: Who knew that a prayer book from 1923 would be indispensable to understanding our hopes in 2022? Who knew that the lessons and values of Passover lasted all year round? Perhaps we knew those things all along, but surely we were reminded of them this spring.

David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University. 

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