Passover this year came with a nasty jolt.
It wasn’t the company, mostly cousins I rarely see and always enjoy. It certainly wasn’t the food, which was traditional and delicious enough to satisfy any expectations: gefilte fish, knaidlech, horseradish, charoseth, and the most tender brisket I’ve had since my mother died. It wasn’t the conversation, the warmth, the seder plate complete with lamb shank and perfectly roasted egg, the salt water with parsley, the hiding of the afikomen. All those elements were in place, as always.
The jolt involved the hagaddah. It was brutal.
Everyone yearns for the hagaddah of their youth; for many that means the paperback version supplied by Maxwell House. But not for my family. Our hagaddah was the version, also paperback, put out by Barton’s candy, a company known for chocolates and almond kisses.
The Maxwell House hagaddah seems to be alive and well these days; a version of it (recently updated to be gender-neutral, among others things) was used by the Obamas at the White House seder this year. The Barton’s hagaddah has disappeared. I recently saw a version of it being hawked on eBay for $74. It was beautifully illustrated, which may explain the price.
But the illustrations, while part of the familiarity, of course, are not what I miss. No, it’s the words, the phrases, so many of which became an integral part of family lore.
“Every man disappointeth” for instance, was always greeted by murmurs of agreement from my sisters and me, along with a raised glass of whatever cup we were at by then.
“To the aftermeal entertainment” was always joyfully echoed by my cousin Michael (the actual line is: “one does not break up the Passover service by announcing, to the aftermeal entertainment”). Michael went on to become deeply Orthodox, with 10 kids, and probably has totally forgotten how much he loved that line as a kid. Not the rest of us, though.
Oh, there were many lines, many bits, even some of the garbled ones, that we relished. It was a lengthy service. At a certain point, most of the little kids disappeared under the table, a time-honored seder tradition in many homes. And yet they too were being indoctrinated. Boring at times, much too long, not always understandable, this was nonetheless the family hagaddah. I don’t think I realized how deeply it had lodged until the year we spent Passover in Los Angeles, and had seder at my friend Janie’s house, where they used a translation written by Arthur Goldberg, former secretary of labor, U.N. ambassador, and briefly, Supreme Court justice (as well as friend of Janie’s father).
It was shorter, snappier, certainly more adapted to modern ears — and my sons, then 10 and 12, were repelled. “Call that a hagaddah??” demanded the younger, after we left.
When our parents died, and we sold the house, it was decided to store our hagaddahs (we had at least 10, maybe more) at my sister’s house, who at that time had the only house of the three of us. In New Orleans. You can probably see where this is heading. The levees burst and my sister lost everything she owned. Including, of course, our beloved family hagaddahs.
The Maxwell House version isn’t bad, of course. And there are many, many other hagaddahs just as lengthy, just as complex. We’ve mananged over the years since Katrina to make do. And since we have, and since most Passovers I manage to be with immediate family, I suppose I haven’t really been exposed to the hagaddah sea change that’s taken place over the years.
But this year, for various reasons, I stayed home, attended Seder at the house of cousins who live nearby, and ran into it full force.
The change was overwhelming. This hagaddah had been — there is no other word for it — gutted, and was down to less than a third of its former size. But that was nothing compared to the changes: the excisions and additions to the narrative.
Someone, probably an entire committee of someones, had gone to a great deal of trouble to make this a kinder, gentler document, one which couldn’t possibly disturb the kinder. There was even a paragraph claiming the Jews had felt bad about the Egyptians’ loss of their first-born children.
Really? Did they?
But the biggest shock for me came when the door was opened to let in Elijah. The vitriolic “pour out thy wrath” prayer — probably the harshest one in the entire hagaddah — had been totally deleted. Gone without a trace.
It was too much for me. “Where is ‘pour out thy wrath on the nations that know thee not?’” I howled.
Everyone chuckled and assured me I was just used to an earlier, more bloodthirsty version. Well, yeah. And Elijah wasn’t? I could just see him, utterly disgusted, turning away at the door.
Now as a child, I had been, as are plenty children I’m sure, pretty disturbed at that prayer. Face it, it is disturbing. Some things are, even in Judaism, which is a strong, tough, feisty religion.
But that’s what it is — who gives us the right to soften it up beyond all recognition? That section prompted discussion — intense ones — in our house every year. And what’s wrong with that?
I understand the Maxwell House revisions are less extensive. They involve changing the four sons to four children; substituting you and yours for thee and thine (a change I happen to dislike, but that’s just me); and referring to God, for some reason, as monarch, not king. Fine, that I can live with.
I can’t live with losing my favorite lines. I can’t live with pretending the Jews were weighed down with compassion for their enemies. And I definitely can’t live with Ellijah transmuted into a gentle, fatherly, live-and-let-live figure.
At the tail end of the new hagaddah, I noticed a paragraph urging everyone to indulge, if they wanted to, in a fifth cup of wine, this one dedicated to Israel.
Another sea change. Whatever. By that point, I needed one more cup of wine.