The Arty Semite

Swimming in the Sea of Haggadot

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

  • Print
  • Share Share

Image courtesy of Sanford Kearns

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

This year, or so it seems to me, the American Jewish community is awash in new editions of the haggadah, the age-old ritual text that structures the Passover seder.

At one end of the spectrum, there’s the stunning Washington Haggadah, a facsimile edition of a 15th century text. Its brightly colored illustrations of daily life — women stir the pot, an entire family crowds atop a horse, birds chirp, a jester beats a drum — dazzle the eye and enlarge our sense of wonder at the ways in which earlier generations of Jews claimed the haggadah as their own.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a brand new version of the Maxwell House Haggadah, whose very ordinariness belies its extraordinary hold on the American Jewish imagination. Households across the country may lack a Kiddush cup and perhaps even a set of Shabbat candlesticks, but chances are they own a copy or two of the unadorned and down-to-earth Maxwell House Haggadah, which has been around in one form or another since the 1930s.

These most recent iterations of the text are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If history is any guide, and I sure hope it is, American Jewry and its sister communities around the globe have, over time, generated any number of fascinating Passover texts, many of which can be found at George Washington University’s very own Kiev Collection.

Just the other day, in the company of Brad Sabin Hill, the curator of the Kiev Collection, professor Daniel Schwartz and the students in his “Bookmarks of Jewish History” seminar, I had the opportunity to examine, up close and personal, a stunning array of haggadot. Much like their former owners, they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and sensibilities.

Berlin Jewry of the interwar years was represented by a handsomely illuminated haggadah with pop-up figures, a testament to its playfulness and sense of possibility. Soviet Jewry of the 1920s, in turn, made use of the text to savage, not salute, religion, transforming the seder into an occasion for renouncing Judaism and embracing Soviet ideals instead.

Elsewhere, kibbutzniks of the late 1940s took to the haggadah to sing the praises of collectivism. In a clever reworking of “Why is this night different from all other nights,” it allowed how, at the annual seder, parents and children ate together instead of dining separately, as was standard kibbutz practice.

And then there’s the Union Haggadah of 1907, whose orientation — it opened from left to right like an English language book instead of from right to left like a Hebrew book — proclaimed its modernity right from the get go. So, too, did its omissions. Within the pages of this rigorously contemporized ritual compendium, the Ten Plagues were nowhere to be found. Textual references like these, it was said, were “unworthy of enlightened sensitivities.”

Whatever your “sensitivities,” or, for that matter, your preferences in reading matter, here’s wishing one and all a joyous, lively and meaningful Pesach.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Washington Haggadah, Union Haggadah, Passover, From Under the Fig Tree, Jenna Weissman Joselit, Kiev Collection, Maxwell House Haggadah, Books

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.