Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, and author/editor of many books and poems dealing with Jewish and Latino history and culture. His latest endeavor, “The New World Haggadah,” is a unique contribution to Passover literature. Stavans differentiates his Haggadah by taking the traditional seder format and infusing it with a multitude of languages and Jewish traditions from around the world, as well as from different eras in Jewish history.
Why is this Haggadah different from other Haggadot?
What makes this Haggadah different is that, until recently, I had been a passive participant in seders for many years. But as an immigrant from Mexico, the time came when I finally said, “Dayenu [enough]!” It was time to start reflecting on the Passover liturgy on the seder and the way we eat [during the holiday], and the way we sing. The Jewish community is not homogenous anymore. It’s not only Ashkenazi. There are cultures that are coming from the Mizrachi, Sephardic and Latino experiences.
I wanted to produce a Haggadah that is close to the one we use in my house, as well as one that could also be used by others. I also wanted it to become a kind of mirror and anchor to diversify the way we celebrate the holiday—to reflect the way different experiences have infused who we are as American Jews. I think American Jews have changed a lot in the last 20 or 30 years. I also meant to show that liberation means a lot of different things now. For example, there was 1492 [and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain], the Dirty War in Argentina, the Civil Rights era in the United States. I think it’s time to be more expansive.
Your Haggadah preserves the traditional order of the service, but you’ve also inserted diverse and beautiful poems into the text. How did you choose those poems, and should they also be an integral part of the seder service?
I wanted to have tradition at the core of this Haggadah. I think tradition is the backbone, the structure, of the seder. That structure enables us to have a journey during the evening where we follow certain steps. I enjoy that part, the security of knowing what comes next. But at the same time I wanted to open up to other things. There are elements [in my Haggadah] that come from Yehuda HaLevi and the medieval poets. There’s a beautiful poem by HaLevi about his soul being in one place and his mind in another place. There are poems that I like very much written by Crypto-Jews, Marrano poets who were thrown out of Spain in 1492 and went to Amsterdam or lived in Northern Africa. For example, there is João Pinto Delgado’s poem about Moses that gives a different perspective of the Exodus story. There is poetry about the Holocaust and poetry about the State of Israel. But there is also more intimate romantic poetry, and there is poetry that has to do with one’s relationship with God. There are also poems [of mine] that I have published over the years. There’s a poem about the power of love. There’s another poem about survival in Auschwitz.
There is also a beautiful song called “De Colores [In Such Colors]” that is popular in Mexico and the Southwest and was adopted by the United Farm Workers and Chicano movement. And then there are songs in Ladino and Arabic and Hebrew that were sung in Salonika. There are multiplicities that I want people to pick and choose, but I also want them to follow a structure. And that structure is an excuse for us to explore different aspects of who we are.
You’re the grandson of Polish and Ukrainian Jews who immigrated to Mexico. You were born there and then immigrated to the United States in your mid-20s. How have your ancestors’ life stories influenced you as a Jew and as the author of a Haggadah?
My relatives wanted to come to the United States, but immigration quotas made it prohibitive, so they went to Central America and the Caribbean, and my grandparents ended up in Mexico. At least two of [my grandparents] didn’t imagine Mexico as a destination, but they eventually learned to love the place. My parents were born in Mexico, and I was born in Mexico. It’s a very generous country, and while it has had Jews since the time of Columbus, it doesn’t fully acknowledge its Jewish presence. When Ashkenazi Jews arrived at the end of the 19th century, these Yiddish speakers thought they were the first Jews to come to Mexico. They didn’t know that Sephardic Jews and Conversos had already been there. There was also a simultaneous immigration happening of Ottoman Jews from Syria and Lebanon, from whom I heard Ladino. Some of them also spoke French.
Mexico is also a very big country, and when I was growing up there were maybe 25,000 to 30,000 Jews in a country of 85 million. The Jewish community was very insular, but at the same time it used culture, not religion, as a form of continuity. Yiddish was the language of instruction, and the early founders of the community were Bundist. I remember our seders very vividly. I thought when I was little that everyone celebrated seders like my family; only later did I realize that we were so few.
What were your seders like in Mexico?
My relatives tried to bring in Mexican aspects to the Passover meal. When we served boiled eggs we would use a little molé [a Mexican sauce of spices and unsweetened cocoa], or there would be fish cooked Veracruz style [a sauce with olives and jalapeños]. There were also games that came from Mexican pop culture to add to all this.
The very first time I saw a Holocaust survivor with a number tattooed on his forearm was at a seder. My grandmother had invited two strangers she met at synagogue. It was my grandmother and my uncle who introduced the topic of how Mexico had opened up to refugees. Sometimes in the very same neighborhoods where Jews had settled in Mexico City there were former Nazis living there alongside concentration-camp survivors. That was a very vivid experience that for me connected with exile and freedom and having been slaves [in Egypt]. It also connected with different moments in Jewish history.
How has the multiplicity of languages in your Haggadah informed your Mexican-American Jewish identity? Did moving to America dilute that identity at all?
I’m very happy that I moved to the United States as a Mexican Jew, and I’m happy that I have tried with my kids and my students not to give up the Mexican-Jewish identity. But one of the misgivings I have is that sometimes American-Jewish life is too monolingual. Not only do I have other cultures in the Haggadah, but I also have the languages there. In my presentation I bring in various languages sometimes with song or in recitation. But for me Jewish life is multilingual. We don’t experience that in the United States, but if you’re in Israel or in other Diasporas, you hear that a lot. I wanted this Haggadah to have that [multilingual aspect] very much.