When I started thinking about this piece in early January, my world—our world—had not yet been upended. These days I feel as if I am living in a dystopian movie replete with images of empty supermarket shelves, eerily quiet streets and people walking around in a zombie-like haze.
My original criteria in selecting these Haggadot remain the same; I was interested in the aesthetics, liturgical components and inherent joy of the seder. But the looming and perhaps most obvious question in 2020 is why will this year’s seders be different from the seders of previous years? The seder is still a night of family and friends, of ritual, of foods we mostly eat just once a year. The seder is also one of the earliest virtual experiences in Jewish history. We are commanded to remember the Exodus as if we lived it, and this year we will commemorate Judaism’s determinative experience in the midst of a global pandemic.
During the course of my research, I was reminded that there’s a Haggadah for most perspectives and political leanings. I like to think that each of these Haggadot uniquely captures an aspect of the Jewish Diaspora experience. With the telling of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt at its core, the Haggadah is also highly personal. Yes, it lays out a set of rules and follows a certain order. Yet there is room for reflection and adaptation. I’m optimistic that these various Haggadot will be successfully recalibrated for this year’s virtual seders.
Let’s begin looking at a Haggadah close to home. JewishBoston offers a free, downloadable Haggadah aptly titled “The Wandering Is Over Haggadah.” This modern take on the Haggadah is a clear, fresh guide to the pivotal story of the Jewish people. The original commentary in the Haggadah grapples with current events. For example, readers are asked to ponder versions of modern plagues that include homelessness, hunger, the stigma of mental illness and inequality.
This Haggadah is also an accessible guide to the symbols associated with the story. I was especially appreciative that it included a contemporary midrash of how the orange made its way to the seder plate:
So how was it that the orange found its place on the seder plate as a symbol of feminism, egalitarianism and those who are often marginalized? The story has it that scholar Susannah Heschel, daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel, a preeminent modern Jewish philosopher, was inspired by the abundant new customs expressing women’s viewpoints and experiences and started placing an orange on the seder plate. At an early point in the seder, she asked each person to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit and eat the segment in recognition of all those in our midst who feel marginalized in the Jewish community. She encouraged each guest to spit out the seeds in their orange segment to reject hatred and homophobia. The bright and vibrant orange suggests the fruitfulness for the whole community when everyone is a valued and respected member.
“The Passover Haggadah: An Ancient Story for Modern Times” lives up to its subtitle. This Haggadah, assembled by the editors of Tablet Magazine, is as urbane and witty as the online magazine. With the seder divided into sections such as “Pre-Game: Everything Before the Big Night,” “Showtime: The Seder Begins” and “Magid: The Story of Us,” recognizable elements of the seder get a cool makeover.
The Four Sons show up in these pages, but so do the Four Daughters, appearing as “The Wise Ones Who Listen,” “The Wicked Daughter’s Still Here,” “The Simple Life” and “No Further Questions.” Writers Tova Mirvis and Abigail Pogrebin are among those who contributed to the section.
Tablet’s Haggadah also gives participants permission to skip parts of the Haggadah, sending them on to the seder’s highlights. They will eventually land on the delightful suggestion to “grab the fanciest goblet-like cup you’ve got, fill it with wine, and open the door to welcome in the prophet Elijah.”
Other Haggadot for this Passover season include “The Essential Seder: A Contemporary Haggadah,” which presents the basics in just 37 pages. “The New American Haggadah” builds on Mordechai Kaplan’s original early 20th-century Haggadah and is a straightforward telling of the Exodus. With its black-and-white photographs and renderings, it’s a throwback to the Haggadot of my 1970s childhood. “Gates of Freedom Haggadah” has been a mainstay in the modern crop of Haggadot for 20 years. In his introduction to this Haggadah, the late scholar Eugene B. Borowitz writes that the Passover seder “confounds our notions of ‘religion.’” Borowitz points out that Passover is a home-based holiday with no rabbi or synagogue needed to observe it properly.
And, finally, there is a downloadable Haggadah from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights entitled, “The Other Side of the River, The Other Side of the Sea.” This Haggadah is unapologetically liberal. Its mission is clear and has the potential to be the basis of intriguing conversations on screen and around the actual seder table. The Haggadah begins with this thesis:
We might think the most basic encapsulation of the haggadah is in the simple song that children learn in Jewish preschool, which comes right after the Four Questions:
Once we were slaves and now we are free.
But as adults, we know that “now we are free” is an oversimplification. We are trapped in so many overlapping oppressive systems. Indeed, at the end of the avadim hayinu paragraph, the haggadah offers us an alternative thesis statement, inviting us to go beyond the basics:
The more we expand our perspective to include diverse liberation struggles and the action needed to bring them to fruition, the better. In the service of that expansion, this haggadah makes the following arguments:
- The United States was founded on fundamentally racist principles and has yet to fully grapple with that legacy.
- America’s appetite for cheap goods and labor can only survive through exploitative labor practices and immigration, and our immigration policies expose people to further abuse.
- Forced labor does not happen in a vacuum but in the context of powerful systems that treat some people as less valuable or worthy than others.
- If we want to reconstruct our country so it fulfills its stated values, we will have to follow the solutions and leadership of thus-far marginalized communities: women, people of color, low-wage workers, and immigrants.
No matter that this year we’re in uncharted territory in our virtual observance or that no Haggadah is exactly right. There is Haggadot.com, a wonderful resource for DIY Haggadot. The site also features a helpful webinar for planning and navigating a virtual seder.
Whichever Haggadah you use to tell the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, it will carry the myriad blessings that freedom and the observance of the Passover holiday have bestowed upon us for millennia.