Haggadah Talk

by anzya

“The Wandering is Over” is a new downloadable, open-source Haggadah that’s been produced by the folks over at JewishBoston.com. It’s a great project which takes a lot of the kvetching out of preparing and running a Seder, especially if you’ve never run one before. And because it’s downloadable as a Word doc as well, even an experienced Seder leader can easily chop and change it to fit their creative or intellectual bents and their Seder’s needs. In a jewonthis first, I interviewed David Levy from JewishBoston.com about the project…

How did The Wandering is Over Haggadah come about and what was your inspiration for it?

Getting involved in the Jewish Community can be really intimidating if you don’t know anyone, if you don’t have much Jewish knowledge, if you don’t know where to start. We have so many events going on here that if you don’t know where to start it can be really scary just showing up somewhere. So, we got to talking about what things we could offer online, and what do people need to make things happen. Two things that really came up were recipes (because Seders are, at their heart, meals) and Haggadah. So we said let’s do a little research and see what’s available online for Haggadot. There’s actually quite a few good options for online Haggadot. If you want to create your own by picking and choosing from different texts from different Haggadot there’s a website called Haggadot.com which is great. But if you’re the person who wants to host the Seder but doesn’t have the time or the patience or the knowledge to sort through, my gosh, you know, the 15 different versions of the Four Sons to figure out which one is right for you, that can be really intimidating. So we decided that to make it easy we wanted to offer an Haggadah that would be really welcoming and useful for someone who maybe had never led a Seder before and wanted to lead one for the first time. And we also made it open sourced and downloadable and customisable so if someone does have the time knowledge or patience or whatever it takes to edit it in a way that’s more specific for them, they can do that too. I think what makes it really unique is that we’re not giving people the full text of Haggadah and we acknowledge that. It’s in some ways a very traditional Haggadah in that there’s nothing in this Haggadah that’s not directly from the traditional Haggadah. But it’s not traditional in that it’s primarily in English, and in that any piece that we felt didn’t speak to a contemporary audience that wasn’t deeply engaged with text and tradition, we cut it out.

What kind of response and feedback have you got about the project so far?

By and large it’s been overwhelmingly positive. In the first week we had over 1000 downloads which blew us away. We had no idea what the demand for this was going to be. There have been a couple of really nice pieces too. The San Fransisco Jewish newspaper wrote a really nice piece about us on their blog, and I just got a call from Philadelphia, their newspaper is doing a story about 30 minute seders and wanted to talk to us about our Haggadah. I did find one blog post from a guy in Teaneck New Jersey – which has a very orthodox population – who was complaining that this is Haggadah-Lite, and why were we cutting things out when people are smart enough to cut things out themselves, but the truth is he still gave a link for people to download it, so I was thrilled that he did it. The nicest comments actually are people who’ve written in to me and said, my kids are now grown up, and it’s time for us to rethink what it is to have a Seder for adults, and this is the perfect Haggadah to use for adults. We didn’t write in any games and things designed for kids, because we thought people with kids are going to want a Seder designed for kids (maybe next year we’ll have another version that does that!) It’s really a no-nonsense Haggadah. While we took things out, we didn’t add anything in. There are 6 or 7 points where we added some discussion questions. But other than that it’s a very straightforward experience. This doesn’t talk down to people, but it really doesn’t assume anything about what you know, and I think people appreciated that.

You’re also working on a version of the Haggadah with the Jewish Women’s Archive?

One thing about the traditional Haggadah is that there is a serious lack of womens’ voices in it. On the one hand the Passover story has some serious women heroines in it but they don’t make it into the Maggid section. Shifra and Pu’ah, the midwives, are hugely important to the book of Exodus and the Jewish people, but they don’t get a mention in the Haggadah. Miriam is hugely important as a figure, but doesn’t make it into the Haggadah. Now, you know, from a nerdy, liturgical perspective you could say the whole point of the Haggadah is to de-emphasise the role of human beings and really emphasise the role of God… but, then the rest of the Maggid section where we’re not telling the story is all this sort of Talmudic symposium stuff with all these different rabbis talking about studying until sunrise… it’s sort of a who’s who of dead Jewish men, and it does start to feel like, gee, weren’t there ever women that had anything interesting to say about Passover? But by the same token there are lots of great feminist Seders already available out there. The JWA is also an archive with really great resources. So, the project is more about remembering women who worked in different liberationist movements, whether that’s Shifra and Pu’ah and Miriam, or that’s the women of the labour movement of the early 20th century, or the early civil rights movement. We’re going to insert a little bit about  established rituals, like having an orange on the seder plate, or Miriam’s cup, but it’s much more a historical perspective about where did this ritual come from and who were the women who initiated it and what were the thoughts behind it. The JWA is also very invested in oral history as a forum or as a medium so around the Four Questions there’s going to be a piece about oral history and Pesach as a time when families come together across generations as a really time to stop and think about what is the oral history of our family and what are the stories that we have around this table.

Passover seems to be the most interactive and creative holiday – the encouragement to change the seder and add things in and do things that are unique to the people involved – that doesn’t seem to happen as much at Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And with the food, there’s that creativity in making cakes that don’t contain flour and so on, there’s something quite creative and fun about that too.

It’s also the one that is primarily celebrated in the home, which I think has a lot to do with it. You don’t need to go to a synagogue, you don’t need to belong anywhere, you don’t really need to know anything, because the primary ritual of it is one that takes place around the dinner table.

What will your seder look like?

This is the second time I’m hosting for my family, there’ll be something between 15-20 people each night which will be a mix of family and friends and colleagues, and a mix of people who would be very comfortable doing the whole Seder in Hebrew and people who have never sat through a Seder before. I’m going to insert back some of the Hebrew we cut out. My family, especially my mother and I, really like to sing, so Hallel is coming back in and probably Birkat Hamazon is coming back in… There will also be kids at my Seder so we bring out puppets and masks to liven it up a little bit. We have a set of Chad Gadiya masks so each kid gets assigned an animal and has to wear the mask and make an animal sound when that animal gets mentioned. And we have finger puppets for both the Four Questions and the Ten Plagues (though I think a couple of the plagues have gone missing over the years…) And I also think that we’ll be serving food during the Seder.  I forget who taught me this trick but someone pointed out to me once that once you’ve hit Karpas, you’ve said the prayer for vegetables, so there’s no reason not to eat vegetables… so I think we might do vegetable soup at that point, which I hope makes the seder feel less arduous. Instead of it being a countdown to the meal, it can be something that’s sort of a celebratory eat and talk and pray, all together. It’s funny, one of the last classes I took in graduate school was studying the history of the development of the Seder through the Talmud and the Jewish codes and things and in some ways it was actually always the intention. This ritual of dipping a vegetable in salt water originated because that was what a customary appetiser was at the time, and the religious significance of it was added on later. So it was actually something very tradition to emphasise that we want to eat earlier!

The funny thing too is that after taking this class is, my goodness, the seder has never been static and the Haggadah has changed over time, to such a greater extent… the Four Questions we sing are not the original Four Questions, one of the questions has changed, and it’s one of  those things that unless you’ve actually sat down and studied the Talmud that describes the Seder, you might not know, and once you’ve started to realise how many things have changed and how many things are suggestions versus requirements, it actually feels not only liberating —like, my goodness, I can make changes to the Haggadah—but almost obligatory. The Seder is supposed to be a time to really ask questions and get into discussions and think about things in new ways, and if you’re using a fixed text that’s the same text you’ve seen for 30 years, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Anything else you want to add?

We’ve added our text to Open Siddur and Haggadot.com. The Open Siddur Project were really helpful in helping us understand the right way to phrase the licensing so it would be as open source as possible. They were very helpful and it was nice to work with them a little bit. What’s really cool about Haggadot.com is if you want to use sections from our Haggadah, and sections from other’s Haggadahs, it’s all right there, you can just pull it off and assemble it on their site, which is for some people easier than using a Word Document. It’s a fairly new site too.

We’ll also soon have a leader’s guide available on our website. It’ll be really short and so accessible to someone who’s never led before, but will have things on how to make sure you’re guests participate, and reassurances that it’s ok to mess around and add things and subtract things which is something you might take for granted if you know what you’re doing, but if you’ve never done it before, it’s nerve-wracking to think, oh my god, am I breaking the rules if I make changes! And the other thing is that some very generous people who downloaded our Haggadah said—this is great, I also wrote my own, do you want to see it? And they sent these to me and said we can offer sections from those online for people. So I’m working on getting more of that online too. The first one that went up was from Anita Diamant, who’s the author of The Red Tent and many other books, gave us her version of the orange on the seder plate. We’ll have one up on Holocaust readings and Israel related stuff. Some of the stuff from JWA is going to come up so we’ll be adding that stuff right up to the morning of the first seder! Actually something that I would love to have on the site is something about how we go through this seder to talk about our journey to freedom for oppression and then, in the Haggadah we say “next year in Jerusalem”, so what does that mean for someone who’s working to make Jerusalem a more free society?


You can download The Wandering is Over Haggadah here

Check out the Open Siddur Project here and Haggadot.com here and the Jewish Women’s Archive here

And if any of our readers here want to share what they’re planning to include in their Haggadot or Seders this year we’d love to hear from you in the comments below!!