Robby Berman
Robby Berman

The Haggadah, regarded as the most-published book in Jewish history, has appeared in all the scores of lands where Jews have lived.

Berman’s Haggadah
Berman’s Haggadah

In a year that has witnessed the publication of fewer new Haggadot than in past years, two distinctive ones have appeared in time for Pesach.

One, from the United States, offers a unique division of the seder night text; the other, from Israel, a linguistic twist.

Four Voices

First up is Haggadah Min HaMeitzar — A Seder Journey to Liberation: A Traditional and Radical Haggadah in Four Voices by Gabriella Spitzer (Ben Yehuda Press, 138 pages, $24.95).

According to Jewish tradition, the holiday best known in Hebrew as Pesach has four names: Chag Pesach, Zman Cheiruteinu, Chag haAviv and Chag HaMatzot.

They refer to, respectively, God passing over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt on the night of the exodus, the freedom the ex-slaves experienced then, the season of spring when the crossing of the Red Sea took place and the unleavened matzahs the now-free people baked when their dough did not have time to rise.

These names are frequently discussed and explained at the seder.

Now Spitzer, a visual and textile artist in Boston, has arranged her Haggadah around the four themes, complete with her original artwork — 27 striking full-color drawings and illustration.

The text of the book, which includes color-coded discussion questions and “discussion prompts” from an eclectic blend of Jewish and non-Jewish sources, focuses on “four voices” that correspond to Passover’s four names:

  • The Festival of Freedom: “A progressive voice … of liberation and oppression … still deeply relevant today.”
  • The Springtime Festival: “An environmental voice making connections between the Passover seder, ecology, and regrowth and regeneration. Their voice shares naturalist sources and Torah from the Earth.”
  • The Matzah Festival: “A voice about embodiment and the tangible and sensory aspects of the seder.”
  • And Passover: “The voices that get shared and the voices that do not get shared enough. Everything is new in each generation, and we are tied to every previous generation before us.”

Spitzer adds, “My inspiration in developing the four voices is the multivocality of the tradition itself. The Haggadah is such a rich and layered text, with so many additions from different times and places throughout Jewish history. I wanted to … bring in new voices.”

Spitzer, who grew up in a rabbinic family, is steeped in Passover memories. “My parents routinely have seders that last five or more hours — we had long conversations.

“When I engage in a seder,” she says, “I bring my knowledge of Jewish text and Jewish history and of queer history … I bring my environmental planning career, my whole body and my artistic vision.”

Like many contemporary Haggadot, hers includes such features as Miriam’s Cup and gender-non-specific language (“ruler” instead of “king”) and Four Children instead of the familiar Four Sons.

Spitzer calls her Haggadah “a pandemic project.” During COVID isolation, she had “time to engage with the Haggadah text, with the external sources that comprise much of the commentary, and with my art.”

The result: A “Midrash in a new and exciting way.” It’s art that she designed as “a Midrash on Jewish text” — a visual commentary.

A New Transliteration

Next, we have Haggadah l’Pesach: Haggadah with Transliteration into Palestinian Arabic by Robby Berman, illustrations by Tali Povoloski (self-published, 55 pages, $9).

Gabriella Spitzer at work.
Gabriella Spitzer at work.

The Haggadah, regarded as the most-published book in Jewish history, has appeared in all the scores of lands where Jews have lived. Berman has brought out a version in one of the official languages of the Jewish state — Arabic.

Sort of. His Haggadah includes transliterations, in Hebrew script, of the seder’s sung parts — like the Four Questions and Dayenu and the songs at the end of the evening — all in the Palestinian dialect spoke by local members of the Arab community.

Berman, a native of Woodmere, Long Island, who formerly served as founding director of the Halachic Organ Donor Society, made aliyah three decades ago, lives in Jerusalem and works as a licensed tour guide.

Spitzer’s Haggadah
Spitzer’s Haggadah

Robby Berman is the only tour guide in Israel who is a Harvard graduate, a stand-up comic and who speaks Arabic, Hebrew and English fluently.

Berman’s Haggadah (available at intheboydem.com) is equally unique. While many full versions appeared in the Arabic language in past years, used by Jews who lived in the Arab world, Berman calls his the first one in the Palestinian dialect, transliterated by a Palestinian colleague.

The Haggadah grew out of Berman’s proficiency in Arabic, which he practices frequently with native speakers in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Gaza.

Why a Haggadah in Arabic?

“People do crazy or interesting things to keep the kids up seder night,” he says. “People read part of it in Yiddish or Japanese to have fun.”

He adds, “A great way to learn a language is to sing a song that you know the words by heart in a foreign language and then you can figure out what the words mean in that language.” His has a contemporary twist — “it’s a way to help Israelis learn Palestinian Arabic.”

That’s why he offers only Hebrew transliterations for his anticipated Hebrew-speaking readership.

Berman is a veteran author: His earlier books include What Happens if You Miss a Kaddish: The origin, development and putative efficacy of mourner’s Kaddish.

For the Four Sons, his Haggadah, publicized on social media, offers four, different photographs of him.

“It was cheaper than paying for more illustrations,” he explains, “and I like to ham it up … although I know that is not quite kosher.”

This Year in Ukrainian

An international humanitarian agency that specializes in assisting, educating and feeding endangered, often-isolated Jews in 70 countries, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the overseas partner of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, over the last century has published some dozens of books that document and augment its activities.

JDC Haggadah
JDC Haggadah

Among them, several Haggadot typically used at seders under the Joint’s auspices; often in countries where communism had barred the printing or dissemination of such Jewish fare.

In 1948, the “overseas arm of the U.S. Jewish community” published the JDC Haggadah, featuring a cover illustration of Moses leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, for use by Holocaust survivors in DP camps. In other DP camps, other JDC-produced Haggadot were used.

In 1992, a Hebrew/Russian Haggadah shel Pesach (Zhivaya Agada in Russian; Living Haggadah) was distributed to the Jews of the former Soviet Union, where open expression of Judaism had become permitted when communism collapsed the previous year.

In 2010 came In Every Generation, a Haggadah telling “the biblical tale of Jewish freedom and redemption” that featured the Joint’s archive of rare photographs, letters and documents.

And in 2018 and 2019, Entwine, the JDC’s young adult engagement initiative, issued a “Reordered” Haggadah-patterned “toolkit” as a guide for young seder leaders and participants, complete with readings, explanations, recipes and stories.

In other years, the JDC supported the printing of Haggadot in some of the languages of Eastern Europe where the organization sponsored seders for the local Jewish community.

After last year’s invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Jewish holidays were important to sustain after an estimated tens of thousands of Ukrainians became refugees. For them, and the majority of Ukrainian Jews who remained in the country, the Joint has reissued its 1992 Haggadah, with new introductions in English, Russian and Ukrainian.

“Know the Jewish people remain responsible for one another,” stated the English introduction by Mark Sisisky and Ariel Zwang, JDC president and CEO, respectively.

Haggadot were among the yom tov necessities the JDC distributed shortly after its founding in 1914 to needy Jewish communities (including in Ukraine) and to Jewish soldiers in World War I, says Linda Levi, the JDC’s recently retired assistant executive vice president for global archives. “Facilitating Pesach and Pesach supplies was something we did since our earliest years.”

The full-color, bilingual 1992 Haggadah, produced in collaboration with Scopus Films, a Jerusalem-based multimedia firm, was used by some Ukrainian refugees and Jews remaining in Ukraine a year ago at JDC and local Jewish community-organized seders. It was distributed to Jewish communities in several countries — including Ukraine as well as Poland, Romania, Hungary and Moldova, where some Ukrainian refugees continue to find refuge.

As some Ukrainian Jews find it “politically sensitive” — and uncomfortable — to speak Russian and use a Haggadah in the language of the country that has attacked their homeland, almost all of them speak Russian — which was the lingua franca of the Soviet Union. Responding to communities’ request for a Ukrainian version, JDC has created and will publish a Haggadah in that language this year and will distribute it to Jews and Jewish communities throughout Ukraine and to refugees remaining in Moldova and Poland.

They will be used at JDC-organized Passover events, which the relief group plans every year, as well as the distribution of matzah to tens of thousands of Jews. The new Haggadah will include the traditional text of the holiday booklet as well as the stories of Ukrainian Jews recounting, as the introduction says, “your joys, your challenges and your resilience.”

This year in Ukrainian, indeed!

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