March 23, 2012

THE SALTINE CELEBRATION:

The Story of Us, A People in Exile: On The New American Haggadah (JESSICA FREEMAN-SLADE, March 23, 2012, The Millions)

The New American Haggadah's strengths are especially prominent in the commentary dispersed throughout the text. Each major portion of the Seder is accompanied by four perspectives -- Middle-East historian Jeffrey Goldberg ("Nation"), director of the Center of Jewish Studies, Nathaniel Deutsch ("House of Study"), novelist and scholar Rebecca Newberger Goldstein ("Library"), and novelist Lemony Snicket ("Playground"). These contrasting voices bring out the multitudes of questions and quandaries inherent in the Passover story, and by secularizing the commentary, giving it over to political, liturgical, literary, and elementary analysis, they have made this into a vitally relevant piece of philosophical inquiry. Goldberg's "Nation" contributions are especially vital, contextualizing the Seder as a moral code that we as global citizens have tried (and failed) to uphold. (Sharp eyes will immediately scan the text for his take on the Israel-Palestine quagmire.) And Snicket's witty asides bring the perfect amount of snark to the text -- it will keep the antsy adolescent attendee entertained throughout the Seder while keeping them engaged with the evening's message. (Especially great is the retort to that ever-condescending narration of the Four Children -- Snicket offers, as an antidote, "The Four Parents.") Ending the Seder with Snicket's Seinfeldian examination of the bizarre Aramaic song, "Chad Gadya," lets you leave the table with a belly laugh -- made even more enjoyable after the required four glasses of wine.

What makes this volume such a pleasure to read, and what makes it the best book of modern religious thought in recent memory, is its demand that dialogue be a central part of worship. "Tonight is the night," Goldstein says, "that we sanctify storytelling," and nowhere is this more clear than in Englander's translation, framed with the essence of narrative-in-community in mind: "Adonai" becomes "Lord God-of-us, King of the Cosmos." The latter half is a bit grandiose, but the first part is spot-on. The voice of the storyteller-as-representative of the audience is central, and the translation of the Seder's outline suddenly clarifies why each part is crucial -- reading each stage as one line of dictation, "Sanctify and wash; dip split and tell; be washed and bless the poor man's bread; bitter, bundle, and set down to eat; hide it and bless; praise it; be pleased." Prayers are translated leniently, as if preparing for the not-so-adherent Jew, i.e. if you fail to dispose of all the leavened bread in your house, it's no big whup. And he lets the beauty of the language flow, turning prayers into poems. In a prayer for compassion, the plea is to "rescue and recover them -- delivering them from gorge to meadow, from darkness to light. Break them free of their shackles and lead them on to salvation. Do it with speed and in our days, and let us all say, Amen."


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Posted by at March 23, 2012 4:03 PM
  

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