Local translator updates Maxwell House Haggadah
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Local translator updates Maxwell House Haggadah

First revision to original 1934 translation

Nearing its 80th birthday, perhaps it was time the most printed Passover haggadah in history had a major facelift.

The Maxwell House Passover Haggadah, which has had more than 50 million copies published, hits the shelves – and supermarkets – this spring featuring its first new English translation since 1934, the year it was originally printed.

While American Jews of the early 20th century might have accepted the original, archaic language, “it makes the haggadah more clumsy for contemporary readers,” said Elie Rosenfeld, CEO of Joseph Jacobs Advertising. The firm has represented Maxwell House from the beginning and spearheaded the new translation, which took nearly a year to complete.

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Henry Frisch displays his new translation of the Maxwell House Haggadah. courtesy henry frisch

“We wanted to make sure everyone who uses it feels comfortable with it,” said Rosenfeld, who lives in Teaneck.

“I would use the term ‘pseudo Jacobean’ to describe the older version,” said its new translator, Henry Frisch, a Teaneck literature scholar who taught Bible and Shakespeare at the Bronx High School of Science for three decades and now leads a Shakespeare class for adults in Teaneck.

The 63-year-old said he translated the Maxwell House Haggadah in an effort to help Jewish families more easily navigate their way from the Four Questions to the Four Children.

The Jews of the 1930s were impressed by English that sounded as if it came out of the King James Bible, said Frisch, who grew up in Washington Heights and attended Yeshiva Soloveichik elementary school (for whose 1961 class he is planning a 50th reunion).

Today’s generation, on the other hand, often finds the flowery language difficult to understand and can’t relate to all the “thous” and “thines,” said Frisch. So two years ago, he agreed to tackle a more contemporary translation after some prodding from Maxwell House officials.

And that’s how the Four Sons evolved into the Four Children, and the King of the World became Monarch of the Universe. Such changes were made in an effort to resonate better with today’s readers of all backgrounds, said Frisch. “In Hebrew everything requires gender,” he noted, “whether or not gender is a consideration.”

The impetus for the new translation was not to address gender issues, Rosenfeld said, but to retell the old tale in contemporary language. Still, using gender-neutral language for God is indicated by modern theological understanding, Rosenfeld says.

“The fact of the matter is, God doesn’t have a gender,” he said.

Much of the text was changed for the purpose of clarity: For example, children at the seder are supposed to ask questions that real children would ask. The old version read: “Wherefore is this night distinguished from all other nights?” Frisch thought the terminology wasn’t realistic. “What child speaks that way?” he said with a laugh. He simplified it to the well-known question “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

While he tried to remain true to the original English translation, he changed it in places when he feared it would puzzle readers. “I wanted this to be a haggadah all American Jewish families could be comfortable with, regardless of their level of knowledge,” he said. “This new edition can be used by anybody.” The Hebrew remains classic.

Frisch has lived in Teaneck since 1974 and raised four children there with his wife Shelly, a history teacher. They have many grandchildren, most of whom annually join him at his Passover sedarim.

When he’s not reading or writing, Frisch, who attended Bronx Science and CCNY as well as various Judaic programs, is cheering for his favorite baseball team, the Yankees. The diehard Yankees fan and season-ticket holder says few things come between him and the Yankees. In fact, Frisch has earned the distinction of having missed only one opening day in the last quarter-century – the year the Yankees opened their new stadium on Passover.

That the Maxwell House Haggadah has become an icon is for good reason, he said. “It’s compact. It’s a very basic guide to get anyone through the seder. This is a fundamental haggadah. It has Hebrew text, English translation, plus transliteration. It connects to people from all backgrounds, and everybody has it around in their family, even when, like us in my family, they use additional haggadahs with commentaries.”

At the daily Talmud class he attends at Cong. Keter Torah in Teaneck, his peers were so impressed by his newfound fame, they begged for his autograph on their new Maxwell House Haggadahs with the “Frisch translation.”

“It’s a big kick to know that you got a million copies into print of something you wrote,” he said.

Yet, on April 18, as families across the country are reading from his haggadah, Frisch will likely be reading from a different text. “We have the Maxwell House Haggadah in our house, but I hardly ever use it,” he admitted sheepishly. “I enjoy using haggadahs that have commentary.”

Jewish Standard/JTA Wire Service

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