Making the seder better

Making the seder better

In Closter, Hartman’s Noam Zion talks about participation, choice, and involvement

Noam Zion
Noam Zion

Forget about your Maxwell House haggadahs, with their old-style approach to the seder, Noam Zion says.

We live in a Starbucks world.

What does that mean?

Noam, who is a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is going to be scholar-in-residence at Temple Emanu-El in Closter next weekend. (“As an Israeli and a child of the ‘60s, I insist on being called just Noam,” he said, in a way that brooked no disagreement.) He plans to talk about “A Night to Remember,” the haggadah that he and his son, Mishael, have created and refined over the last two decades. (See box.)

The haggadah “is to facilitate people’s customizing their own seders, and to maximize participation,” he said. “The idea is that a haggadah is not a preprogrammed book for you to read.” That’s the Maxwell House model. “In the old days, you could have coffee simply with sugar or without sugar, with milk or without milk.

“With Starbucks, you have many choices, and every time you can vary what you choose.”

Noam’s first haggadah, “The Family Participation Haggadah,” was published in 1997. The second one, “A Night to Remember,” is the one he will use when he teaches at Emanu-El; the older one has just been reissued, with 50 new pages of stories.

“Our haggadah, ‘A Night to Remember,’ has the traditional text on one side, and on the other side there are things to enrich it,” Noam said. “They are not commentaries — they can be a beautiful poem from an Israeli poet, or an American Jewish poet. They can be a song — maybe ‘Let My People Go’ — or stories of aliyah, or of people escaping into freedom. It can be games or stories.”

For example, he said, the section about the four sons is illustrated by a political cartoonist. “Cartoons can be good for any age, and because this is by a cartoonist for adults, it appeals specifically to adults, to a more sophisticated understanding.”

When he illustrated the plagues, Noam said, the artist “left one of them out. That was an accident, but it also turned out to be a good thing, so the kids could figure out which one.”

That artist based the work on other artists, he added. “The plague of the cattle is based on a Georgia O’Keefe, for another animal plague he used an image from Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. The art for the tenth plague is based on Edward Munch’s Scream.

“That way, even if you’re at the most boring seder in the world, there will be so much that you can read on your own.”

The point of the haggadah, though, and of Noam’s talk at Emanu-El, is to keep the seder from being boring. Beyond that, it is to make the seder relevant, meaningful, gripping, enlightening, enriching, and even fun.

“Let’s say that you put in 10 hours of cleaning and cooking — of course it’s much more than that — and five minutes into preparing the actual content of the seder. I’d like to change that to put more time into the content.

“It shouldn’t be that I get compliments on how delicious the food is or how beautiful the table looks, but because the seder was fun or interesting.

“Everyone who comes to one of these talks gets a seder planner that they can use to see what they want to try this year, and what they might want to use next year. They also can use it to delegate responsibilities. If you are having a psychologist or a teacher, why don’t you delegate the four sons to them? They can talk about special education, or about how people have different kinds of intelligences. And the political sections are perfect for discussions on poverty.

“I’m not asking people to write their own haggadahs. Ninety percent of people couldn’t do that. I am asking them to pick and choose, just as they pick and choose at Starbucks.”

All the additional material in the haggadah is in English, Noam said, and it is aimed at American culture and sensibilities. He and his son have created a Hebrew-language version for Israelis, and another in Spanish, for South American Jews. One in Swedish is on its way, and so is one in Portuguese, for the Jews of Brazil. “We had a long conversation yesterday with someone from the Lemba tribe in Zimbabwe,” he added. “They claim to be direct descendants of the Jews of Yemen. He is translating it into Shona, the native language.” Each of these haggadot will reflect both the text and the culture that surrounds it.

While the haggadah is meant to be relevant to the time and place in which it is being used, it is not a freeform adaptation of the ancient text. “At Hartman, we spent a year in in-depth study of the haggadah, and of the passages in the Talmud about it,” Noam said. “We made sure that we understood the structure of the haggadah.” It was not until they had that understanding, which began in childhood but was refreshed by the intensive study, that he and his colleagues began to work on it.

Close to the beginning of the seder, he was struck by the ossification of the four questions.

“The haggadah has the idea of asking questions, but that notion has become twisted and fossilized in a way that keeps it from allowing anyone to ask a question.” It was meant to be a way to encourage questions, to keep the story alive, Noam said, but it became so formalized, so formulaic, that it now allows no variation. It is now a catechism.

“What Jewish child, what human being, would think it is a question when you tell them what to ask?” he said. “It is not asking questions, it is a recitation. It is a performance, and the proper response to a performance is not to answer but to clap.

“There was a very famous Israeli psychologist who worked with culturally deprived children, and he would invite some of them to attend his seder,” Noam said. “He was Swiss, he was very formal, and he looked very forbidding. They were all scared.

“He would say to them, ‘I have a lot of serous things to do at the seder. I have a lot of serious things to say. I can’t be bothered with questions. If anybody asks any questions, I will have to throw candies at you.’

“This appears in the Talmud,” Noam said. “The haggadah does not undermine the tradition. Instead, it mines the tradition for techniques that we can apply in our own time.”

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