Talking, singing, and holy eating

Talking, singing, and holy eating

‘The Jewish Journey Haggadah’ offers discussion, games, and inclusive approaches to the seder

A seder is a time of great seriousness, when we recreate the exodus from Egypt, and when we remember as well the other great nightmares of our past, and how we as a people survived them.

Those four cups of wine? They’re a mitzvah.

It’s a time of joy, playfulness, music, even silliness. Those four cups of wine? They’re four cups of wine!

Children aren’t suffered. They’re welcomed. They embody the truth of generations, or transmitting stories across time.

And the meal itself? It’s “holy eating,” Rabbanit Dr. Adena Berkowitz said.

Rabbanit Dr.
Adena Berkowitz

All of this — seriousness, joy, songs, song parodies, stories, history, memory, jokes, games, even recipes, are gathered in Rabbanit Berkowitz’s new haggadah, “The Jewish Journey Haggadah,” a hardcover, glossy-paper, brightly colored, profusely illustrated book that includes the full text of the traditional haggadah, with a complete English translation and transliteration, along with comments, discussion questions, reflections, and many other prompts for both personal and group engagement with the meal, the text, and the group.

“Pesach is really the one time a year for many families when you’re most likely to get everyone around the table, representing a variety of backgrounds and outlooks,” Rabbanit Berkowitz said. “How do you keep everyone engaged? You could have someone from an Orthodox family with a child who is a little more to the right, or somebody who is following a different path. There might be people who are intermarried, and people whose kids didn’t show up — that’s what the Lubavitcher rebbe was talking about when he said that the fifth child is the one who isn’t there. So how as a community do we integrate the idea that it is okay to ask questions?

“That’s what has animated me as I moved across the years.”

She’s taking about many years. Rabbanit Berkowitz first began to gather materials about the haggadah — texts or questions or images that moved or intrigued her — about 22 years ago. Rabbanit Berkowitz, who lives in Manhattan with her husband, Rabbi Zev Brenner (they’re the parents of five children, some adult, one married, some on the verge of adulthood), is scholar in residence and co-founder of Kol HaNeshama NYC, “an organization dedicated to re-energizing the spiritual lives of both not-yet-affiliated and affiliated Jews.” She’s trained in law and is a practicing psychotherapist, and as the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi and rebbitzin, William and Florence Berkowitz, she lived in and as part of Jewish leadership throughout her life. Given the breadth of her background, it’s not surprising that she’s collected a wide range of material, and she’s keenly aware of the heterogeneity of the Jewish community.

“Throughout the process, what carried me through was trying to expose people to ideas and commentaries, especially the more modern, perhaps less rigorously observant, might not have heard of,” she said. “They might not have heard of the Vilna Gaon, maybe or, the Maharal.” It was the Maharal — Rabbi Judah Loewe of Prague — who said that we drink four cups of wine not only because it is one of the mitzvot the holiday demands, but also because “the arba kossot — kossot is in the feminine — are in honor of the four matriarchs.”

Rabbanit Berkowitz includes women in the seder and the haggadah as often as she can; she adds Miriam’s cup. “And I found other things that are surprising, because they are not contemporary sources but are hundreds of years old,” she said. “For example, from the Talmud — why do we eat charoset,” which traditionally includes apple? “Because the Israelite women sat under the apple trees in Egypt, which gave a lot of shade, so they could hide under them to give birth.” The Egyptians demanded that the Israelites kill their baby boys; this way they could hide them.

She also quotes Rabbi Abraham Grate of Prague, who said that “several of the seder’s symbols” that are connected to water “are about Pharaoh’s daughter Bitya, to commemorate her washing in the river and raising Moshe up from it.” That commentary is from Be’er Avraham, published in 1708.

“I wanted to be open to the fact that the Jewish community is not only Ashkenazi, but also Sephardi,” she said. And the Sephardi label includes many groups as well; “Jews from Arab lands, Jews who speak Ladino and also Jews who speak Arabic. And there also are Russian Jews, and Jews from Latin countries, and also from France. In fact, if you walk down the street on a Shabbat on the West Side, sometimes you hear more French than English, spoken by people who are wearing kippot.

“And then there are Jews by choice, who don’t necessarily have an intense background,” she continued. “That’s why it was important for me to have a transliteration. And the translation is as gender-neutral as possible, although there are maybe one or two things that you can’t translate that way.

“And that is a trigger question that I raise. Do you lose something if you de-genderize God? Or is it more inclusive? And that brings up the idea that at a seder, you want to have great food, great singing, and great discussion — and discussion that is also civil and inclusive.”

She thinks it is important to bring up the Holocaust and tie it to the seder, because “20 years ago someone would have said ‘Oh no! Not that again!’ but by now we see a whole generation whose understanding of the Holocaust is minimal. And that’s true of Jewish millennials too.” So the more we tie the history of the Shoah in with the seder, the more, as it inevitably leaves our living memories, it will enter our mythic understanding of ourselves as a people in history.

“In every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us, but we still are here,” she quoted the haggadah. “We have to demonstrate that. It’s the Jewish education component. It’s not just a happy sappy seder. Certain things take time.”

That can lead to a discussion of how we remain united and can continue to remain united, despite our differences. “The only difference between the words united and untied is where to put the I,” Rabbanit Berkowitz said.

The haggadah asks other difficult questions for discussion — “given that we have limited resources, “do we reach out to people who already are engaged but need financial help? To the unengaged? To the intermarried?”

The haggadah includes the Four Questions not only in Hebrew and English, and Yiddish, but also in Ladino, Arabic, Russian, French, and Spanish. Each is printed it its own alphabet — Hebrew, Roman, Arabic, Cyrillic — and each is transliterated. It’s preceded by games, reflections, questions, and even groan-producing old jokes. (When the queen knights a Jewish man, he is so rattled that he forgets the Latin he’d meant to recite and comes out with the Four Questions instead; the queen, in surprise, asks “Why is this knights different from all other knights?” And yes, we’ll be here all week…)

The songs include both the standards — Chad Gadya, One Kid among them — and “There’s No Seder Like Our Seder” (imagine Ethel Merman belting here) or Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Seder” or, in “The Order of the Seder,” “there’s much that we see/celebrating we’re free/It’s our Pass-Over Seder.” (Yes, it’s from Disney’s “It’s a Small Small World.)

Given the importance of the number 15 to the seder, Rabbanit Berkowitz includes a list of 15 things to do in the months leading to Pesach, and another 15 for after it’s over. Some of her jokes are extremely silly, and some of her recipes are unusual; one, for matzah balls, calls for kosher-for-Pesach vodka.

Overall, Rabbanit Berkowitz said, “I hope that a person will be so engaged, that what I have produced will help them enjoy it, so that they’d forget to ask ‘When do we eat?’

“I always think about people who go to break-fasts on Yom Kippur even though they haven’t fasted. It seems that the last hold on people, the last thing to go, is anything connected with food. Studies show that something like 77 percent of American Jews have some sort of seder. I hope that some of them, especially some who don’t have that much of a background, or have forgotten what they knew, will come back, will be interested in the beautiful photos and fun things to think about and sing.

“I hope that there will be something that will pique most people’s curiosity, to get them involved in constructive and insightful conversation amid the holy eating,” she said.