Author Jonathan Safran Foer and journalist Jeffrey Goldberg shared with educator Maureen Kendler the story of the making of the pre-eminent Jewish storybook, a new Passover Haggadah. Samantha Ellis reviews “Retelling the Story” at Jewish Book Week on 25 February 2012.
There was some confusion at the beginning of Retelling the Story. Maureen Kendler said a critic had called the new Haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer “a feelgood Haggadah” but this turned out to be a joke made by Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the contributors. In fact, Safran Foer thought “feelbad” might be more appropriate — the Haggadah challenges us to see ourselves as though we have personally left slavery in ancient Egypt. Safran Foer began with the question, “How can this book encourage that empathic leap?”
His Haggadah is not a book of answers; Foer wanted “to provide a space, an opening, for people to put their own feelings”. So surrounding a translation by fellow fictioneer Nathan Englander are four commentaries: Goldberg focuses on the Jews as a nation, Nathaniel Deutsch takes a scholarly approach, Rebecca Goldstein does lit crit and Lemony Snicket’s strand is titled “Playground”. There’s also a timeline—Safran Foer calls it “The story of the story”—about the Haggadah through the ages. Kendler quoted The Times earnestly explaining, in 1840, that Jews don’t drink blood at Passover. And instead of pictures the book mainly carries text, its design by Oded Ezer complete with inkblots and apparent wine stains.
It was fascinating to hear Safran Foer speak with rigour and passion about how he decided he wanted to make a Haggadah that would be “Unified and useful, not beautiful and interesting,” and that he had to exclude some of the original contributions. He sighed—and the audience sighed with him—when he revealed that a painting by RB Kitaj hadn’t made the cut.
And there were laughs of recognition when he described his father as “A model of a militantly atheist Seder leader” who organised his Passover family gatherings around dissent. As Goldberg sees it, “Judaism demands that you can’t be satisfied with the way things are. The Haggadah is more than a story. It starts in slavery and ends in freedom. It is obviously a metaphor for the way things are supposed to be. You’re supposed to come out of the Seder thinking: I’m going to do something.” He even feels that if you throw away the leftovers of your festive meal while people in the community are hungry, you have missed the point.
Of course, no discussion can ignore the festival’s food. Safran Foer, famous for writing fervently about his decision to give up meat in Eating Animals, feels that “The Seder table is a very appropriate place to talk about where food comes from”. Goldberg was troubled by the “ornateness” of some Seder hospitality while Safran Foer defended tables that are groaning with food, because “We are supposed to set the table as befits free people”. Yet another Pesach paradox.
There are already 4000 Haggadot out there and when Kendler opened the discussion up to questions it seemed as if everyone in the packed hall could have written their own. For Goldberg this engagement with the text is what Pesach is all about; he described it as a festival that “Demands that you write on to the Haggadah your concerns”.
My favourite answers came to the thorny question of whether one should avoid translating the book’s appeal to God to “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know You”. Goldberg, in line with the Haggadah’s aim to inspire “a radical act of empathy” suggested that “wrath” might be interpreted as “constructive anger” that would provoke us to go out and change things.
And Safran Foer, too, was typically unsqueamish. “I don’t think there’s anything that shouldn’t be addressed,” he said. “If there’s anything my shrink has taught me, it’s that addressing things brings you more happiness than not addressing them.”
Samantha Ellis is a playwright and writer. Her most recent play is Cling To Me Like Ivy (Nick Hern Books), and she is writing a book with the working title What Would Lizzy Bennet Do? for Chatto & Windus.