Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Mad Men Haggadah: Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander and Gender Neutrality

Much has been made of the newly minted "New American Haggadah," edited and translated by two shining stars of new American Jewish literature, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander.  I can't recall a Haggadah receiving more widespread publicity in recent times (with the possible exception of one written for interfaith families by Cokie and Steve Roberts), with the editor appearing everywhere from Colbert to NPR's "Fresh Air" (hear NPR interviews here).  Even the President received a copy, from one of the commentators, Jeffrey Goldberg.   On the first week when the book came out, the only book to sell more copies was "The Hunger Games."  They sold out the first printing in days, but the publisher regrouped and a second printing was completed in time for the holidays.  I received my copy just a few days ago and, full disclosure, have not yet read every word of the commentary.

My verdict thus far:  Mixed.  I'm not sure what the editors wanted this to be.  As a coffee table book, the art is so-so.  As a work of scholarship, well, it isn't really, nor does it seem to want to be.  I wish Foer and Englander had been more heavily involved in the commentary. When I leaf through the Carlebach Haggadah, I expect to see the stories of Reb Shlomo, and that Haggadah does not disappoint.  When I opened the Foer / Englander Haggadah, I hoped to see in print the wisdom of these Jewish literary superstars, justifiably seen as this generations's burgeoning Bellow, Roth and Malamud. But instead I got Snicket, Goldstein, Goldberg and Deutch.  Don't get me wrong, these are accomplished thinkers and many of the commentaries offer refreshing perspectives (Lemony Snicket's is aimed for children and teens; Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's is literary-psychological); but they are missing the edginess and wit of Foer's and Englander's writing.   I would have loved to have seen some of the brilliant insight and moral power of Foer's tour de force, "Eating Animals," for example, in looking at the paschal offering from the perspective of the lamb.  Originally, I understand, a number of other well-known commentators were included in this project.  I wish their essays had not been left on the cutting room floor.  Then we might have gotten a sense of New American Jewish thinkers in dialogue with one another and the text about what it means to be a New American Jew.  

But my biggest beef is with Englander's translation, which returns us to the caveman days of the masculine God-King. The Four Children have become the Four Sons again.  The orange is no longer on the Seder plate.  Miriam has left the building.  Somewhere, along with Miriam, Debbie Friedman is welling up.  Is this rejection of a half century of feminism a reflection of the current "Mad Men" inspired nostalgia for the bygone days before the gals ruined everything for men, and, evidently, for the male God; or, as Foer has implied, is it because Englander wishes for this Haggadah to be accepted at his (Orthodox) sister's Seders?   Foer also said at a recent appearance that he expected that people offended by the return to God as "Lord" and "King" will at the very least have something to discuss at the Seder table.  Perhaps, but I think he underestimates what a dramatic reversal this is.

For the Orthodox community, of course, it is not.  But for the liberal denominations, "Lord," "He" and "King" left the scene somewhere toward the end of the last century.  You will not find God as a male, feudal master in any Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Haggadah or Siddur composed in past two decades, and even Haggadahs with modern Orthodox authorship, like Noam Zion's "A Different Night," tend toward gender neutral language.  This is not simply a recent shift of the zeitgeist, it has become ingrained in liberal Judaism, much as female rabbis and cantors have become an accepted,unquestioned part of the liberal religious scene.  

The sad fact is that these days, non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews have a great difficulty praying together.  Most of the prayers are the same, but the God they pray to is addressed very differently. It used to be that if one wanted to find a common style and language for prayer, the Orthodox format would be seen as the common denominational denominator, the place of least resistance, since, it was thought, the liberals would be flexible about male language, separate seating and the exclusion of women from leadership roles. That is no longer the case.  To put it bluntly, it's not just a matter of being P.C. to avoid gender-based pronouns describing the Sacred.  It has become a central part of American Judaism, at least one segment of it, and has been so for a generation.  When I saw "King" and "Lord," it was as jarring seeing an orange on the Seder plate.

Well, one might say, Foer and Englander did not have to cater to liberal whims in choosing sexist language.  And it's true that I have many other Haggadahs to choose from.  And it's also true that the translation contains some striking innovations (like the plague of "clotted darkness," which echoes a classic midrashic view).  But I feel a sense of betrayal here, because, in every respect, this Haggadah, the New American Haggadah, promised to deliver the best that is New and American about Judaism.  And, for me and so many others, what's best about that New American Jewish experience is pluralism.  While the commentary offers a plurality of perspectives, the book does not offer up pluralism where it counts the most, in the translation of God's name. 

Can this best selling Haggadah really be the next Maxwell House?  In hardcover, it's too expensive to be that multiple copy, wine-stained and matzah-crumbed replacement.  Incidentally, this book comes pre-stained, unless those ink blots that are literally sprinkled on almost every page are supposed to be some kind of Jewish Rhorschach Test, which, I suppose, this holiday, to some degree, is. But for this Haggadah to have lasting value and not just be a one-year wonder, it will have to somehow deal with the pluralism issue in order to accommodate the vast diversity of religious perspectives that sits around just about every Seder table.  It needs to speak to all four, children.

There are a number of Haggadahs I'd choose over it for my Seder table.  Topping them all is Noam Zion's "A Night to Remember: A Seder of Contemproary Voices," where you can read passages  by David Ben Gurion and Primo Levi, and poetry by Marge Piercy and Yehuda Amichai.  If you are looking for ideas for your Seder, you can see the entire book online.  This wonderful book is a better-crafted sequel to the popular "A Different Night" Haggadah, which we use at our TBE Seders.  I also recommend the Reconstructionists' "A Night of Questions" by Strassfeld and Levitt, and the more scholarly"Go Forth and Learn."  Though too expensive for use around the table, the best current commentary on the Haggadah is the two volume"My People's Passover Haggadah"  by Hoffman and Arnow.  For those seeking the ultimate portability for that midnight escape from Egypt, try this new Haggadah app with a pluralistic bent, but there's no guarantee that the Red Sea has WiFi.

While the New American doesn't come close to any of these, on the plus side, the cover is entirely in Hebrew (except for an annoying red band that falls away in a day) and the calligraphy is exceptional. But for a Haggadah that does not assume much Jewish literacy on the part of the reader, there is no transliteration.  

To be fair, both Miriam's Cup and the orange are mentioned in this Haggadah, but only as a blurb on a timeline, indicating these customs to be relics of the '70s, not a living tradition of a New American Judaism.  Of course, that very timeline has rankled Orthodox reviewers of the book, as have some of the more daring commentaries. It might be considered a strength of this book that it refuses to pander to the expectations of either group.  But the return to masculine hegemony is a major distraction.  I'd love it if there could be a second, gender neutralized version of this Haggadah for liberal Jews.  And maybe a third version too, veering more rightward for the Orthodox.   

Two Jews - Three Haggadahs.  Now what could be more New American than that?

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