Monday, April 2, 2012

Wine Stains, Meaning, and Memory--thoughts on the Haggadah

Lots of people are talking about Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander's haggadah. A congregant emailed me a few weeks ago, asking what I thought. Here's what I told him. It's physically beautiful, and I think it is an important addition to the canon of American Jewish writing. And I will never use it to lead a seder. First, because it is big and unwieldy, but more importantly-- because it is masculine in its translation and in its theology.

Mr. Safran-Foer said of his new guidebook: "In the foreign country of our faith, our need for a good guidebook is urgent." I agree with him, but I'd like to think that in our faith, today, our guidebook would take more more meandering paths, allowing for more of us to experience Passover, its lessons, and its themes.

For all of my problems with his translation, I think that Mr. Safran Foer's op-ed about the haggadah in general is beautiful, and a must read. And below are my thoughts on that very topic, written for Passover last year.


The Sarajevo Haggadah was handwritten and illustrated in 14th century Spain, probably as a wedding gift, and along with its owner, was likely part of the expulsion from Spain in 1492.  The full details about how and when it arrived in Sarajevo are not known, but it was sold to the Bosnian museum in 1894 by a Jozef Kohen. Legends abound about where and how it managed to survive and also unknown is where it was during all of those five centuries. In 2001, a team of international experts undertook a restoration project on this 600+ year old manuscript—with one provision. Restorer Andrea Pataki, of the Austrian Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, would not do anything to remove the wine stains or other signs that bear witness to the use of the storied haggadah at seder tables across the centuries. “That's something you never touch, she said. It's part of the book's history.”

The haggadot that will grace our seder tables this week may not quite have the illustrious history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, but the wine stains they bear are, for us, just as significant. Not only part of the book’s history, those wine stains are a part of our history; like the haggadah itself, those stains incorporate collective and personal memory.

Memory is powerful. My colleague, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, recently wrote an essay about Jewish education. He wrote:

I often find that we focus on the word “meaningful.” We feel a need to make everything meaningful, which leads us to want to make meaning explicit, to teach and tell folks, “Here’s what this ritual means.” But I have often felt that perhaps the word we should be equally if not more focused on is “memorable.” We should be helping people engage in memorable Jewish experiences…

In every survey of American Jews, one fact always stands out to me: There is no holiday more widely observed than Passover. I am no sociologist, but I would posit that the reason for Passover’s enduring relevance is its ability (whether it is your first or your one hundredth seder!) to seamlessly fuse memory-making and meaning-making. But Passover is not the only Jewish experience that can be successful in doing this. In Jewish living, we hope that you make memories, but that you find meaning as well.

But the haggadah and its stains are not only repositories of our own memories. First and foremost, it is a collective story, a chance for us to place ourselves within the larger narrative of Jewish life. This year, we are celebrating our collective story in a new way. We invite you to celebrate the illustrious history of this special place in a new way.

Lastly, among the many things those wine stains represent, they represent relationships. They remind us of the time we laughed so hard at something Uncle Murray said that we knocked over our wine; they remind us of the people who have shared our seder tables over the years. Relationships, like rituals, can help us make both meaning and memories. And even if you don’t have an Uncle Murray, or don’t have a personal repository of Passover memories; we hope you can create them—the memories and the relationships--as you grow your Jewish life and Jewish community.

Wishing you a wonderful and sweet Pesach, filled with meaning, memories, and not too much spilled wine.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your take on the Safran Foer/Englander Haggadah - I was so disappointed that they lacked a basic awareness about translation and theological interpretation in this day and age. Perhaps it was a conscious choice on their part, but I can't recommend it to my congregants because of it.