Cokie and Steve Roberts’ new interfaith Haggadah has its pros and cons
MADISON, N.J. (JTA) — There are two things you need to know about “Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families,” one of the many new Passover haggadahs hitting the shelves this spring.
The first is it’s not quite a haggadah. The second is that it’s by Cokie and Steve Roberts. Yes, that Cokie Roberts, longtime senior news analyst for National Public Radio. She’s Catholic and Steve, her husband and a contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report, is Jewish.
What I mean when I say that it’s not a haggadah is that I cannot imagine any seder being conducted with nothing but copies of “Our Haggadah” for all the guests.
As a resource for interfaith families who want help holding a seder that is accessible to the whole family, it’s wonderful. The book bridges the gap between ritual and logistical for an audience that may not know the rituals well, including everything from recommendations about when to begin refilling wine glasses to some of the Roberts’ favorite recipes.
But despite the authors’ claims to the contrary, it’s not really a haggadah that should be used as the main text for a seder.
And when I say you need to know that the authors are Cokie and Steve Roberts, that’s the only way to make sense of the over-the-top name-dropping. How many haggadahs can boast, as this one does, of its authors’ attending a high-profile seder at the Waldorf-Astoria residence of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations? How many list their famous friends?
That distraction aside, “Our Haggadah” is remarkable as a record of the traditions of a particular slice of world Jewry. It is replete with examples of little riffs that have become annual traditions in the Roberts household.
In her introductory essay, Cokie writes, “Every year Steve and I argue about where exactly in the service we first move to the book, causing hoots and hollers from our longtime Seder buddies who have come to see this dispute as a Passover tradition.”
That she finds this tradition worth mentioning is a testament to the extent to which she is invested in creating a seder for an interfaith audience, but not really an interfaith seder — the Roberts’ seder is a Jewish ritual through and through.
In a blog post on March 17, Ed Case, founder and CEO of interfaithfamily.com, wrote that “It is clear from Cokie Roberts’ introduction that she completely respects the Seder as a Jewish ritual. She explicitly says she is not trying … to ‘Christianize’ the Seder.”
Some might think that the Roberts’ focus on multiculturalism would break down the Jewish nature of the seder, but it’s more accurate to read this haggadah as an attempt to lend universal relevance to the seder’s themes of freedom. This tendency to universalize the Passover experience has been around for some time. “Our Haggadah” is a fine addition to the long list of texts attempting to do that.
However, this haggadah demonstrates limited respect for the liturgical integrity of the occasion. That’s not to say it is because the haggadah is aimed at interfaith families –Jewish families are just as capable of glossing over the minutiae of meaning in their liturgy.
A striking example is the text’s exclusion of the seder’s most famous line. Cokie writes, “The Seder’s traditional ending is ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ and if that phrase is meaningful to you, by all means, use it.”
What goes unsaid is that if you do want to conclude your seder with this sentence, you won’t be able to use their haggadah because it isn’t there.
There is a case to be made for a seder that eschews messianic aspirations for the future, which the Roberts seem to imply by leaving out the traditional “Next year” hope, but any pretense to a carefully considered approach to liturgy flies out the window when they describe how children at their seder open the door for Elijah. I guess no one told them Elijah is the herald of the messiah. There’s really no other reason for him to put in an appearance on Passover.
Despite being a beautiful volume, “Our Haggadah” has been poorly proofread. There are multiple instances of the same misspelling of the Hebrew word borei, or creates. (They end the word with a hey instead of the correct letter, alef.)
Case says that what is useful about “Our Haggadah” is the way it is contextualized.
“The context that they put around it is that they’re saying that it’s accessible to interfaith couples and they’re saying it’s good for interfaith couples to have a seder,” Case told JTA.
However, Case adds, the book is “limited” because it does not present outside material. Indeed, my favorite haggadahs are those that provide such outside commentary.
Excerpts from “Our Haggadah” no doubt will be included in the homemade haggadahs that many people use, but it may not be the best choice for the sole text at the seder table.