Arts and Culture | Religion & Jewish Life

In Foer-Englander ‘New American Haggadah,’ tradition and modern literary sensibilities collide

NEW YORK (N.Y. Jewish Week) — The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer grew up with a fairly typical American Passover. His father would use the Maxwell House Haggadah, supplemented with his own pamphlet of writings, and lead the annual Foer Seder. But nine years ago, sitting at his family Seder in Washington, D.C., Foer thought that literary-wise, the Haggadah could use a little work.

“It’s an idea that’s occurred to lots of people throughout history, and probably many other people who haven’t actually acted on it,” Foer said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever met a person who also doesn’t feel that this” — meaning their Haggadah, whichever one they use — “could be better.”

So Foer set out to rewrite one. He emailed dozens of prominent Jewish writers — Jeffrey Goldberg, Tony Kushner, Susan Sontag, Simon Schama — asking them for brief commentaries on some of the Passover themes. He thought he’d compile them all and create a supplement not unlike the one his father made, except with literary superstars.

But then he changed his mind.

“It became clear that I was making a book I really didn’t want to make,” he said. What he really wanted to create was a whole new Haggadah, not merely a supplement. So he began to revise. He pruned down the commentators to just four — the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg; novelist and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein; children’s book author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket); and the Jewish studies professor Nathaniel Deutsch.

They’d each write 10 short commentaries — some political, some philosophical, some whimsical — that responded to a line from the traditional Haggadah. His friend Nathan Englander, an equally renowned Jewish novelist, grew up Orthodox, and he would translate the traditional Hebrew text itself.

Nine years later, the Foer-edited “New American Haggadah” has just been released.

“There was a lot of wasted time,” Foer said, explaining why it took so long. Yet he added later, “There’s no reason to rush.”