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9:08 am
Tue March 27, 2012

New 'Haggadah': A Sacred Text, And A Good Read

Originally published on Fri May 11, 2012 8:33 pm

The Haggadah tells one of the oldest stories of all time: Moses leading the ancient Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

That tale is retold every year in Jewish homes around the world during Passover, and in particular, over the Passover meal, the Seder.

Novelists Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander have just released a new version of the ancient text, called New American Haggadah. Foer edited the volume, and Englander provided translations from the original Hebrew and Aramaic.

Both men have fond memories of childhood Seders with their families. "It was a real, kind of makeshift, cobbled-together and really happy affair," Foer tells NPR's Rachel Martin.

"We used to drink wine," Englander adds. "I used to slide under the table. That's a very famous family quote. I was like 4, and I stood up and I said, 'I be as a drunkard!' And they still say that to me a lot."

The Haggadah is the heart of any Passover celebration, as a guide for both prayer and discussion. But Foer says he thought something was missing from the prayer books his family used through the years and he wanted to come up with something better.

"There's nothing original about that idea," he says. "There's no book in human history that's been revisited more times than the Haggadah. There are about 7,000 editions that we know of."

But Foer says none of those thousands of versions spoke to his experience growing up in a Jewish household that was not "traditionally observant." "Nobody in my family speaks Hebrew, so we relied very heavily on the Haggadah as a user's guide into this holiday."

But that meant they didn't concentrate on the quality of the writing. "When we said that the writing was good in one," Foer recalls, "what we meant was it was good relative to other Haggadahs. As opposed to good, compared to our favorite novels of the year, or our favorite, you know, political writing. And I thought, why are we using this kind of diminished standard?"

Foer adds that many of the people at his family Seder table were writers. "So why would we accept, you know, a translation that was unintentionally ambiguous, or that was not a clear or faithful translation of the Hebrew?"

Englander says he was initially very resistant to the idea of doing new versions of the traditional text. Growing up Orthodox, he had only read the Hebrew.

"And when I opened a Haggadah and looked at the English side of the text, what I saw, what became really clear to me, is this text," he says. "I feel like you should read it and weep, it is so stunning, it is so beautiful, it is just gigantic in a million different ways, and I wasn't seeing on the page what I was hearing in my head."

Englander adds that he initially thought the project would be simple. "I thought we were making the hipster Haggadah and it'd be six weeks or something and we'd be done," he says.

"But it became this all-consuming project of just trying to give voice to this text that is so stunning to me. Any beauty that's in the translation is simply a representation of the Hebrew and Aramaic."

"I came to recognize how much I truly relate to texts," Englander adds, "not to organized religion."

Foer says his response to the project was slightly different. "I've become more and more interested in the things that religion can do," he says. While it is possible for a family to gather for an extended meal and a discussion about individual and community identity, most people won't do it without the impetus of a religion.

"The older I get, the more aware I am of my inability to, you know, live the life I want to lead without help, without some kind of structure," he says.

"I don't know that the question of belief in God is all that important to me. But what is very important to me is the story that's being told and has been told by more than a hundred generations of Jews, for thousands of years, and the power that the story has in my life and in my family's life."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Haggadah tells one of the oldest stories of all time, when Moses led the ancient Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. The tale is retold every year in Jewish homes around the world during Passover, and in particular over the Passover meal, the Seder.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTING A MATCH)

MARTIN: It begins with the lighting of candles and then a prayer.

NATHAN ENGLANDER: You're blessed, Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos who has set us apart with his mitzvoth, and instructed us to ignite a festival light.

MARTIN: That was author Nathan Englander reciting his own English translation of a traditional Hebrew blessing, before the Passover Seder. Englander recently translated the Passover prayer book from the original Hebrew and Aramaic into the new American Haggadah. The project was the brainchild of author Jonathan Safran Foer.

Foer and Englander are both novelists who write from a Jewish perspective. Foer's debut novel, "Everything Is Illuminated," focused on a grandson of a Holocaust survivor. And Englander recently published a new collection of short stories called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." Both also have fond childhood memories of Passover Seders with their families.

ENGLANDER: It was a real kind of makeshift, cobbled-together and really happy affair.

MARTIN: Jonathan Safran Foer.

JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: Something we would always look forward to and something that would always generate a lot of memories.

ENGLANDER: We used to drink wine.

MARTIN: Nathan Englander.

ENGLANDER: So I do remember being drunk.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ENGLANDER: Yeah, I used to slide under the table. That's a very famous family quote. I was like 4 and I stood up and I said: I be's a drunkard.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ENGLANDER: And they still say that to me a lot.

MARTIN: The Haggadah is the heart of any Passover Seder, as both a guide for prayer and discussion. But Foer thought that something was missing from the prayer books his family used through the years, and he wanted to make a better one.

FOER: And there's nothing original about that idea. You know, there is no book in human history that has been revisited more times than the Haggadah. There are about 7,000 editions that we know of and probably many multiples of that that have been created.

MARTIN: So, what was lacking? What in the conversations, what in the debate did you feel was missing?

FOER: I did not come from a traditionally observant household. Nobody in my family speaks Hebrew. We relied very heavily on the Haggadah as a user's guide into this holiday, not only to take us through the requisite prayers and songs and stages of the Seder but also to encourage the kinds of questions we might ask. So, when we would speak about the Haggadahs that we used - and we went through many different versions in the course of the Seders in my life - when we would say that the writing was good in one, what we meant was it was good relative to other Haggadahs, as opposed to good as compared to our favorite novels of the year, or our favorite, you know, political writing. And I thought: why are we using this kind of diminished standard instead of our very highest standard? And I should say also that in my family about half the people at the Seder table were writers. So, why would we accept, you know, a translation that was unintentionally ambiguous or that was not a clear or faithful translation of the Hebrew.

MARTIN: And speaking of the translation itself, Nathan, this is where you come in. How did Jonathan convince you that this was a project that you should take on - translating Hebrew and Aramaic into English for this new version of the Haggadah?

ENGLANDER: Yeah, I don't think I could have been any more resistant. You know, this is - grew up orthodox in, you know, sort of the way of having left organized religion. I felt just this resistance to it. And he said go look and think about it. You know, I grew up religion, I only used the Hebrew side and when I opened Haggadah and looked at the English side of the text, what I saw was this text, and I can't say it enough times, I feel like you should read it and weep. It is so stunning, it is so beautiful, it is just gigantic in a million different ways. And I wasn't seeing on the page what I was hearing in my head. You know, and it took three years to do it. I thought we were making the hipster Haggadah and it would be six weeks or something and we'd be done. But it became this all-consuming project of just trying as literally as possible to give voice to this text that is so stunning to me. Any beauty that's in the translation is simply a representation of the Hebrew and Aramaic.

MARTIN: Well, and I'll put this to both of you, but it's clear; I hear you talking about how much you loved thinking about the words. But I do wonder, did it strengthen - faith isn't the right word - but your religious identity?

ENGLANDER: I can jump on that. I can't even tell you how my faith and non-faith was made stronger by this, where I came to recognize how much I truly relate to texts - not to organized religion, not to that kind of structure of community.

MARTIN: What about you, Jonathan?

FOER: I think I had a slightly different response. Through this project and also having two young kids, I've become more and more interested in the things that religion can do. Is it possible to gather with one's family, extended family and eat over the course of three, four, five, for some people, seven hours while, you know, discussing who we are as individuals, as a community? It's certainly possible to do that without religion, but most people don't do it without religion. The older I get the more aware I am of my inability to, you know, live the life I want to lead without help, without some kind of structure. I don't know that the question of belief in God is all that important to me. But what is very important to me is the story that's being told and has been told by more than 100 generations of Jews for thousands of years and the power that the story has in my life and in my family's life.

MARTIN: Jonathan Safran Foer is the editor of "The New American Haggadah," which features a new English translation by Nathan Englander. Both writers joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much to both of you. It's really been a pleasure.

ENGLANDER: Oh, thank you so much.

FOER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And Happy Passover.

FOER: To you too.

ENGLANDER: (Hebrew spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.