The Haggadah, the centuries-old text that accompanies the Passover Seder, is getting a pop culture makeover.
When former DC Comics editor Jonathan Gorfinkel sought to update the Haggadah, the written guide to the traditional Passover meal known as the Seder, he looked to comic books.
Gorfinkel managed the Batman franchise at DC for nearly a decade before starting his own creative branding studio. He believes that Passover’s Exodus story, in which the ancient Jews are enslaved in and then freed from Egypt, is just as exciting as any superhero story.
This year, just in time for the holiday — one of the most important on the Jewish calendar — he published the Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel. In his version, the superhero in question is Moses, Pharaoh is just as scary a villain as the Joker, and the Ten Plagues are drawn in classic comic book style. Illustrated by Israeli artist Erez Zadok, the book offers a fresh take on an old story, intended to engage kids who might be bored at the Seder and superhero-loving adults alike. It’s also an Amazon best-seller (at least among religious graphic novels).
Passover, which spans eight days, is a celebration of freedom. The Seder (a word which means “order” in Hebrew) is held on the first two nights of the holiday; the ceremonial meal involves the recitation of the Exodus story, a standard set of songs, and plenty of ritualized eating and drinking. The Haggadah, which means “telling,” acts as both a storybook and a guide to the meal’s many traditions. It tells the reader when to drink their wine, why they’re supposed to recline while they eat, and the meaning behind all the accoutrements on the Seder plate at the center of the dinner table.
As far as Jewish holidays go, Passover is the great equalizer. According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of American Jews say they participate in a Passover Seder, including 42 percent of Jews who don’t consider themselves religious. In fact, Passover ranks the highest for Jewish holiday participation.
“There are few barriers to entry so a Seder can be made very accessible to those with diverse backgrounds,” explains Hadassah Fruchter, a rabbi at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Maryland. “It’s structured around a cool and interesting sensory experience, with foods and songs, that replaces the pews with pillows, and a prayer book with a full plate.”
Another tradition has sprung up around the Seder: the novelty Haggadah. In addition to Gorfinkel’s graphic novel Haggadah, there’s an emoji Haggadah, a sitcom Haggadah, a zombie Haggadah, a baseball Haggadah, and even a “hipster Haggadah,” written by novelists Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander. Because it’s 2019, there’s also a Trump Haggadah (tag line: “People All The Time They Come Up And Tell Me This Is The Best Haggadah They’ve Ever Read, They Do, Believe Me”).
According to the Jewish Book Council, the Haggadah is the most published Jewish book of all time, with at least 3,000 different versions to appeal to Jews of every demographic and interest.
Occasionally, a mainstream publishing house will put out a Haggadah, like when Simon and Schuster debuted the Elie Wiesel Haggadah in 1993, or when Little, Brown published Foer’s New American Haggadah in 2012. But Haggadahs are typically relegated to niche Jewish publishing houses serving a small religious minority.
Typically, Haggadah best-sellers have been more traditional versions with scholarly commentary, like the Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, written by the former chief rabbi of London, or the Artscroll Family Haggadah, a favorite of observant Orthodox Jews. But novelty Haggadahs have become a holiday favorite, especially as people have begun incorporating several versions into their Seders. “A variety of Haggadot [the plural form of Haggadah in Hebrew] can be used at the same Seder,” explains Matthew Miller, CEO of Israeli publisher Koren. “It’s fun.”
The Haggadah text is a compilation of psalms, benedictions, commentaries, and prayers. Although the core text has received additions over time, the Haggadah’s authorship is largely unknown, says Aaron Koller, a professor of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University.
“The Haggadah as we have it came together over many centuries,” says Koller. “Some of the most beloved parts at the end are from as late as 1500 CE, but the heart of it comes from roughly the time of the Talmud — 1500 to 1800 years or so ago, although some parts may even be older than that.”
After centuries of hand-written texts, the first printed Haggadah was produced in 1480s Venice; Italian Jews began printing Jewish texts shortly after the invention of the printing press. It did not take long for contemporary adaptations to proliferate, says Miller. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the original Hebrew text was kept intact while original commentary and illustrations were included in different versions as additional insight. Things only got more creative from there.
“The Haggadah says that every generation should interpret it to their own circumstances,” says Miller, “and it’s lasted for so many generations because it speaks to so many generations.”
It helps that the story of Exodus itself is particularly universal.
“Folks identify with the experience of being faced with a challenge — personal, spiritual, professional, national, global — that makes them feel like they are in ‘Egypt,’” says Fruchter. “There’s deep joy that comes with the hope that somehow they will find redemption and clarity, and cross the sea to start the journey to the promised land.”
Adds Miller, “It’s the Bible story that everyone has used to describe their liberation, from Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement to the Ethiopian Jews immigrating to Israel.”
Even before the invention of the printing press, the Haggadah had long been used as a way to talk about modern Jewish life. The Birds’ Head Haggadah, for example, was a hand-drawn 14th-century German version depicting human bodies with avian heads. Some scholars believe the birds are in fact griffins, a mythical lion-eagle creature meant to illustrate the conflicted allegiance German Jews felt to their country at a time when some Jews were thriving and others were experiencing religious persecution.
During the 1800s, different Yiddish versions popped up, featuring commentary delivered through parody that mocked everyone from rabbis to politicians to capitalists. The Szyk Haggadah, created by Polish graphic artist Arthur Szyk in 1936, was an anti-fascist work; Szyk drew the ancient Hebrew slaves as European Jews and the Egyptians as Nazis.
“Jews, and especially modern Jews, have always felt that the Seder ought to be a meaningful experience and so they bring themselves into the text as a way of bringing the text back to the next generation,” Koller says. “It’s an ongoing quest for meaning and continuity in an age when both of those seem elusive.”
Over time, versions of the Haggadah began to reflect the American Jewish community’s focus on tikkun olam, or social justice. The Freedom Seder Haggadah from 1969 was created by rabbi and political activist Arthur Waskow, and it juxtaposes the story of Exodus with black persecution in America. The Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb came out in 1988 and centered on vegetarianism and animal rights.
It makes sense that as Passover has become the most mainstream Jewish holiday, contemporary editions of the Haggadah have strived for novelty. As Miller notes, Passover is often “the last vestige for people holding onto their Judaism,” and so the Haggadah needs to be accessible to everyone.
In addition to Gorfinkel’s graphic novel Haggadah, another item on Amazon is the (Unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah, written two years ago by Moshe Rosenberg, a rabbi at a modern Orthodox day school in New York who runs the school’s Harry Potter club. Rosenberg, who’s sold over 25,000 copies of his Haggadah, says there are endless parallels between Harry Potter and the Haggadah, like the four sons of the Passover Seder and the four Hogwarts houses, or the trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione and that of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
“Every single year, hundreds of thousands of Jews wonder how they are going to keep people awake at their Seder table with the same ancient text,” says Rosenberg. “My theory was, why not draw from something that already has audiences engaged? My students know the Harry Potter canon inside and out, so it’s criminal not to use it! J.K. has already done all the work — all I have to do is connect the dots.”
He’s not the only one turning to Hollywood for new Passover material. The Maxwell House Haggadah has gone all in on novelty too. The coffee company’s original Haggadah came out in 1932 as part of a marketing campaign to educate consumers that coffee was indeed kosher for Passover; the Haggadahs were, and still are, a free gift with purchase of Maxwell House coffee.
The Maxwell House Haggadah became the most popular Haggadah for American Jews, especially for those who were less observant, since its layout and English translation was approachable enough for those with little knowledge of Hebrew. Naor Danieli, Maxwell House’s brand manager, says the brand has given away more than 50 million copies.
This year, Maxwell House debuted a special edition in honor of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a show about a 1950s Jewish woman in New York City named Midge Maisel who pursues a career in comedy. The show is a time capsule of mid-century American Jewish culture, complete with a classic New York Jewish deli scene and Borscht Belt references.
Midge’s New 1958 Edition Haggadah, the official title of the new Maxwell House edition, comes with illustrations of the Maisel family and a recipe card for Midge’s infamous brisket. The Haggadah’s typical yellow-brown color scheme has been replaced with Midge-approved pink, and fake drops of wine are printed on the pages.
True to its roots, you can only get Midge’s Haggadah with a Maxwell House purchase (and, in this case, only on Amazon). Danieli anticipates the coffee company will give away about 500,000 copies of its traditional Haggadah this year.
“It felt like an organic partnership because the Maxwell House Haggadah is definitely the one the Maisels would be using in their imaginary universe,” Danieli says. “I think there’s been more interest in celebrating Passover since the Obama administration had their Seder in the White House, and we’re looking forward to approaching new audiences by offering the Haggadah exclusively on Amazon. We’re bringing a contemporary approach, but also taking into account the tradition behind the holiday.”
Of course, the Haggadah will never be as popular as the Bible, which sees 100 million copies printed annually. Miller says Koren company sells just 120,000 Haggadahs a year, which amounts to a drop in the bucket for the publisher.
Still, new versions continue to proliferate. For Jews celebrating the same holiday every single year, a fresh interpretation can go a long way.
“There are endless amounts of lessons from the Haggadah,” Rosenberg says, “and anyone can have an enchanted Seder if they have new ways to look at the story.”
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