Nearly 20 years ago, when his oldest son was 2, Eliezer Lorne Segal got the idea of creating a Passover haggada in the style of Dr. Seuss.
"It started as a joke, a parody of what it would be like if the haggada were a children's book," recalls the 48-year-old Talmudic scholar, now a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary. "Originally, it was less for kids than for adults who brought their children up on Dr. Seuss."
Beginning with his own take on the "Four Questions," and adding additional chapters as inspiration struck, Segal built his haggada, as he says, "in spurts." But although the first laser-printed copies began to circulate as early as the mid-1980s, even Segal had no idea that his little "entertainment" would eventually evolve into "Uncle Eli's Special-for-Kids, Most Fun Ever, Under-the-Table Passover Haggadah," a full-fledged reinterpretation of the Exodus story that, after more than three years on the Internet (http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Uncle_Eli/Eli.html) has just been published in book form by San Francisco's No Starch Press.
"Uncle Eli's Special-for-Kids" is the haggada like you've never seen it, as silly as it is reverent, as traditional as it is new.
Comprising 15 brief verse chapters, it re-creates the Passover saga from the point of view of a boy who has no patience for his family's Seder until an elderly stranger--the Uncle Eli of the title--appears in his room.
Initially, Segal says, Uncle Eli was little more than an exaggerated alter ego, but later, the character came to represent the biblical prophet Elijah, who plays an integral role in the Seder feast. Either way, he is, in Segal's telling, a subversive element, a trickster, who fools the protagonist into learning about Passover by giving him a version of the story that is flat-out fun. As Eli himself explains at the outset:
Instead of just sitting there
twiddling your hands
While the grown-ups read words
that you don't understand,
I've brought you
a special Haggadah to read.
It'll keep you in stitches!
It's just what you need!
Of course, more than Elijah, Uncle Eli brings to mind another famous literary trickster--the Cat in the Hat. It's a connection Segal now admits makes him "uneasy," although when his haggada was purely an Internet phenomenon, he appropriated images from Dr. Seuss to illustrate the site.
With the print publication of "Uncle Eli's Special-for-Kids," he's changed the site drastically, replacing most of the Dr. Seuss drawings with those that artist Bonnie Gordon-Lucas created for the book, and taking down all but four chapters of the haggada itself. The latter, Segal says reassuringly, is a temporary move, undertaken as a courtesy to his publisher, and after Passover, he plans to restore the missing material.
This should come as a relief to all the Uncle Eli fanatics who have, with Segal's blessings, downloaded and e-mailed the haggada around the world, or found themselves charmed by the site's low-tech "bells and whistles," like its lounge-style instrumental versions of such traditional songs as "Dayenu."
If, for some people, merging technology and tradition seems a radical innovation, Segal doesn't see the ideas as incompatible. Among his other Web sites is one re-creating a page of the Babylonian Talmud, and, he says, "the traditions are, in fact, sympathetic. Religious people have embraced technology."
Neither does he believe there is anything sacrilegious about interpreting the haggada in a popular milieu. Passover, after all, is at heart a children's holiday, when the purpose is to transmit the cultural memory to a new generation, so it will carry on.
"The commandment of remembering the Exodus," Segal says, "appears in many different contexts through Jewish life. It's like the story of the four sons; you tell it differently, depending on the context, and yet we continue to read this uniform text of the haggada and not go beyond it.
"But part of the tradition is interpretational and improvisational. There's a tradition of creativity I'm tapping into."