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Modern Voices Join in the Telling of an Ancient Tale

Texts of the Haggadah, which describes exodus from slavery, are rich in diversity. The story will be the centerpiece of Passover Seders tonight.

April 23, 2005|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

When Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson packed up this week for a Passover retreat in Ojai, he took along extra boxes of books that reflect the variety of Jewish thought and life.

Besides the Haggadah he will use as the main text at tonight's Seder service and dinner at Camp Ramah, the rabbi is bringing about 35 other widely varying versions of the book that tells the story of Jews' exodus from slavery in Egypt. Among his Haggadot are a reprint of a medieval manuscript; more modern ones from China, India, Mexico and Israel; texts from the four main movements of American Judaism; and some from more countercultural viewpoints.

"Part of freedom is being able to learn from a wide variety of perspectives," said Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, which is part of the Conservative movement. "If all we have done is get rid of Pharaoh and then we have another tyrant clamping down on us, that to me is not what liberation is about."

Diversity in Haggadot is something of an understatement these days. More than any other ritual book in Jewish life, the Haggadah -- the word means "the telling" -- has been redrawn, rethought and repackaged, experts say.

The basics usually remain: the blessings of the matzo and bitter herbs, the Four Questions, the four cups of wine, the recitation of the plagues, the tongue-twisting songs after dinner and the final exhortation of "Next Year in Jerusalem." But with different commentaries, flashy artwork and philosophies veering from ultra Orthodox to New Age, Haggadot continue to be published for what many consider the most widely celebrated holiday in the Jewish calendar.

"The number of Haggadot continues to grow and grow and grow," said Avrom Fox, owner of Rosenblum's World of Judaica bookstore in Chicago and its related website, When he took it over 15 years ago, the businesses carried about 20 editions; today it has about 350, ranging in price from $2 for little paperbacks to limited-edition artistic creations for $185.

Along with traditional all-Hebrew Orthodox texts, Fox's store offers Haggadot in bilingual editions for Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews and mainly English texts for children, vegetarians, Cabalists, feminists, ecumenists and lesbians.

Some books streamline the otherwise lengthy Seder evening or highlight the supplemental teachings of a particular rabbi. But some include just a minimum of the biblical Exodus story and use it as a universal metaphor for struggles against intolerance, poverty, AIDS or war.

Fox said he has had to fend off criticism from Orthodox Jews for stocking those more liberal interpretations. "My job philosophically is to include everybody, exclude nobody," said Fox, who describes himself as modern Orthodox.

In the Orthodox community, there also is great variety of Haggadot. The Orthodox-oriented 613 the Mitzvah Store, at 9400 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles, carries about 200 versions. Customers buy new ones mainly because of the rabbinical commentaries printed below or next to the main texts and prayers.

"People are always looking for the newest Haggadah. They want the new insights to analyze in depth," said shop owner Rabbi Shimon Kraft. Some people prepare weeks in advance to jump from book to book during the Seder, he said.

In his seminal 1975 survey of the books and their artwork dating back to the 15th century, "Haggadah and History," Columbia University history professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi estimated that at least 3,500 editions of Haggadot existed.

Those numbers, he wrote, keep rising partly because a Haggadah is "a notoriously perishable item, readily vulnerable to the stains of spilled wine, the hands of inquisitive children and other normal hazards of the festive meal."

Reached last week via e-mail, Yerushalmi said he did not know how many editions have been added in the last 30 years but said new ones accommodate different views of Judaism and the talents of artists.

Some recent editions are:

* "The Jewish World Family Haggadah." This 90-page paperback for $9.95 features photographs by Zion Ozeri of Jews from Mexico to Uzbekistan, Morocco to India. Its streamlined mainly English text, edited by Shoshana Silberman, includes traditional and liberal commentaries and both Ashkenazic and Sephardic customs.

* "The Moriah Haggadah." At $150, more a coffee table book than anything exposable to spilled horseradish, this lavishly illustrated, 223-page hardback continues a centuries-old tradition of illuminated Haggadot. Many of the bright watercolors by contemporary Israeli artist Avner Moriah are in a circular form, resembling a Seder plate, and are intended to reflect the cycles of Jewish history and life. It includes Hebrew calligraphy by Izzy Pludwinski and English commentary by Rabbi Shlomo Fox.

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