On Passover, a tale for the generations

Haggadah: Pikesville's Beth El Congregation has published a Seder script designed to be more accessible and inclusive.

April 05, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

On Passover, a tale for all generations

Every spring, when more than 100 members of her family gather in a tent to celebrate Passover, Neile Friedman and a cousin try to introduce new elements to the Haggadah, or Seder script, they've used for more than two decades.

But tonight, Friedman's family and hundreds of others in Baltimore will freshen the ancient tale with a new Haggadah, published by Pikesville's Beth El Congregation and designed to be more in tune with the times.

"The Haggadah was becoming so old, it didn't speak to us anymore," said Friedman, who was head of a committee that developed the new one at Beth El. "It was a challenge to keep the children interested."

The Haggadah is combination of prayer book and playbook for the Seder. It's filled with instructions for conducting the Passover meal, which celebrates and retells the story of the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

Passover, the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday, begins today at sundown and lasts eight days.

Most Haggadot - the word means "to tell" in Hebrew - follow the same basic structure. But they vary widely in detail, reflecting the cultural, religious and social forces of their time.

The new Beth El Haggadah, which the congregation sells for $8, is among thousands of versions that have proliferated since the 1960s.

Along with variants on the traditional Haggadah, they include the vegetarian Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb, which emphasizes compassion for animals; a lesbian-oriented volume, titled Like An Orange on a Seder Plate; as well as Holocaust-oriented Haggadot linking the genocide of World War II to the ancient enslavement of the Jews.

In style, Haggadot range from plain, Hebrew-dominated booklets selling for as little $5 to works of art, such as a limited edition of the Moss Haggadah, by artist David Moss, whose woodcuts and swirling calligraphy fetch $8,500 a copy.

The new Beth El Haggadah is 58 pages and - like all Hebrew books - opens from right to left. Beth El, a Conservative congregation, has published 5,000 copies and sold 2,000, according to Rabbi Mark Loeb.

Colorfully illustrated with commentary in the margins, the new edition is designed to be more accessible to children - and more inclusive.

Traditionally, for example, males have dominated the story of Exodus. The new Beth El edition adds a ritual - the filling of Miriam's Cup - a reference to Moses' sister, who led Jewish women in celebration of the parting of the waters. The ritual recognizes the heroism of Jewish women who defied Pharaoh during slavery.

"It's sort of repairing an omission," said Loeb, leafing through a copy of the new Haggadah in his office last week.

The Seder provides a chance to discuss freedom, slavery and suffering in a broad context. To this end, Beth El's earlier Haggadah, published in 1982, invoked the words of Anne Frank:

"If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be held up as an example," she wrote. "If God lets me live ... I shall work in the world and for mankind."

The new edition mentions the Holocaust, but looks at the concept of slavery through a post-Sept. 11 lens.

"Much of the world remains in spiritual bondage," it reads. "It is a world filled with fanaticism, fear of the stranger, and unease at the presence of people who are different."

There was a time when Jewish families relied on just a few Haggadot. Among the most popular was a volume distributed free as a marketing tool by Maxwell House Coffee.

Today, Jewish bookstores such as Jacob's Ladder on Reisterstown Road carry 50 different versions or more.

Owner Paul Lande attributes the increase to the growing affluence of the Jewish community over the past four decades and to the desire of more assimilated Jews to understand the ancient Hebrew text.

Lande says he sells hundreds of Haggadot this time of year, especially to younger Jews who are taking over leadership of the Seder from the older generation.

"They come in and look a little perplexed," said Lande, who says he sometimes spends an hour or more with a customer, answering questions.

"It's like selling a pair of shoes," he said. "It's got to be the right size, the right fit."

After three years of work at Beth El, Neile Friedman thinks her congregation has the right Haggadah, a living document that speaks to the generations who will gather outside her mother's home tonight in North Baltimore.

And to keep the Haggadah current, Beth El plans to issue updates each year - online.

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