Author Jonathan Safran Foer is famous for his novels "Everything is Illuminated" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." But his latest work isn't fiction.
Foer has edited a new version of the Passover prayer book, "The New American Haggadah," which tells the story of Moses leading the Jewish exodus from Egypt. It is used each year around the Seder table to help guide the ritual feast.
“I think it’s a really, really wonderful holiday, but more than that, a wonderful opportunity. How many times in the course of a year do you gather with family ... to discuss the biggest themes in life? To take stock in who we are as individuals, as families, as people?” Foer asked.
The Haggadah is one of the oldest continuously-told stories, as well as one of the most well-known tales across cultures. It tackles controversial issues, inspiring social justice movements and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
“The paramount question is: ‘Who is a slave and who is free? And how do we, as ostensibly free people, participate in this collective movement toward freedom?’ It’s not a coincidence that more social justice movements have borrowed this story more than any other,” he said. “It begs us to recognize who doesn’t have what we have, and also to appreciate what we have.”
Foer said the Haggadah is profound because it commands a reader to be part of the narrative. “It asks more of a reader than any other book I know of does, which is not to be a recipient of the story, but a character. We are literally supposed to feel as if we’re being liberated from Egypt that night,” he noted.
According to Foer it’s the “book of all books,” in terms of the number of times it has been revised and revisited – there are about 7,000 known versions. That’s why he said his departure from fiction, though maybe odd, was important.
“I have felt that our Seders, while really nice and creating all kinds of nice memories, just weren’t what they should be,” the writer explained. “We would use at my grandmother’s house the Maxwell House Haggadah, which is what almost everybody uses in fact.”
Foer posited that almost all users have the Maxwell House because it’s free, and with over 40 million in print, easily accessible. He added that the book is passable, but not much more than that.
“The translation is not good by the standards we would use to judge secular works, and the art is a joke. It’s kitschy,” Foer said. “So why not? Why not have writing that is good by the standards that we would apply to the novels we would read? ... It’s a book that invites terrific writing and it’s a book that invites terrific design and art, and it should inspire the best conversations.”
To Foer, conversations are what made him fall in love with the Haggadah. “I can’t think of any book where the more you push on it the more it reveals, you know. The more it pushes back. It overflows with questions,” he said.
When Foer initially started this project, he enlisted about 30 contributors to write. He went on to say the number was much too high, and whittled the number down to four. Lemony Snicket, Jeffrey Goldberg, Nathaniel Deutsch and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein all contributed commentary.
“Wonderful writing and art doesn’t make a wonderful Haggadah. It makes a nice anthology, a reference book,” he said. “How can we tune this instrument? It’s a great instrument; it’s been around for thousands of years. It’s very durable; it doesn’t need to be improved upon. I ended up contracting a book to these four different voices, which sort of pause on the moments when most families want to pause.”
Foer said he encouraged the four not to prescribe thought, but instead invite it by asking questions and offering several perspectives on each issue.
“The book ideally is a springboard for conversations, sometimes very contentious conversations. The reason the book has lasted this long is because the questions it’s asking are hard,” he continued. “To my mind, the ideal Seder would be one where people disagree in.”
Foer said that though his own memories are more of the Passover ritual than the Haggadah’s content, he hopes to impart both to his two children.
“Helping my grandmother cook; stirring massive, really bathtubs, of soup. Playing football on the front yard as the cousins arrived. The songs, the smells, like most people — my most cherished memories are locked in from early childhood,” he recalled. “But I also hope it’ll be the richness of the stories. Not the answers that the family reaches or gestures towards, but our willingness to ask questions with sincerity. Without being overly concerned with the destinations.”
Jonathan Safran Foer is author of the novels "Everything is Illuminated" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." His new book is a Passover prayer book, "The New American Haggadah."