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Review of Our Haggadah

April 5, 2011

In 180 small, tasteful pages, Cokie and Steve Roberts manage to bring us into their life, their home, and their seder, in the hopes that we will be able to create our own. This small number of pages has many marvelous sections. Less than half of the book is the seder itself, from the first cup of wine through the meal and the fourth cup of wine. The other pages include resources: a section on how to set up the seder, seder songs, recipes, a wonderful list of websites and introduction from the authors.

Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families, by Cokie and Steve Roberts
Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families, by Cokie and Steve Roberts (HarperCollins, 2011).

Cokie and Steve's introductions are a Haggadah itself: the story of their discovery of their own power and creativity. Cokie and Steve attended a seder during their first Passover as a married couple, 1967, hosted by Arthur Goldberg. Since then, they have had a seder every year; in Our Haggadah, they share their more than 40 years of experience with us.

As the introductions make clear, their seder has been transformed over the years, growing and shrinking in number of participants. As they've gotten older, they have taken to "sprinkling pairs of drug-store reading glasses around the tables and trying to find some lamps to supplement the candlelight."

Their joy in their seder is palpable; their instructions and hints about how to run one cover everything. They advise us how to use the time as guests arrive before people sit down. They tell the leader to "be informal, even funny, while preserving the solemnity of the ritual." They bring us into their own seder. "Because we have so many guests, Steve stands during the service in order to get their attention, but that's not necessary with a small group. People want to feel welcome and relaxed, but a seder is not just another dinner party, either."

Most of all, Cokie tries to keep us calm and encourages us to take the first steps at this complex ritual. While the seder contains elements that are spiritual and also call for some skill as a host or hostess, she said, "Don't worry about it. This might be our Haggadah. But it's your Passover — a night different from all others, filled with joy. Next year in your house."

The Haggadah itself (pages 23-95) contains the central recitations and symbols, done in their full Jewish religious particularity. Kiddush, the washing of hands, dipping of greens, breaking of matzah is all there at the start, with the blessings in Hebrew, English and transliteration. The same is true for the four questions. Most of the Haggadah is in English, including the four children and the story of the Exodus itself. Rabban Gamliel's explanation of the Passover symbols is included, as is Hillel's sandwich, again in English.

The Ten Plagues are included, with no softening of the violence inherent in the story, beyond the traditional dipping of the 10 drops of wine. Dayanu is here in Hebrew, English and transliteration. Even though it invokes, quite clearly, the traditional image of God, Cokie and Steve want their seder to be meaningful to "the Jews around the table..." Over time they discovered that "some of the recitations brought back memories that mattered a great deal." They have not attempted to bring their seder into line with some pre-conceived theological or political agenda. It is the traditional Jewish seder with all of the "good parts" intact, at least in English.

Birchat hamazon, the prayer after the meal, is reduced to a one page English prayer. But for those of us who grew up doing nothing after the Seder, that prayer, plus the final two cups of wine and songs, is an expansion of what some of us had previously done.

Cokie and Steve do celebrate both of their religious traditions in their home. And Cokie gives voice to the Christian connections that are brought to her mind by the seder. But she does it in her introduction, sharing her own cognitive map of the ritual. She is deeply committed to have the Jewish tradition be part of her family "consciously and conscientiously" as Steve quotes her saying in his introduction.

Steve says: "Be not afraid. You can do it. Each Seder is the same, but also different. We all infuse the event with our own styles and personalities. Things happen and somehow become a tradition." This Haggadah will be important if it helps people participate again in the yearly Exodus of our people that is Passover.

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Rabbi Rim Meirowitz

Rabbi Rim Meirowitz is rabbi at Temple Shir Tikvah, a Reform congregation in Winchester, Mass.

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