April 9, 2024
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The Haggadah: Still a Template for Jewish Creativity?

In recent years, two Jewish authors, one on the East Coast of the United States and the other on the West Coast, have added annually to the growing number of Haggadot, already the most published book in Jewish history, published in time for Passover.

The creations of Martin Bodek, an IT specialist who lives in Teaneck and David Cowen, a Los Angeles resident who works as a writer and film projectionist, have included Haggadah titles featuring the literary style of Shakespeare, emoji symbols, coronavirus references, and, predictably, Donald Trump. In other words, a wide swath of contemporary contexts.

And, the iconic “Seinfeld” sitcom (“The Festivus Haggadah,” by Bodek), (“The Yada Yada Haggadah,” by Cowen).

Each Haggadah from the two prolific authors included a combination of traditional Jewish text, appropriate humor, political commentary and sociological observation on Jewish cultural foibles.

This year, nada from them.

For the first time in several years, neither author has turned out a new Haggadah. Which parallels a decrease in Haggadot of any sort put out this year by standard publishers and authors — one exception is the 50th anniversary edition of “The Israeli Black Panthers Haggadah” (Jewish Currents).

What happened? Has the Jewish community’s creative wells run dry? Did covid refocus the community’s focus?

The Jewish Link asked the two authors:

Why has the Haggadah been such a template historically for Jewish literary and artistic creativity?

Bodek: Because the Haggadah itself is an invitation for poetic license and creativity. What all Seder practitioners intuitively understand is that the only Biblical injunction for the Passover holiday is to retell the story of the Exodus. The Haggadah is that vehicle, and the complete Haggadah itself, minus a few ending passages, is only approximately 1,000 years old. The rest is commentary as they say, go and have fun.

Cowen: Unfortunately, the creative wells have run so dry I can’t even answer this question.

Why is this year different from all other years?

Bodek: In the Haggadah landscape, nothing should be different. There will be additions to the annual crop of both scholarly and comedic works, and I look forward to them, because I have a growing collection. However, Dave and I have been pouring them out the past few years, but we’re magnanimously ceding this space to others.

Cowen: Only Hashem knows why this year is different for me and Martin. Maybe God will free us. Let us go be creative. Take us out of this desert. Maybe He/She/They/It won’t.

Did you finally run out of creative ideas?

Bodek: No! My head is abuzz with ideas, and I am merely reloading. I’ve got plans for next year, big ones.

Cowen: It’s possible. It’s possible I have run out of creative ideas for Haggadahs. Or it’s possible there is an idea. But the Will to co-create it with God has not been provided. And it’s possible the Will returns to co-create and then co-self-publish it in time this year after all! Who can say? Only Hashem. Maybe also my psychiatrist.

Is it harder to write a humorous/satirical/political Haggadah with Donald Trump out of the White House?

Bodek: Not at all. #45 isn’t the only humor fodder in the universe. To suggest his absence would leave some sort of grand humor vacuum is to grant a bit too much accolade.

Cowen: Only a very sick individual would write anything about that guy. Or about that guy ever again. But then again there are many in the media who are very sick individuals.

Did any of your past Haggadot ever get you into trouble?

Bodek: None yet, but I’m working on it. Wink. Seriously, though, part of my reloading process is to ensure that my next batch does not run afoul of any copyright laws. Stay tuned.

Cowen: Alejandro Jodorowsky a great Jewish-Ukrainian and Chilean/French artist/healer. In his book about Tarot, which he credits to French kabbalists, he said the French word for judgment is a pun for “the judge ‘lies.’” HBO/Warner Bros.? Discovery/Elon Musk? and NBC/Universal/China? may still sue me someday for copyright violations in Curb Your Haggadah or The Yada Yada Haggadah. But only Hashem can judge me. And maybe my mom. She approves of parts of most of the books.

How do you reach a balance between traditional content and fanciful imaginations of the Pesach message?

Bodek: By including the traditional content, I litch-rilly [literally] am balancing the content. The Emoji Haggadah had the traditional Haggadah in the back. The Coronavirus Haggadah was too short to include the full Haggadah, which would have imbalanced everything. The Festivus Haggadah was a secular enterprise, so I left the Haggadah out, and The Shakespeare Haggadah had the traditional text on the facing page. I intend to do this latter arrangement for all future haggadot, achieving near-perfect balance. Et voila!

Cowen: I’m quite sure there is not enough traditional content in my “Pesach message.” And most other messages of mine. Including this interview, which already has too much fanciful imagination. But it’s my honest attempt at a good answer.

Is there a constant Jewish hunger for innovative Haggadot, or after the political/religious divisions of the last few years, has the Jewish community become ready for some spiritual stability, something familiar, at the Seder? Will this year be the year of the Maxwell House Haggadah at many Seder tables, instead of the latest Haggadah?

Bodek: All three! Why should Jewish folk only be hungry for one kind of offering? There should be plenty of desire for all of the above, certainly across the wide spectrum of our culture, and probably even within one’s own family, and hey, even individuals might like a little bit of everything. I add several to my Haggadah collection every year that aren’t all funny, or all serious, or all anything. Taste the rainbow.

Cowen: In my experience of the Jewish community at the Seder table, there is a constant Jewish hunger for food. This is infinitely more constant and stable and familiar than the hunger for even the most innovative Haggadah with the most spiritual sustenance. Me? I’m ready for lunch.

Steve Lipman was a staff writer at the Jewish Week from 1983-2020.

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