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Inclusive Passover Books to Check Out

Growing up a youngest child, I took my duty to recite the Passover seder’s Four Questions very seriously. I first learned the English and, as I grew older and attended Hebrew School, I sang the Ma Nishtana with due pride and sense of purpose. Consumed as I was with the pressing concern of not making any mistakes, I admittedly paid no mind to all the Jewish children who asked these seder questions in generations before mine. But the fact that Jewish children have asked and answered these basic questions over many difficult centuries and across dozens of continents and cultures testifies to the strength of the seder in Jewish life. In his introduction to Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?: The Four Questions Around the World, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin states: “As long as children are chanting these questions, the Jewish people will go on.”

Why Is This Night, a charming and evocative new book by Ilana Kurshan, takes the familiar questions and translates them into 23 languages, representing the Jewish Diaspora and the countries and societies where the Jewish people hold, or have held, Passover seders, frequently in spite of difficult odds. The usual suspects appear here: German, Russian, Polish, and Yiddish. “Aleh nekht fun a gantz yohr esen mir khometz un matzah” will ring familiar to many with grandparents from the “old country.” Further afield, Kurshan explores languages from lesser known or largely abandoned Jewish settlements, including Chinese, Amharic (from Ethiopia), Marathi (India) and Greek. Kurshan follows each translation with a small history of the language in its cultural context, culled mainly from the Encyclopedia Judaica and historical websites.

300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions, an impressively thorough book compiled by Murray Spiegel and Rickey Stein, takes the concept of Why Is This Night several steps further. Here, the questions are translated into practically every language under the sun, whether ancient, thriving, near extinction, or flat-out fictional (they include Klingon). The somewhat scattered introduction never quite explains the motivation behind the undertaking, but it’s clear that the authors possess a perfectly valid sense of fun. Spiegel and Stein, who met in a choir and discovered they shared the same offbeat hobby of collecting translations of the Four Questions, enjoy a passion for linguistics and a love for the Passover seder. Their hope is that the addition of new and exotic languages could add spark to a plodding seder.

The inclusiveness of a global outlook is crucial in our new century, and this book should be a learning experience and cross cultural adventure for its readers. Spiegel and Stein reached far and wide to find translators for their myriad of languages, and each contributor’s interpretation becomes an opportunity for further understanding. “Some languages have no words for some of the concepts,” the authors inform. “One writer told us that his was a rice-based culture and in his Dravidian language there was no word for bread other than borrowed words from Hindi.” Included with this book are a CD of some of the translations being read out loud, and a DVD that includes four sign language versions of the questions (plus games and quizzes for the PC computer savvy). 300 Ways should prove particularly meaningful to interfaith families and their guests this Passover.

For a dizzying array of seder add-ons, look no further than Mishael Zion’s and Noam Zion’s A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices (with illustrations by Michel Kichka), an all new sequel to A Different Night: the Family Participation Haggadah. Interfaith families should welcome the diverse discussions and ideas included here, whether they’re looking to understand the traditional text more fully, to create a more inclusive vision for the Passover seder, or to keep the children from squirming through the entirety. Younger people especially will find the dynamic jumble of texts and graphics a style with which they are comfortable; the innumerable facts, quotes and other boxes of texts recall a web hyperlink or even a graphic novel. But the Zions also remind us that “While the seder is a night of changes and innovations, it is also a night of tradition and ritual. Adding too many new readings, activities or ideas may tire or alienate the participants.”

A Night to Remember attempts to include the young and old and everyone in between, allowing each family to select what makes sense for them. Vegetarians will appreciate the alternative suggestions to the bone on the seder plate. Women are celebrated with Miriam’s cup and Alice Shalvi’s lovely “A Woman’s Prayer to Repair the World.” Passages with a social conscience make up much of the book. Quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech are reprinted, as well as pieces on Ethiopian and Soviet Jewry, and the plight of the world’s poor. On the flip side, silliness abounds for kids of all ages, such as the maror-eating contest in which “the first to redden, tear, or fume is the loser.”

The Joyous Haggadah: The Illuminated Story of Passover, illustrated by Richard Codor and interpreted and reimagined by Richard and his wife Liora, steers deliriously clear of the stuffy Haggadah styles one might remember from childhood. For one thing, it’s abridged. Here, Hallel encompasses two paragraphs rather than ten pages, and the Four Questions are introduced as follows: “By now, you’re probably confused, wondering what this is all about. Don’t despair. You’re not alone.” To those unfamiliar with the seder, a dash of irreverence and casual chatter might be just the entrée needed.

The Joyous Haggadah tells the story of Passover in a spunky, but never patronizing, format. Likely intended for children, Joyous Haggadah should nonetheless find its way to many a grown-up seder table. All the greatest hits are here, from the plagues to songs like Dayenu to a recipe for haroset. “Even though charoset symbolizes the bricks and mortar of our ancestors’ slavery, it doesn’t have to taste like mud,” joke the Codors. By the time the seder ends with “Next year in Jerusalem,” followers of The Joyous Haggadah should feel informed, entertained and, importantly for interfaith families, connected to the Jewish tradition. Richard Codor’s touching cartoon of a street in the Holy Land beautifully captures the multiplicity of the Jewish people, as Hassid and soldiers walk the Old World streets alongside tourists, street peddlers and a punk rocker with purple hair. In the Codors’ vision, next year in Jerusalem just about everyone will be welcome.

Lynn Melnick

Lynn Melnick has reviewed books for Publishers Weekly and Boston Review, and has published poetry in Boston Review, Paris Review, Crowd, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and daughters.


Author: Lynn Melnick