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Writing Our Own Haggadah

Pesach (Passover in English) is about freedom, myth-making, Jewish identity and cultural history—plus family and food. It’s like Thanksgiving, only Jewish. Even Jews who don’t celebrate any of the other holidays of the year tend to celebrate Pesach.

This is true of my husband, whose parents are in an interfaith marriage but who is not himself Jewish. Even in his parents’ largely irreligious household, Passover was always celebrated, albeit in a low-Hebrew, race-through-the-service-so-we-can-eat way. Throughout my childhood, too, Passover was celebrated—but our seders were packed with four hours of Hebrew prayers and songs.

I still love the Silverman haggadah (book that tells the story) that I grew up with, but it also frustrates me now. I like the old prayers, but the religious sensibilities I’ve developed as an adult demand that the old be paired with new. Plus, my husband finds the Hebrew and Zionism of my family’s haggadah overwhelming. Although new printings include transliterations and translations, the text can still be daunting. I don’t want my celebration of the Festival of Freedom to alienate my partner.

There are other haggadot which suit us better than my childhood one does. For instance, the liberation-theology-inflected Gates of Freedom. Or The Women’s Haggadah, courtesy of E.M. Broner. But simply trading in my old liturgy for someone else’s new one didn’t feel quite right to me. What guarantee did I have that these alternatives would work for my interfaith family?

I didn’t feel right duplicating the old service I grew up on, but neither did I want to replace it with someone else’s. So what to do?

Write our own, of course.

Our house has become a locus for ritual among our circle of friends. We celebrate a variety of holidays over the course of an average year, from the High Holy Days to Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees. We have regulars: professors, folk-singers, Jews, Christians and neo-pagans. Two of our favorite regulars are Russians, born Jewish but reared in an anti-religious Soviet state.

We first met Sasha and Alla some years ago at a seder, actually; a mutual friend had called to say she knew a Russian couple who had never celebrated Passover but wanted to start. They were shy at first, but warmed over the evening. Affter we sang “Dayenu,” Alla told us that although the haggadah was foreign to her, she remembered that melody from childhood. They’ve celebrated with us ever since.

Last February, about two months before seder, I emailed our usual participants and a few other ritual-minded friends and asked for help writing our own haggadah. We exchanged a lot of email in crafting a haggadah custom-designed for our household.

We came up with audience participation ideas, like going around the table to name our own personal liberations. We searched out transliterations and sheet music to level the ritual playing field.

References to Jews as a “chosen people” struck us as chauvinistic, and likely to alienate those who were not Jewish among us; instead we tried to hint at universal redemption through telling our Jewish liberation story. Long Hebrew passages seemed likely to alienate both those who were not Jewish among us and the Jews who weren’t reared with strong Jewish educations:  we opted for the vernacular in many cases, even replacing the Birkat HaMazon (grace after meals) with an English-language prayer of Thanksgiving.

We argued back and forth about fifth cups of wine: should we pour one in honor of the State of Israel, or is that too Zionist? What if we pour one in hopes of peace between the Israelis and Palestinians? What about the tradition that holds we cannot drink the fifth cup of wine until the Messiah comes? Speaking of Messiah, are we comfortable with that idea, or would we rather refer to a day when the work of creation is completed?

At the end of two months we had our haggadah. On the cover, we listed our names as co-authors, ending with “and you.” Our explanatory note, on the first page, sums up our attitude about the ritual:

“You may be wondering why this haggadah claims to be written by you. The answer is that parts of tonight’s service will be uniquely yours. The written haggadah is our road map, but what we see along the way will be based on who we are.

Judaism has evolved into a tradition without high priest, sage, or penultimate leader. It is the joy and responsibility of every adult Jew to engage with the tradition. Because of this, our seder has no leader and no followers. It is incumbent upon on all of us to lead, follow, create space, ask, and answer.”

Our work paid off; the words flowed smoothly, and everyone at the table helped to lead the service. We went around and added ideas, thoughts, pieces of ourselves to the service. At the end of the evening Alla and Sasha told me that my haggadah was the first one which had ever made them feel connected with the holiday; my husband told me he’d had a wonderful time, and I think he looks forward to Pesach now in a whole new way.

As it turned out, I attended three seders that year. One, with my husband and our circle of friends. Then two in Texas, led by my brother and my cousin, near-duplications of the seders their fathers led throughout our childhoods.

I enjoyed the Texas seders. It was good to learn that I can still make it through “Had Gadya” without tripping over my tongue. But I got a particular thrill from using the hagaddah we had written—and knowing that our ritual was intelligible to my husband made the evening all the sweeter.

I grew up believing that chanting Hebrew at Passover is a mitzvah (commandment). And it may be. But I can’t help thinking that connecting a pair of Soviet Jews with their heritage, and creating a Pesach ritual to which my husband, who is not Jewish, can relate, is a greater mitzvah for me.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, ordained by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA. Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Her most recent book is 70 faces (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011), a collection of Torah poems.