Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander sell an audience on their 'New American Haggadah'
Around this time of year, the author and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer's thoughts turn to the ping-pong table in his parents' basement.
“I think a lot of people will relate to the scene that I’m about to set,” he told an audience at the 92nd Street Y last night. "The seder in the basement with numerous surfaces pushed together to the walls. I would always know it was Passover when my dad would ask me remove the net from the ping-pong table.”
Judging from the wide laughs, many did relate.
Foer has just edited The New American Haggadah, translated from the Hebrew by fellow author Nathan Englander, and the two shared the stage, though their personalities were hardly a match. Foer was there to slowly and clearly tell the story of how their joint project evolved; Englander to frenetically dive into the ideas inside and engage their abstruse mysticism.
It was perhaps unsurprisingly an older crowd, with a smattering of hip and literate looking people in their 20s with possible inclinations toward Gershom Sholem or Walter Benjamin or others conversant in the old, more academic Schocken Books canon.
But all seemed to be toting just-purchased copies of the Haggadah, as well as Englander’s recent irreverent book of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. (Englander was interviewed at length on that by Capital's Jason Diamond.)
Moderator Jennifer Krause, a writer in her own right and “one of NYC’s hippest rabbis,” introduced the two as “Renaissance Jews.”
“It’s selling across the spectrum, all backgrounds, all religions, and that’s really a wonderful thing," she said. "It’s not surprising that each of them and both of them together would take on such an enterprise because they’re quite fearless in all the work they do.”
The Passover Haggadah is one of the most relatable of Jewish texts, with its recognizable story of the exodus from Egypt, its familiar prayers and the ‘four questions’ asked by the youngest at the seder table. Foer, calling the text dramatic and beautiful, said there’s a good reason why the story was repeated and borrowed by social justice movements.
“There’s an old saying: once upon a time there was a man whose life was so good there’s no story to tell about it,” he said. “Well, this is the best of all stories because it is so fraught and so problematic.”
He said there were 7,000 different versions of the story, excluding the ones many parents had cobbled together with scaps ofther stories.
So, why is this Haggadah different from all 6,999 other Haggadot?
The translation tried to create a true and literal interpretation that kept to the spirit of the Hebrew language, Foer said. To avoid the idea of possession, for example, Englander changed “Our God” to “God of Us.”
Then there's the visual element, which was projected behind them. In one, abstracted Hebrew letters, arranged vertically, resembled a spine running up the page. Others showed the book's minimal design, with small paragraphs of text amid plenty of white space.
While the book was originally imagined as a collection from dozens of contributors, Foer said it began to resemble more an anthology than a living document. So he pared it down to four contributors: Jewish scholar Nathaniel Deutsch, political columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and children’s writer Daniel Handler (a k a Lemony Snicket).
But why "New American" in the title?
“We had to have a title,” Foer said.
Also, that they wanted something bland, something that would have instant name recognition, and that would follow an old practice of naming the place where it was made.
Both writers said another part of the Haggadah’s draw was its evolution as a living document but also a foil to modern thinking and discussion.
“There are a lot of perfect books that are written every year,” Foer said. “Books where there’s nothing really to criticize. The characters are sharply drawn, the story is interesting, and you finish it and you admire it and you put it on the shelf. As opposed to a book that enrages you or makes you passionate or makes you wonder. A book that ends not with a period, but with a suggested ellipsis. So the haggadah is all ellipses. The whole point of it is that this is an invitation to converse.”
“There are a lot of parts of this document that I might not read to my kids at certain ages or that I might say we as a family, this is not what we believe,” Foer said. “But the real question of belief is not particular to a good conversation. Was it just to kill every Egyptian first-born? We can have disagreements about that but agree that it’s a vital conversation.”
The book's lack of didacticism appealed to Englander, and the textual importance of it to modern religious traditions has meant that even very uncomfortable or upsetting or controversial elements have been preserved. Englander said he wanted this edition to honor the original poetics of the text, and not to change any of that central stuff.
“I would find that to be corrupting unless it said that on the book," Englander said. "It would have to have like a cigarette pack warning.”
Englander, who was raised in an Orthodox household but now feels “radically secular,” said he initially resisted Foer when he asked him to translate the Hebrew into English. But Englander said he noticed the magic during the translation when he saw the Hebrew word ‘holy’ in two separate contexts that weren’t directly clear in other English editions. He realized that what he heard in his head in Hebrew wasn’t what he was reading in any existing copies of the book.
“I really believe it’s a book, you should read it and weep,” he said. “It’s so beautiful.”
A friend of Englander, in an appeal to his "radical secularism," had made a comparison between belief and writing that Englander borrowed.
“You don’t believe today? You still pray," he said. "That’s the idea and that’s the same with writing. You get up and you work. You want to sleep? You work. You feel sick? You work. You must always be writing if that’s what makes order. I feel like it’s the same.”
“You don’t have to know what it means, you don't have to know what it’s for," he said, praising the analogy. "This is what I do, this is why I’m here.”
After Foer and Englander left the stage, they went to the next room to sign books. In the hallway, attendees lined up well past the door to approach the pyramid of books and dismantle it, one by one, on their way to the signing table.