Haggadah offers framework for fragile Thanksgiving

Since Thanksgiving this year falls two months after the devastation of Sept. 11, the celebratory feast won't be turkey as usual.

"We thought, why don't we write something to help Jews through this difficult period, to celebrate the blessings of America, acknowledge the vulnerability we feel, and mourn the losses we've encountered?" asked Ann Schaffer, director of the national Belfer Center for American Pluralism at the American Jewish Committee.

"As Jews, we are used to framing important moments in our lives with words and rituals," she noted.

Those words and rituals are detailed in "America's Table," a four-page Haggadah to be used on Thursday at Thanksgiving.

The Haggadah is "a wonderful guide for bringing families into an awareness of the environment and the atmosphere that prevails now, as a result of the tragedies that befell us on 9/11," said Ernest Weiner, director of the San Francisco region of the AJCommittee. "It's a unifying theme that gives each member of the family, especially children, a sense of direction for a troubled future."

Just as the Passover Haggadah tells a story, Schaffer said, this one too takes the user on a journey.

Those who utilize it will light memorial candles, recall persecution and "talk about the sense of fragility and sense of vulnerability, as well as express thanks for our blessings and our gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy," said Schaffer.

The Haggadah also encourages its users to get involved in community service.

"It reflects how the country is feeling today," said Schaffer. "There is a greater sense of unity, of wanting to do good deeds."

It ends with traditional Jewish blessings.

The Hagaddah is made up of words that AJCommittee staffers and lay leaders wrote, as well as quotes from various Jewish leaders and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

"This was not just an attack on the City of New York or on the United States of America," Giuliani contended. "It was an attack on the very idea of a free, inclusive and civil society…We're of every race, we're of every religion, we're of every ethnicity. And our diversity has been our greatest source of strength. It's the thing that renews us and revives us in every generation."

According to Schaffer, "We wanted to reflect in the Haggadah a sense of immediacy, and we quoted Giuliani because it's immediate."

The quotes — which are side by side with the text written by AJCommittee members, to make the pages resemble those of the Talmud — come from all the Jewish movements, to be as inclusive as possible.

There are also four questions for children, like the Four Questions traditionally posed on Passover.

"We wanted it to be a very open-ended document, so questions are not answered," she said.

The Haggadah is mainly available on AJCommittee's Web site — www.ajc.org — where it can be downloaded and printed either in Adobe Acrobat or as a Word document.

But the AJCommittee also sent it out on rabbinical listservs, and sent hard copies to its chapters around the country.

Some rabbis have decided to distribute them to congregants.

Rabbi Perry Rank of Syosset, N.Y., copied 150 for his congregation. He said he thinks the Haggadah will help families get back to the real point of the holiday — giving thanks.

"When people sit down to a meal without a word of thanks to God or even to each other," he said, "the holiday is diminished and its purpose compromised."

Rank said the Haggadah reminds Americans of the freedoms they usually take for granted.

"At a time when those freedoms are under attack, it is all the more reason that we call them to mind," he said. The Haggadah "has pulled together the right words and sentiments" in a "tasteful, simple and dignified way."

Locally, the AJCommittee office also has distributed the Haggadah to other Jewish organizations, said Weiner.

Schaffer said the response has been positive, as people give thanks for what they have, while still grappling with the events of Sept. 11.

"American Jews are profoundly grateful to be in America. I think we are conscious of our bounty, and we are conscious of our connection to Israel. We're thinking and feeling in a particularly intense way right now. So the Haggadah helps us articulate our feelings."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."