Egalitarian Haggadah bridges modern, traditional sede

A "traditional egalitarian" Passover Haggadah may sound like an oxymoron, but author Leona S. Green manages to pull off the combination, in a way both religious Jews and modernists should find acceptable.

"The Traditional Egalitarian Passover Haggadah" took Green 22 years to complete, and it shows. The 98-page text starts with a chapter on how to prepare the household for Passover and ends with an appendix that includes a Washington Post article by columnist George F. Will on the Holocaust and its lasting implications. In between, Green offers not only all the elements of a sit-down seder in English and Hebrew with transliteration, but also many songs, blessings, explanations and "inspirational" passages of contemporary writings related to the holiday.

And while she doesn't go overboard on the egalitarian issue (God is not a "She," but a "You"; "forefathers" are "ancestors," etc.), Green removes gender as an issue at the seder table. Her narrative provides background on the roles that both men and women have played in the story of Passover, and even her explanation of why there is an orange on the seder plate is hardly strident. (In short, she writes that it is "a symbol that women belong wherever Jews carry on a committed Jewish life.") She also gives reasons for why there is one cup on the table for Elijah, and another cup for Moses' sister Miriam, who watched over him and "led the women in song and dance" as the Israelites crossed the parted waters of the Red Sea.

If anything, Green tries a little too hard to please. There is boxed text identifying what she labels "inspirational" passages, and gray shading indicating the "essential elements of the Haggadah" — an abridged "Haggadah within a Haggadah." There are italicized instructions for conducting the seder. And there are indented paragraphs with background information clarifying the meaning of a particular section — that a leader may or may not want to include in the seder. All this makes for a little confusion, especially if a group is to make it to the meal without first starving. No doubt this is why the author devoted a full page to "How to Use This Haggadah."

From a practical standpoint, though, a leader would be advised to study the entire book and pre-select what to use for the seder. Otherwise, especially if there are children at the table, the seder could bog down and drag on far too long.

Yet this Haggadah does not overlook young ones. Green presents children's drawings, pictures of kids, short poems and some downright silly songs, such as this one (sung to the melody of "I've Been Working on the Railroad"):

"I've been workin' on these buildings,

"Pharaoh doesn't pay.

"Workin' workin' on these buildings,

"Oh it steals our pride away…"

To her credit, the Cleveland-area grandmother and retired schoolteacher does her best to make the Passover seder understandable for all ages. And while she carries fond memories of her childhood seders in Pittsburgh, conducted by her zayde in "rapid Hebrew," as an adult her eyes were opened to a more engaging seder experience. Her Haggadah evolved at her own family seders, often at the home of her husband's relatives, over many years. In her preface, she explains that her purpose in writing the Hagaddah was threefold.

"Primarily, I wanted to acknowledge the presence of our foremothers, as well as our forefathers, in the history of our people…

"Secondly, I strived meticulously to adhere to the traditional text and format, using background information to clarify meaning…"

And finally, "I included explicit directions for conducting the seder, so that those who wish to conduct a more traditional seder, but who do not have the background, can do so."

Her goals, and the extensive research she obviously put into reaching them, are commendable.

"The Traditional Egalitarian Passover Haggadah" promotes itself as a "bridge between the liberal and Orthodox haggadot." This may be true, though it also may be that the bridge itself is a little too long for most ordinary families to navigate for their Passover seder. And some shortcuts might be necessary.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.