THE SPINE MARCH 28, 2010
I wonder who is going to edit the Haggadah Shel Pesach, the text used to introduce and accompany the White House Passover meal, over which Barack Obama will preside when he returns from his trip to Afghanistan.
This, of course, was the golden opportunity to tone down the cacophony of his nasty disagreement with Bibi Netanyahu by going to Jerusalem and celebrating the seder there instead. Perhaps Bibi, who knows the power of drama, would have even arranged to seat the president at the otherwise empty chair reserved for Eliyahu Hanavi, the prophet Elijah, whose imminent coming will usher in the days of eternal peace and God’s return to Zion. Or maybe not.
Since, however, no one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had the imagination to shift the locale of the president’s seder to the prime minister’s official residence, safely within the perimeters of western Jerusalem, praise be to God, Obama will have to arbitrate himself the theological questions that come up in the various haggadot. Yes, there are dozens of these, some following faithfully the old text, some not, othersbranching out brazenly to find new meaning in an old festival. My favorites are “The Haggadah of the Liberated Lamb,” a vegetarian text counterposing itself to the narrative of the yearling whose blood was used to help the Jews avoid the last of the ten plagues, and “The Santa Cruz Haggadah for the Liberated Consciousness,” second edition.
The haggadah used at the White House will doubtless follow the traditional account even if there might be “progressive” tropes added. I suppose “Go Down, Moses,” an old Negro spiritual (popularized in the middle decades of the 20th century by Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson) will be sung at the executive mansion, just as it will be sung at hundreds of thousands Jewish homes in America where the knowledge of Hebrew and Hebrew melody is not--shall we say?--up to snuff.
But the challenges of the haggadah will be in the editing. I have before me four different but more or less traditional variants of the seder text, two with the incantation of “shmoich hamoscha” included, two without. Why is this of significance? This is how one classical rendering reads:
Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not and upon the kingdoms that call not upon Thy name; for they have eaten Jacob and laid waste his dwelling. Pour out Thy fury upon them, and may the kindling of Thine anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger and destroy them from under God’s skies.
When I was a child and my parents’ minds were with their dead relatives in Jewish Poland, everybody at our seder recited a poem in Yiddish. Here is an excerpt--in English translation, of course:
Pesach has come to the Ghetto again.
The wine has no grape, the matzo no grain.
But the people anew sing the wonders of old,
The flight from the pharaohs, so often retold.
How ancient the story, how old the refrain!
The windows are shuttered. The doors are concealed.
The Seder goes on. And fiction and fact
Are confused into one. Which is myth? Which is real?
Come all who are hungry! invites the Haggadah.
The helpless, the aged, lie starving in fear.
Come all who are hungry! and children sleep, famished.
Come all who are hungry! and tables are bare.
Pesach has come to the Ghetto again.
The lore-laden words of the Seder are said.
And the cup of the Prophet Elijah awaits,
But the angel of death has intruded instead.
The poem ends with an oath of revenge.
“Pesach has come...” poses no challenge to Obama. But “Pour out thy wrath...” does.
And so do at least two other portions.
The very first is from the opening statement of the haggadah itself: “Ho Lachma Anya...” or “This is the bread of affliction...”
This year we are here; next year we shall be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves; next year we shall be free.
The second is the very ending of the seder itself:
Pure One who dwells in the heavens on high,
Raise up Your people, countless to the eye,
Soon may You lead those You planted strong
To freedom in Zion in glorious song!
L’ shana ha’ba’ah b’ yerushalayim--Next Year in Jerusalem.
Measure Obama’s sensitivity to Muslim feelings. Measure Obama’s disdain for Jewish feeling. Jerusalem is the living heart of the faith, and it is that loyalty he has chosen to assault.