It was after a family Passover seder nine years ago when the potential magnitude of the event struck author Jonathan Safran Foer.
Here was a time when families gathered, a captive audience year after year, to discuss some of the most important issues in life "and take stock of who we are," Foer said. But over his 35 years, the Haggadah has never inspired him to delve deep into what's arguably "the most literary book of the most literary people."
Thus began the journey of the recently published New American Haggadah , released by Little, Brown and Company, edited by Foer and translated by friend and fellow Brooklyn novelist Nathan Englander. Though everyone and their mother seems to be revising Haggadot these days, this one has garnered significant attention, including features in The New York Times, and on NPR and "The Colbert Report." The allure, perhaps, comes partly from curiosity as to how the top-flight literary duo would approach such a serious, ritualistic text.
The answer is: not quite as experimental as you'd expect. Or, for that matter, as they expected, the two authors told a sold-out audience of about 400 gathered earlier this month at the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
At the outset, Foer said, his goal was to create a satisfying Haggadah, "one that I would consider a great book." Being a young father might have also had something to do with his sudden interest in the Passover ritual, he acknowledged.
He solicited content for the project from about 30 well-known writers and artists. Some, including Englander, resisted at first, saying they were simply too secular for such a task. Englander had grown up in an Orthodox home on Long Island and even studied in Israel, but later rejected religion -- and probably broke every rule in the Bible, too, he said. Foer persisted, convincing him that they'd be proud of the end product.
"He made me see it as a living thing," Englander said.
As the piles of submissions multiplied, Foer said he realized he was accidentally compiling an anthology. The Haggadah is many things, he said: prayer, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, a book of living memory. But above all, he continued, it's a user's manual. His job "was just to tune this really fine instrument in a way that would be easy for people to sing along to," he said, and that had gotten lost in all the material.
He cut all but four contributing writers, including his own commentary. Kill fees ended up costing more than the work that actually printed, "which I can't explain why, but I'm sure is also Jewish," Foer said.
The remaining essays appear horizontally at 10 key points in the seder labeled with themes rather than bylines: House of Study (Nathaniel Deutsch), Nation (Jeffrey Goldberg), Library (Rebecca Newberger Goldstein) and Playground (Daniel Handler, more commonly known by his children's book pen name Lemony Snicket).
Following the idea that the Haggadah should be about the text rather than any sort of agenda or self-expression, the only reference to the authors on the front cover is printed on a paper strip that falls away. And the design, by Oded Ezer, purposefully avoids figurative images, instead using Hebrew typography as the foundation for abstract art work.
The translation itself took Englander three years, sometimes working with a study partner as he combed through original Hebrew and Aramaic texts. It was supposed to be this quick, hipster, free-flowing thing, Englander said, but then he came upon beautiful phrases that made him want to preserve the depth and integrity of the text. He'd joke with his girlfriend, "We're secular, I'm just going to learn Torah for 20 hours a day."
He and Foer argued and "neuroticized" over every word, Englander said, especially when there wasn't a good match in English.
"It's like translating water," he said. "I just wanted people to hear what I hear in my head in Hebrew."
In his interpretation of the plagues, for example, "hail," is "hail-full-of-fire" and darkness "a clotted darkness -- too thick to pass." God is referred to as "Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos." They decided not to neutralize the gender because "that's the way people spoke then," Englander said, and readers should be able to look past that.
With upwards of 7,000 Haggadot variations in existence, by Foer's count, he said he'll consider theirs successful if it encourages readers to linger on the story rather than hurry to the end.
"It has to be felt, it has to inspire a user that he or she is a character in this story," he said.
Ultimately, he said, this Haggadah will also beg to be replaced by new ones responding to the changing world.
"New Haggadahs will be written until there are no more Jews to write them," he said, quoting his introduction in the book. "Or until our destiny has been fulfilled, and there is no more need to say, 'Next year in Jerusalem.' "