This New Reform Haggadah Combines Liturgy, Poetry, and Art

March 1, 2021Chaim Harrison

Just in time for Passover, the Central Conference for American Rabbis (CCAR) has published a brand new Haggadah: Mishkan HaSeder. Edited by Rabbi Hara Person and Jessica Greenbaum, this publication combines traditional liturgy with a wide array of contemporary poetry, as well as abstract illustrations by artist Tobi Kahn, providing each reader and participant with something unique to glean from its pages.

We spoke with the editors for some insight about this Haggadah’s origins, what readers can expect to find inside it, and the power that each poem and piece of visual art can convey. From where did the idea for this new Haggadah come?

Rabbi Person: Passover has always been my favorite holiday. Many years ago, I started a tradition of doing a second seder with friends and people who didn’t have any other seder to go to. Some who attended were Jewish, some were Jewish-adjacent, and some weren’t Jewish at all but were interested and curious. Over the years, this seder grew into a tradition of gathering together annually for good food, great people, raucous conversation, challenging interpretation, and meaningful connection to Passover.

Also, Jess and I have a tradition of getting together for Passover leftovers during Chol HaMo-eid Pesach. One year, we started talking about how much fun it would be to do a Haggadah together, using poetry. Mishkan HaSeder grew out of both that idea and the conversations around the table of that annual gathering.

Given the current state of the world, why is this Haggadah so timely?

Person: Every Haggadah, like every siddur, is a reflection of its time. One way this Haggadah is timely is that it makes no assumptions about the level of knowledge anyone around the table brings to it – and yet it’s challenging and thoughtful, a great combination with welcoming and inclusive. It invites participants to take the seder seriously and to bring their full selves, whatever that self is, to the experience, and to jump in with two feet.

The sublinear commentary particularly reflects the world in which we live, making connections between the text and the challenges of life today, reminding us that the themes of the seder – like caring for the stranger and seeking justice – are still so relevant today.

What are some of Mishkan HaSeder’s key themes and ideas?

Greenbaum: I love that this collection emphasized the basic notion of metaphor: that we better understand the properties of something by comparing it to something else. That is the heart of adding poems to text. And because no two people's mental images of the story are the same, the images encouraged by the poems (God as an immigrant, all of us waiting to receive a basket sent to us downriver, or the lost Israelites like someone driving through fog) writes our individual sensibilities into the observance.

Person: One of the themes running through the book is the idea of “journey” – that as a people, we have always been on a journey, both physical in the sense of moving from place to place, and also spiritually. The choices we make about how we live our lives in relationship to other people have a lot to do with where we are on that journey. How do we treat the stranger, having been strangers, is a key question for all of our lives in every age and at every moment in history.

A refrain of the Haggadah is that our redemption is bound up with those of others. The choice of what we do with that call to action is in our hands.

What was the process like of working with Tobi Kahn, this Haggadah’s artist?

Person: It was great to work with Tobi. He is a very well-known and well-respected artist, and I was so pleased he agreed to be part of this project. I loved sitting in his studio and talking about the overall feel of the book, its themes, and how those might be reflected in his art. We had a lot of fun working together and putting the art together with the text.

Greenbaum: There is a tremendous amount of power and beauty in Tobi’s abstract art, especially how it connects to the Jewish way of “seeing” God. Judaism forbids graven images of God because they identify a single vision instead of allowing each of us to have our own. Similarly, Tobi’s abstractions invite us to see them through imaginative reflection of self and of emotion through color and form. What do you want readers to get out of this publication for this Passover and Passovers to come?

Person: I hope readers will be filled with a sense of beauty, from the imagery of the historic Haggadah text as translated by Rabbi Janet and Sheldon Marder to the abstract splendor of Tobi Kahn’s art and the poetry Jess and I chose to include. We hope this Haggadah lifts up the experience of the seder and enables people to revel in the beauty of the experience, in the journey toward freedom, and the lessons we learn along the way.

I also want readers to realize the power of our personal experiences to poetry and art, that they’re ours to have individually. I want readers to be able to choose which poems fit best for this year’s seder and which ones they’d like to tuck away for next year. Infusing the Haggadah with both visual art and contemporary poetry allows us to write ourselves into the story through the power of our imagination. One person at your seder isn’t going to see Moses the same way you’d see him or view the imagery of the plagues in the same exact way – and that’s beautiful.

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