Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander on their ‘New American Haggadah’

The Takeaway

The Haggadah is a book, but it is also a personal and universal mission of memory for each family that sits down to the seder dinner.

For Jonathan Safran Foer editing a new version of the Haggadah has also been a journey of self-exploration.

“I went to Hebrew school, I was bar mitzvah’d, I’ve been to Israel a number of times, but as I started to work on this book, I realized that I really had to confront my ignorance, my lack of Jewish literacy,” Foer said.

Foer thinks his experience of encountering Judaism, rather than being native to the faith, is shared among many young Jewish-Americans.

“My grandmother was an immigrant to the United States, as was my mother, but they were both natives to Judaism. And it’s different with my generation. I am clearly native to America, but an immigrant to my own religion, my own faith. So the guidebook has to change in response to where American-Jews are now,” he explained.

Foer and Englander wrote their Haggadah as a guide for American Jews of their generation curious about the roots of their own beliefs. The new version was edited by Foer and translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic by Nathan Englander.

“It was important to us to make a beautiful artifact. In addition to making a good, useful, and provocative guidebook,” Foer said. “A lot of people have a hunger for something to put out in the open that identifies them (as Jewish) in a way that they’re proud of and that feels living.”

In order to create a Haggadah that could speak to the experiences of 21st century Jewish-Americans, Foer and Englander developed the New American Haggadah with the Jewish diaspora in mind.

“(The guidebook has) a little more contextualizing, a little more clarity in the narrative, a commentary that speaks to our idioms and concerns that will help maintain the modernity of this ancient text,” Foer said.

The Haggadah recounts stories of the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt. The Passover stories of struggle and liberation are simultaneously personal and universal, a concept the authors aimed to capture in their version of the text.

“The quote on the cover reads, ‘in every generation a person is obligated to view himself as if he were the one who went out of Egypt.’ This idea of telling a story as if you’re living it is so specific to this (tradition),” Englander said.

“It’s not a competition and it’s not a ladder. It’s a spectrum,” Foer said. “We weren’t trying to make a Haggadah that superseded another one or competed with another one, but that fit a certain kind of user.”

An excerpt from the New American Haggadah is available on NPR’s website.

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