Certain books have played outsized roles in my life. Most of these are the work not of a committee but of a unique personality. This is true of Jewish religious texts too. I have never really had a warm feeling for the Maxwell House haggadah – I didn’t grow up with it. The Artscroll haggadah is not my cup of chrein, and A Different Night, though valuable, has a little bit of short attention span about it. Here’s a picture! Here’s a poem!
On the other hand, Jacob Milgrom’s Leviticus series (for Anchor Bible), felt like a meeting with a learned, opinionated, and irascible uncle who had very clear opinions about the Holy of Holies (sorry, the adytum) and what it all meant. I was convinced, before I realized that critics are just as disputative as scientists and Milgrom’s truth was not the whole or only truth.
Similarly, Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism is the work of a single intelligence, though I might disagree with its ideological take. Judy Hauptman, David Weiss-Halivni, and Daniel Sperber are others who are able to convey a sense of themselves as people, not just footnotes strung on chapter headings.
This is the sort of haggadah I like. Menachem Kasher’s Haggadah Sheleimah, an encyclopedic work (like his Torah Sheleimah), is as much a reference work as a useful haggadah to have at the seder table. You want variants of the Kadesh Urchatz mnemonic? Here they are, about a dozen of them. A synoptic version of the Arami Oved Avi? Yes. What about essays on various halachic and ideologic problems in the haggadah? Sure. Catalogs of different charosets in the rabbinic foundational texts? Enjoy! Through it all, Kasher is present. He does not refer to himself in the first person, but he has his biases, preferences, and pet peeves.
So I was particularly pleased to receive Gabriel Wasserman’s haggadah, called Ashira va’Ashanenna Ba’Chashikot, a work he has assiduously updated over the past few years. I bought the sefer fair and square, and you should get it too (available from the author by email, email@example.com). I am relatively knowledgeable in Jewish matters, but I learned a passel of new facts from nearly every page. If I am in the right crowd, I will be hard-pressed not to lift my eyes from the haggadah and say, “Hey! Did you know…” every few pages. Did you know that some communities *do* make a bracha at Urchatz? Or that pears are a common ingredient in many charosets? Did you know that there is no stage of the seder called “Nirtzah”?
Thus this sefer is packed full of chochma (wisdom). What makes it entertaining, though, is Wasserman’s idiosyncratic authorship. What else would you expect from a haggadah with the author’s picture on the front and back? (Though, to be charitable, the front picture is of the back of his head…) Wasserman’s asides refer to friends he has learned from, niggunim he grew up with, recipes he traditionally prepares for the holiday (oh, yes, there are recipes too). There is a running commentary, parallel columns in English and Hebrew (except for the spots where one language seems to leave off for a page). Here too are his own bravura piyyutim. My favorite parts, besides those mentioned, were the mentions of Yemenite practices (all new to me), and the musical notations in the back.
I would love to see this haggadah get broader distribution, so I will allow myself some suggestions. A higher production value, such as might be provided by a mainstream house, might enable illustrations, consistency in layout, and a larger font size for the Hebrew. (Perhaps younger folk than this legally-blind forty-year-old might not have a problem.) The haggadah is not for everyone: the author, it is clear, does not see teaching the children as the primary or even (apparently) the most interesting commandment of the day, though he certainly does not ignore it either. The English translations are occasionally not as eloquent as the author’s Hebrew.
These are minor quibbles in a fascinating, unique, and enlightening work. May Gabriel Wasserman merit many more years of disseminating his piyyutim, Torah, and haggadic spirit to all and sundry!