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When We Talk About the Haggadah: A Conversation with Nathan Englander

In the title story of Nathan Englander’s latest book of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, a secular couple spends time with an ultra-Orthodox couple. After smoking pot and searching a pantry for food, the couples begin to play what they call the “Who Will Hide Me?” game. In the event of a modern Holocaust, who of their gentile friends would hide them, they wonder. Locked in the pantry, the couples transport themselves back in time, where they imagine Nazis, ghettos, and concentration camps as their new reality. What would their friends do to save them?


It’s a question none of them can answer satisfactorily, like many other questions in Judaism. Yet Judaism celebrates questions. The night when the most questions are asked in Judaism is the night of the Seder. These questions are also about national tragedy. The Holocaust was, in a sense, a modern-day version of Egypt. And as modern Jews, we are obligated, as in every generation, to imagine that we ourselves left Egypt. Like the couple in Englander’s fictitious pantry, we must remember that we were part of a national tragedy in Egypt prior to redemption. This is the season for remembering and questioning.


On Sunday, April 1, Englander joined with Jonathan Safran Foer at B’nai Jeshurun synagogue to discuss their latest collaboration, The New American Haggadah (Little, Brown and Co. $29.99). Foer addressed the large crowd gathered, to speak about Haggadot in general. “If the questions were easy we would have stopped reading it,” said Foer. But, he added, “We haven’t been able to come up with satisfactory answers.” And that’s why we’re still reading it.


The New American Haggadah takes a new form, with a new translation by Englander and commentaries by Jeffrey Goldberg, Lemony Snicket, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Nathaniel Deutsch. A timeline runs along the top margin of the text of the Haggadah, and the text is illustrated by artwork by Oded Ezer, depicting the words of the Haggadah in various, striking Hebrew fonts throughout the ages.


A conversation takes place within the pages of the Haggadah between the commentary, translation, illustrations, timeline, and ancient text. Yet a good Haggadah, according to Foer, also “inspires good conversations” at the Seder table itself and “encourages radical leaps of empathy.”


And conversation takes place within the text of the Haggadah itself. Foer explained that the five sages in B’nai Brak must have been doing something other than just reading from the Haggadah; they were “dissecting, digesting, participating, rather than simply reciting or receiving it.” Within the Haggadah itself, the text points to the need to converse, to discuss, to engage.


Despite the fact that conversation leads to freedom, sometimes, as Foer pointed out, “The hand of the Creator becomes overwhelming and forbids access.” We have to break through barriers, creative and religious, in order to achieve freedom and emotional liberty. Writing, and religion, can often feel confining. Passover especially walks a fine line between slavery and freedom, between being confined by an orderly Seder and being liberated by our spiritual experiences.


On April 3, a few days after the B’nai Jeshurun event, I spoke with Nathan Englander about his translation, and walking the line between freedom and slavery. When Englander speaks, it’s as if he is writing fiction. His voice is passionate, excited, fragmented and poetic. Englander began by telling me, “it’s metaphysical [how] we think of freedom [as] endless open space. . . . And closed space allows for a different kind of freedom. . . . Sometimes a boundary allows for more freedom.” He went on to describe his experience of writing his new play, Twenty-Seventh Man, as confining. You can’t begin writing a play until you have your characters. A writer is working within a confining framework.


Englander’s playwriting experience speaks to Judaism and religion in general. Can freedom come without responsibility, and can responsibility come without freedom? Writing is sometimes where this conversation between freedom and responsibility takes place. He continued, “I’ve just noticed working in different forms that the times I feel the most free are when I’m confined. Within that space [lies] ultimate freedom. . . . What does happiness mean? Would I be happier watching TV all day than writing? In that same way, looking at a text, sometimes you know it just can’t be another word. Freedom with responsibility is maybe what we’re talking about.”


For Englander’s first translation, he had the responsibility of working with a sacred and esteemed text. “It’s sort of a daunting task as your first translation project to take on the Haggadah, which [uses texts] from the Torah; it makes you think of ideas and ownership.” Englander’s attention to the importance of the text reminded me that, as modern readers of the Torah and of the Haggadah, we are both confined by the ideas of ownership, yet we sometimes seek to be liberated from them. Often, I go back and forth between believing in divine authority over the text of the Torah, and a postmodern belief that the text is mine to own and change, that we as readers have become, in a sense, new authors. I don’t believe these notions are contradictory. The ideas of ownership of others over text as confining and self-possession of text as liberating are constantly in dialogue.


In Englander’s story “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” the black-hat-clad protagonist, Dov Binyamin, experiences sexual frustrations. Englander writes that “Dov Binyamin was on fire inside. And yet he would not be consumed.” The language alludes to the burning bush, to the beginning of the liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt. During God’s conversation with Moses, the bush is on fire, but it will not be consumed. Religion is fiery. It is filled with zeitgeist and passion. Yet barriers often attempt to stifle our religion, to hold us back, to constrain us. Like the burning bush, we often struggle against being consumed, by the barriers that surround us or by the often blinding fervor of religion.


Religious texts, such as the Haggadah or the Torah, are alive, are burning and being burned. As Englander told me about comparing the Holocaust to the bondage in Egypt, “That’s why text lives; the metaphors change and the history changes. We interact with our lives and our current history through these texts.” Text is about commemorating and about change. Englander pointed out that “what I connect to from that world [of religion], is that love of text. It’s a very delicate thing.” The text of any Haggadah we read at our Sedarim is delicate, waiting to be torn apart and argued over. And it also intrinsically American and new, because by relating to it, by performing what Foer calls the “radical leap of empathy” imparted on us through the lines of Be-Chol Dor va-Dor, we make the text relatable to our day, place, and age. We take a holy text and we make the place and time in which we experience it holy as well.


The text of Be-Chol Dor va-Dor is on the cover of The New American Haggadah. The names of the authors, translator, and commentators are not. These are all on a red slip of paper that easily falls off the book. In this way, no one has ownership of the text. Englander compared translating the Haggadah to “writing fiction. The work’s not getting done if I’m being myself writing the story, the work’s getting done when I disappear and I’m only of the story, [through] me disappearing and giving voice to the text.” In that sense, we are all both authors and readers. “I’m the reader; you’re the reader. It’s got to be universal. The only way to make that decision is to recognize that the obligation is to the text, back to that framing, back to their freedom.” Englander continued, “On my part there was no intent, just loyalty to the text.” Because we are all readers, Englander told me: “What became important to me is that this be a Haggadah for everyone.”


And The New American Haggadah is for everyone. From Englander’s Chassidish neighbors to his Dati family, from the Modern Orthodox Jews to the cultural Jew, the translation is both traditional and accessible. A text that was written for everyone and has now been translated for everyone, takes us back to God. One of the most important dialogues of the Passover story is one between man and God. In the The New American Haggadah, Englander translates Elokenu as “Lord God-of-Us,” because “The meaning is God in that way as Lord, but I felt like breaking into the phrase.” He felt that the standard translation of Elokenu as “our God” is not the true meaning of the Hebrew phrase. “How do you experience in Hebrew? And that’s what a translation should do.”


At B’nai Jeshurun, Englander described what galvanized him to think about translating the Haggadah. “You should read it and weep,” Englander said of the original text of the Haggadah, asserting that the beauty in his translation comes from the original Hebrew language.


While reading the havdalah in a traditional Haggadah, he was frustrated at the classic translation of “bein kodesh le-kodesh” as “between Yom Tov and Shabbat.” Really, Englander believes, bein kodesh le-kodesh means “the space between holy and holy.” This engendered more questions in Englander’s mind. What and where, he wondered, was the space that exists between holy and holy?


It’s a great question. As holy human beings, endowed by our Creator with godliness, we are all holy. And perhaps the space that exists between holiness and holiness is the space of conversation. It’s the space and time where two people interact, the place between two souls where questions and answers are discussed. It’s the barrier and freedom that exists today between Holocaust survivors and my generation. It’s the place where the religious and irreligious sit around a Passover table, speaking all night about the Exodus from Egypt. It’s the space where families come together, behind pantry doors, to imagine ourselves in a different time that is our own, where holiness is unapparent, where God is just as much hidden as Jews cowering beneath floorboards. Above, we hear footsteps, or the knocking of our beloved. But sometimes, it’s only something imagined. Our faces, and the faces of the divine, are often hidden. Conversation reveals who we are in the deepest sense, and reveals faces and the divine in a modern world that is new, American, and constantly provoking questions.