The members of Jewish Artists Collective Chicago write about our stories, struggles, experiences, and musings, and how they inspire us to create contemporary Jewish art.

Creating Our Haggadah: My Joys and Oy!s of Content Curation and Editing (Part I)

Text by Berit Engen

My Background

“A shiksa from Norway who didn’t know Passover from an overpass” – that is how my husband jokingly referred to me (and our 1985 wedding) in his parent’s blessing at the bat mitzvah for our oldest daughter, Rivkah, in 2003. By then I had converted to Judaism and hosted or led a Women’s, a Singing, and a Third (Yiddish) Seder. I had started learning Hebrew and I had taken a special interest in the Haggadah.

Around the turn of the millennium, Seder creativity was in vogue. There was no end to what we were told we could do to enrich the Seder experience, especially for our children. In the process we might help secure the seemingly uncertain future of Judaism – a repeatedly debated concern in the United States among Reform Jews. Propelled by an array of how-to-enhance-Passover ideas, I led our family’s first Seder. Tavi, our four-year-old, was assigned to walk around the table with a water pitcher and a towel and pour water on each participant’s hands. It may have nailed her adult commitment to Judaism, but by the time she was done, we were just one hour into the seder! We had only completed step 2 with 13 more to read, eat, and sing. Similarly, our middle daughter Miriam and the Prophetess received extended attention. The orange on the Seder plate was beaming.

Tavi’s Ur’chatz water pouring did yield results: when she moved into her homemade castle, she brought with her three things only: her milk cup, a stuffed bunny, and a Torah scroll made by her for the occasion of leaving her family’s home. Miriam proudly delights in the bubbles of the Red Sea at whose edge the Prophetess danced.

Liberation, the central message of Passover, along with the Haggadah’s imperative to imagine Egypt, empowered discriminated-against, over-looked, suppressed, and closeted groups to redefine the theme. One of Norway’s estimated 1500 Jews enviously said to me: ”In the US, even in Mississippi, you have seders for women, gays, vegetarians, gay vegetarians . . .” The seder-frenzy even sparked interest among non-Jews; Mary Schmich, the Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and syndicated columnist in the Chicago Tribune, wrote an article about “seder envy.”

As a creative adult who had attended traditional seders, I welcomed the invitation to contribute to and renew the ritual. As a child in Norway, I had a fourth-grade teacher that taught her impressionable pupils English by having us sing powerful Spirituals, songs from the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and the fight against the South African Apartheid, and Bob Dylan’s "Blowin’ in the Wind." As a teenager I had demonstrated in the streets for women’s liberation, not to mention against the oppression of Norwegian capitalism! Now I felt that pieces of my life were coming together beautifully and bashert.

But what I found was that many of the initiatives distracted from experiencing the Haggadah with its whimsy of distinct and intertwined text as a carefully constructed masterpiece. When I asked an Israeli living in the US how he enjoyed American seders, he answered, “It surprises me every Passover how much time you guys spend on the first four steps before getting to the real thing, the Maggid, which has the Exodus story and is the very reason for the Seder!” True, only one Biblical commandment pertains to this night, namely, to tell the story to our children. 

I loved the layout embellishments and illustrations by Ezekiel Schloss in the 1975 Silverman Haggadah. Inspired by one enrichment idea, I copied the illustrations for the 15 steps and made 15 one-step cards with information about each step. 15 guests got to read the symbolism and instructions. Another lovely idea – which took up 20 minutes of our valuable seder time. 

My Next Steps

The Israeli’s comment prompted me to look at the Haggadah texts and structure differently. Without the Internet, I learned a lot from comparing Haggadot. The most confusing part was to figure out editors’ redactions in terms of additions, deletions, and translations. Three stood out in being helpful, due to explanations and/or graphic layout: Dr. Ron Wolfson’s 1988 The Art of Jewish Living: The Passover Seder, Noam Zion and David Dishon’s 1997 Haggadah, A Different Night, and Elie Wiesel and Mark Podwal’s 1993 A Passover Haggadah. Believe it or not, but the Maxwell House Haggadah was an easy reference Haggadah for structure because it was free of cluttering commentary! And then there was the magical, one-of-a-kind book about the Haggadah, Ira Steingroot's 1995 Keeping Passover.

Another poster from the dawn of my Haggadah journey.

I love singing! I started to explore how melodies helped emphasize messages and structure the content, especially in the confusing Maggid. Blessings (some with special Festival melodies), chanted text segments, sung text segments, text that had become songs, old hymns, and new songs – what a treasure trove!

I listened systematically to recently issued family-oriented tapes(!) and CDs. Then I checked out old recordings from the Asher Library at the Spertus Museum in Chicago. The voices of Cantor Moishe Oysher and the operatic tenor, Jan Peerce, filled our house with their strange mix of performance and liturgical chanting. I borrowed a dissertation on the slight variations of a couple of seder hymns in Germany between 1745 and 1935. I checked the last pages of numerous Haggadot for melodies, and I began to “collect” them. I found four versions of v’Hi she’Amdah! I liked Old Eastern European blessing melodies with a slight Middle Eastern sound to them. I was enthralled by the Ashkenazi and Sephardi musical styles and how they were renewed by contemporary musicians. I also appreciated new liturgy-enriching songs, especially Debbie Friedman’s Miriam’s Song, and funny, home-spun lyrics with an American flair. 

Almost a quarter century ago: a new and happy Jew! In my tallit onto which I had stitched only one, but big and bold, word: Ashirah. (It means “I will indeed sing” and is from Shabbat Shirah, my first Shabbat Torah chanting.)

The chanting and singing of longer Maggid sections posed the biggest challenge. The melodies are unlike those to single sentences or two that have become songs, like b’Khol Dor vaDor. I would listen, hear how the melody emphasized key words and read through the Maggid until I recognized them. It was like a puzzle, and I enjoyed it! I never do real puzzles because I want to see my own creative project at the end of my activities.

My familiarity with and love of this amazing prayer book grew. In 2008 I felt moved to weave my first Haggadah tapestries. The previous year I had started my estimated 20-year Jewish tapestry project, ”WEFT and D’RASH – A Thousand Jewish Tapestries.” Yarn, words, and melodies began to overlap in intriguing ways.

The Absence of Moses

The fact that Moses is barely mentioned in the Haggadah is relevant when looking at the redemptive perspective of the story, suggesting to Whom we should be grateful. But from basket to unknown grave, Moses’ story triggers creative juices, and the tapestry illustrates JACC artist Jonathan Franklin’s funny, bluesy rap song Mo, Don’t Go! recounting the Prophet’s life and leadership. Based on musical notation, each horizontal tapestry 'line' of rectangles has four quarter notes, and each note is divided into a tricolored triplet. When the dark brown (used as skin color in my Maggid tapestries) middle part, symbolizing Moses, is skipped, we get the rhythm of the song. Like in the Haggadah, Moses is the missing beat.

Fast Forward to 2020

When Carol Neiger announced that she wanted to make a Haggadah with artwork by the Jewish Artists Collective Chicago (JACC) I immediately wanted to join her. I think that visual art works wonderfully as commentaries, and I appreciated the challenge of envisioning my own Passover tapestries this way. And how enriching to do it with artists whose work I like and respect. But just as important, I wanted to contribute to a Haggadah in which the traditional text would be beautifully presented and would visually honor every piece of the liturgy. Considering Carol’s graphic design background and artistic sensibilities, I knew that it would be possible. Susan Dickman, whose creative writing I admired, excitedly joined to rework handed-down translations and anything else that would be in English. As for me, I had the structure and much of the text pretty much internalized. Finally, I would be able to use my knowledge beyond my own tapestry project.

The practical factors contributing to my enthusiasm were Carol’s experience in management and marketing; available technology; and self-publishing with “print-on demand” as business model. As for the artwork, we knew that JACC members had plenty of great pieces to contribute. The three of us realized that we needed a vision for the content to present to the group. Our ideas would define the Haggadah.

I suggested the following:

· Artwork with the accompanying statements would replace the traditional commentaries.
 (This would open for imagining a successful inclusion of the artwork.)

· Rather than a “pick-and chose” approach, we would be as true to the traditional Hebrew/Aramaic Haggadah text as possible. (We would delete minimally and add only what we felt was crucial to our contemporary sensibility.)

· We would not present a specific ideology or identify as a group other than “liberal Jews.”

· Translation, rather than statements written by us, would reflect our social and cultural

 sensibilities. (I referred to Mishkan T’filah, the Reform Siddur with its great literal translation. Maybe sometimes we would like to go beyond literal translation, as is also done in this Siddur.) 

Still, some JACC members were hesitant due to very reasonable doubts regarding the feasibility of making a Haggadah ready for Passover 2021. The key to enable JACC members to join us was to present them with tangible plans. Regarding the Haggadah content, I could best do that by making a sign-up chart which laid out the Haggadah text segments in relation to the 15 steps.

  • The numbers in parentheses indicate in which step(s) the text or themes are found.
  • The light-grey cells indicate that they are related to the Maggid.
  • Q, A, P (Question, Answer, Praise) refer to Dr. Ron Wolfson’s Haggadah and his division of the Maggid into four sections, each with a question, answer, and praise paradigm. (There are other text entries that could have been included here, but this would give us a good start.)

Each artist could sign up for seven of their preferred text segments, ritual objects, or overreaching themes. After we all had chosen preferences and submitted images, Carol printed the images placed in their respective places in the Haggadah text, and now we had a great visual overview. We later used my tapestries to fill in so that all the combined artworks would reflect the structural flow of the Haggadah. This was more than a visual decision – the added tapestries emphasized the content relevance of every step, not only the Maggid. We also requested some additional new work from the other JACC members for the same purpose. The structure and words of the Haggadah were starting to shine!

Please see my next blog entry for My Joys and Oy!s of Content Curation and Editing (II)