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: Writing Out of the Narrows

Susan Dickman

I have a confession to make: I haven’t always liked Passover. It might have been about my family’s Reform-by-default baggage and the cheesy Hebrew school model seders I attended each year. Herded into the auditorium, Mrs. K. thumping away on the piano and singing operatically, we sat at long plastic-wrapped tables while the rabbi zipped through the seder signposts, occasionally pausing to reprimand a child. Parsley, charoset, and matzah were not great incentives for good behavior or a spiritual path.

Flash forward to graduate school and my first adult seder, all of us sitting in a circle on the floor, seder plate before us as we recited and sang. Only after kids came along did I begin thinking harder about Passover. Why did a holiday focused on freedom so often feel onerous? Why was the focus of energy so often on the external, the cleaning and cooking, rather than on spiritual preparations for the drama of recreating the Exodus? Why were my dear parents, who never pretended to be observant, uneasy participants, sheepishly reading transliterations and following the Maxwell House instructions but rarely seeming to enjoy the experience? I had few answers, but perhaps I was just being a rebellious child for asking.

Somewhere in my 30s I began experiencing a different sort of seder, one that meandered and incorporated rituals new to me. One was held in a tent; another introduced Iraqi customs. One year, the host dressed as Moses and preached, while Springsteen’s “Promised Land” blared. At another, we were instructed to hit each with scallions during “Dayenu.” The Maxwell House haggadah had disappeared, and new guides took its place. Haggadot with artwork and a focus on inner journey and redemption; haggadot focused around feminism or hippies or kibbutz life. A haggadah for the Children of Abraham or issues of social justice. Even symbols and foods were becoming more creative: Sephardi charoset recipes in place of traditional Ashkenazi; parsley morphing into vegetable platters to quell hunger while we blessed, sang, questioned, and debated today’s Egypts and plagues. One year, an orange appeared on the table.

And I noticed that as personal expression took a greater part in the planning, seders grew in detail and in spirit. People took ownership and created meaningful and joyous celebrations. Because the story of the Israelites is that of a culture being built from the ground up. It’s about identifying as a Hebrew then and as a 21st century Jew now, each facet exploring our own narrow places.

And while my childhood experiences with the seder didn’t excite my imagination, I must have gleaned something vital and emotionally engaging from them—the idea of continuity, the way the present is linked to the past by virtue of the liberation story. The key element of Passover is the telling, and the telling, and the retelling each year. The idea that by telling the story to your children, you are enacting a part in the chain of Jews envisioning a future. Given our history, planning on a future is no small matter.

Call & Response

Growing up, I hadn’t thought much about the haggadah for the same reason that I had not given thought to other Jewish texts: in my childhood home Jewish books were not on our shelves. The haggadah was not opened or discussed beyond the one night deemed different than all others. As an adult I began viewing the haggadah as a weighty and unwieldy roadmap: a pastiche, a collage, the brainchild of 10th century rabbis you could imagine arguing around a table late at night as they decided which parts of the story to include and which to leave out. As such, the haggadah had always felt strange to me. There were gaps in the birth-story, unseen ellipses, awkward and overly didactic moments, not to mention huge ethical dilemmas like death of the first-born or the way God hardens and then softens and then hardens again Pharaoh’s heart.

At the onset of the pandemic, my colleague Carol invited the members of JACC to create a haggadah, with the strictures of lockdown as the perfect moment. But she wanted to create not just any haggadah but one focused on art as text and created by artists. Who’s in? she wanted to know.

Carol, Berit, and I met for our initial Zoom meeting to begin discussing ideas. Not knowing quite where to begin, I remember leaving my laptop screen to gather a stack of haggadot. Soon we began engaging in a kind of online show-and-tell, leafing through pages and screen-sharing favorite elements and ways of addressing aspects of the seder. Here was a series of rich plague illustrations; there, a unique way of discussing the Four Children. Searching online we found more examples and interpretations. We noted how the manuscript had changed over centuries and decades and the differences among the denominations. We examined how artists worldwide and from previous eras had interpreted the story, which led us to ask how we envisioned our haggadah in the making and how we would engage with the text.

We began generating more questions in order to figure out what we were after. We shared with one another Passover memories and traditions, unearthing what made the holiday joyful, solemn, difficult, unique. Of course, we had the haggadah structure to follow and guide us. But without asking our own questions, we might have just been filling in blanks. The rigid structure and the wildness of this guide to the exodus began to intrigue me in ways that I had not anticipated. Our process was organic and intuitive as we mined the haggadah in ways that we hadn’t before, looking not just as seder participants but as artists seeking to express and add meaning to the genre. It became quite clear that we were not interested in illustrating a story but in exploring it for its depths. We weren’t after tidy renderings of suffering and redemption; we wanted to mine the manuscript thematically, pull to the surface what we found, and bring it to life in the pages we had begun imagining and working on. 

The Wandering

Meanwhile, there was the text itself and my issues with it, the way the English in many haggadot came across as pompous, overly formal, translated in the most narrow and literal of styles. (‘House of Bondage’? Really? What a way to depict the cruelty of slavery!) Still, the very strangeness of the text must have been why I had collected a variety of haggadot over the years, each one different: I was always in search of the next one to better serve as a guide to the story. And yet, I like to think the old rabbis were also focused on audience as they thought, planned, scribbled, and argued over the centuries, when the haggadah took shape. That in addition to chronicling Jewish history as they saw it, they had kept a keen eye to the future and how our religion/culture would find its place within it. Otherwise, why so emphatically instruct Jews to teach, in such great detail, the story each year to their children?

I guess because it is all about the children. The kids, I realized, were why it was important to me, from the outset, to use gender-neutral God-language and non-gendered writing when shaping the English translation. As a mother, teacher, and advocate for the many non-binary and gender-queer, Jewish-identifying young adults in my life, it was vital that they felt welcomed when they opened our haggadah, and not alienated by language that omits a large part of their identity.

The voices of the young adults in my sphere were the ones guiding me as I worked to create an egalitarian, non-gendered tone. Because this fragile world—a world of plague and conflict, great beauty and great suffering, a world created and recreated each day—it belongs to them now.