The Golden Haggadah- First Responses

What is a Haggadah?

Haggadah means a telling: a narrative. The Passover Haggadah is the narrative that is read aloud the Passover Seder. It is a jigsaw, a piecing together from many sources of the story of the slavery of the people of Israel in Egypt and then their flight from it.

What is Passover?

Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew) is the most cherished of Jewish festivals. It is the festival of Freedom that commemorates the Jews' dramatic escape from slavery in Egypt over 3,200 years ago, as told in the book of Exodus in the Bible. The festival is named Passover because, according to the bible, the Angel of Death 'passed over' the houses of the children of Israel and slew the Egyptian first born.

What is a Seder?

Seder means 'Order of Service'. It is a meal, attended by family, friends, neighbours, those away from home. Every food on the table is symbolic of some part of the story, which is told by the oldest at the table in answer to questions from the youngest. Food and story are inextricably linked

The Seder opens with a prayer from the eldest person at the table. A tray is raised showing the assembled company three matzos (squares of unleavened bread):

'This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them come and eat; all who are needy, let them come and celebrate Passover with us. Now we are here: next year may we be in Israel. Now we are slaves: in the year ahead may we be free men.'

Significance of the Seder in Jewish Identity

The use of the present tense stresses the underlying significance of the Seder as the re-creation of a living experience. The rabbis of old taught that every person in every generation must look upon themselves as though they personally had come out of slavery. Every generation should cherish freedom. The Passover Seder, therefore, is not just a story that is told by one and listened to by others, it is a narration that that we are all living as well as hearing and telling. We inhabit the story, we are the participants in it, and we move seamlessly backwards and forwards across time, from thousands of years in the past to the present moment as we sit at our ease around our meal. As we eat we ask questions, we remember, we discuss.

The Jews are a nomadic people and when you are always on the move, your identity is defined by things that are portable and words are the most portable things of all. The stories are told to inform us, to remind us of who our ancestors were, what they did and where they did it. At the Passover table, Jews affirm their identity, remember who they are and where they come from. A chain of identity is forged from generation to generation with each individual adding their own link, so it is important that everyone's participation at the table, from oldest to youngest, is valued. The youngest at the table asks the four questions of the eldest, beginning with, 'Why is this night different from all other nights?'. It is in response to these questions that the story is told passing it on from generation to generation.

A personalised family haggadah

The Traditional Seder Haggadah, includes many rabbinic comments, hymns, prayers, stylized questions that have accrued over the centuries to become part of the ceremony of celebration. As a child, I sometimes felt that some Seder nights had ossified: there were times when some of the long Hebrew passages both confused and bored me. When my own children were very young, however, a cousin invited us to join his large family in a Seder that they had moulded for themselves. They had re-invigorated the ceremony, telling the story with their own songs and words and discussions: they inspired us to make a Seder of our own. I now have a folder of worn and wine-spotted pages that come out every year - our own 'Haggadah', or narration and order. Every wine spot reminds me of one of our Passovers - each one of which has been a unique occasion, different from every other. But I also realise with shame that they are dull, monochrome pages quite unlike the beautiful Golden Haggadah - a wedding gift from a Rabbi to his son-in-law in the fourteenth century, a gift to be used to tell the forthcoming generations from whence they had come

One of the results that I would like to have from this project for myself is that I should produce a beautiful Haggadah to pass to my children when they get married so that they can use it when they have children of their own. In his book 'The Russian Album' Michael Ignatieff wrote: 'There is no way of knowing what my children will make of ancestors from the age of dusty roads and long afternoons on the shaded veranda deep in the Russian countryside. But I want to leave the road marked and lighted, so that they can travel into the darkness ahead, as I do, sure of the road behind'.


Where do we start in opening this text for others?

This is not a text just to be read, or to be told but to be done, and so it would seem to me that the starting point for teachers and pupils would be to do a form of Seder so that they should know exactly what the book is for.

1. The preparation of the story space: The preparation of the room is important and should involve the all participants. We are making a space where this story is going to happen, we must build a table and we must prepare the food. The ritual makes the event special, the table and the food are special, coming to the table must be special. The arrival of the participants is the beginning of the story. Travelling is so much part of the story: where did we come from, where are we going to? Travelling from past to present and present to past, the story is the transport that carries us. Do we come by bus or train, on foot or by camel? It seems appropriate to begin this project by the making of a special place as I understand that the intention is that the project will end with the making of another special place.

I have been thinking about what it means to travel, to be a stranger in a stranger land. How do other people view us? How do we view those who travel from elsewhere to the land we call ours? What are the differences between the way other people see us and the way we see ourselves? I remember many years ago researching something of the Renaissance view of the world - how travel albums were made of strange far-away peoples and pictures drawn from reports of men whose heads were carried below their necks! I shall search for some of these images in the British Library and think about how we view people now that we think of as 'strangers' and how other peoples might view us.

When we sit round the Passover table, we are telling certain stories of our ancestors. Those stories can be found in the Haggadah, in the bible, in the windows of York Minster. But what if the children and teachers in this project decide to tell their own stories, what will they tell? How will they collect their stories? Will they go to libraries, to parish records, to old newspapers; or will they go to parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents? Will they go with ears, pens and paper, with tape recorders or video cameras? They will have to choose which stories tell something about who they are or where they come from. They will have to decide which stories should be passed on from generation to generation. They will be making their own researches into their own texts.

2. The Passover Table: Each element, each food on the table is part of the story that is to be told. We talk about each element, we tell its story; we consume the elements in a certain order, so each small story is part of the whole story and the whole story is part of our food for life. If children and teachers had to bring to the table one thing, or foodstuff that was part of their story, what would they choose? In what order would the foods be eaten or the objects arranged and the stories told? Would the stories be chosen because they would be about the things the people round the table have in common or about the things that separate them?

In the Golden Haggadah there is a beautiful full-page illustration of the Maror, the bitter herb. I would love a hard copy image of this page - a colour photocopy perhaps - that children could have and hold and look at and think about. Would they make images of their story-objects? Would they put them into their own 'Haggadah'? Would their 'Haggadah' begin with images from their own stories just as the Golden Haggadah begins with images from the story of the Hebrews?

For the last thirty years I have been doing story-telling performances called 'Tales From a Family Tea Table', because that, for me, has always been where stories belong: around a tea table with everyone talking nineteen to the dozen and nobody apparently listening - it is my most comfortable story-telling space, the one I grew up with. I hope that by the end of this project, teachers and children will make a space that feels right for them and their stories. In my performances, there are the ghostly presences of members of my family who tell their stories - it is simply a more personal extension of the Passover meal.

3. The theme of the Passover meal: It is 'Out of Slavery, into Freedom'. At my family Seder nights we ask participants to bring their stories and songs on that theme. One of the songs that has arrived and stayed with us is an American Folk Song, a spiritual called 'Go Down Moses' which is said to refer to Harriet Tubman an escaped slave from the American South who returned time after time to lead bands of her people to freedom over the underground railroad. I am hoping to research this in the British Library Sound Archive and find an early recording that could contribute to our Passover meal in York. My children have also brought a song from the Woodcraft folk, it is a round:

'Wouldn't it be a wondrous thing if the children of the world, could live together in peace'. What do teachers and children think freedom means today? What stories can they find about freedom and slavery? About free people and slaves? How do we measure freedom and what stories help us to be free?

4. Evaluation: How on earth can one evaluate the learning outcomes for such a project? The asking of the four questions at the Passover table by the youngest surely sums up the aim of the project - to enable and encourage the children to ask their own questions, to do their own research. Researching is like going on a hunting expedition. We catch a scent or spot a spoor and we follow, spear or arrows or pencil at the ready. Sometimes we know what we are hunting, often we don't, and sometimes we think we do but then find that what we have caught is something quite other than the beast that we thought we were tracking. Like Lewis Carroll's 'Hunting of the Snark', we may find that the Snark is really a Boogum. Hunting is not easy, the majority of hunts end in failure. The lessons learned following the trail that goes cold or that leads round in a circle may well have far more value in the future as a piece of experience remembered than the beast that was caught, devoured, then forgotten. Evaluation should be made by following the trails that children and teachers leave as they go hunting through their own forests.

There is a story of a young man who goes one day to walk in some woods. He wanders all day, delighting in his surroundings until at last he realises that the sun is beginning to set and it is time to turn for home. But the first path he follows twists and turns back on itself and takes him round in a circle. The second just seems to take him deeper into the woods and as he walks the third, he realises that it is too dark to go on and that he will have to find the hollow of a tree and spend the night there until day dawns once more. The next day he tries again, but all day he wanders, seeming to go only deeper and deeper into the trees, and once more is forced to sleep in the open. On the third day, he fares no better, and as the sun is beginning to set once more he is filled with despair. Suddenly however, he sees a man approaching him down a path - a wild looking man dressed in animal skins with long tangled hair and a tree branch as a stick, a man of the woods. Filled with hope the young man runs up to the older one and throws himself at the elder's feet. 'Ah!' he cries, 'I am so happy to find you. You will surely be able to tell me how to get out of these woods? Do you know, I have been lost and wandering here for three days!'

On hearing the young man's words, the elder man begins to laugh. 'Three days, three days! That's nothing! I have been lost in these woods for three years!' On hearing this, the young man began to weep and weep as though the world was at an end.

'Young Man', says the elder, 'please do not despair, for while it is true that I cannot show you the path that leads out of these woods I can at least point out to you all of those which I know, through my own experience, do not'.


Pamela Marre 2005