October 16, 2019

Customize Your Seder and Raise a Glass to Mrs. Cowen

By Amy Powell

The profusion of haggadot designed to create different sorts of experiences for Passover owes a debt of gratitude to Mrs. Lillian Cowen who, in 1904, became the first woman to translate a haggadah into English and to create a seder guide that offered some flexibility.

In addition to useful tools such as better translations, improved graphics, learned notes, music and illustrations, Mrs. Cowen’s haggadah had notes on what was essential and what might be skipped. She explains in the preface that she was motivated, in part, by the ways in which the blunders, typos and poor grammar inspired giggles during the seder. She sought to create a haggadah that would be read with interest and respect, but also by a wide spectrum of Jews, according to Professor Jonathan Sarna, University Professor, Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, who recently gave a talk titled, Next Year in Jerusalem in Contemporary American Haggadot.

Mrs. Cowen was onto something. Her haggadah became the most popular in the U.S. and by 1935, had distributed 295,000 copies.  As such she may have unknowingly given birth to a great tradition of diverse and special interest haggadot that we are fortunate to enjoy today.

Another haggadah that has been around for a while, since 1932 and with more than 50 million copies in print, the Maxwell House Haggadah, had shown some willingness to abandon it’s fusty image and have a bit of fun. This year, they tapped into the popular culture by issuing Midge’s Haggadah. It’s pale pink and from “1958” and adapted as the version used by the fictional Midge Maisel of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel show on Amazon. It’s available free with a purchase of Maxwell House coffee, kosher for Passover, of course. In 2011, the Maxwell House Haggadah, adopted some gender-neutral language. Rather than calling G-d a king, they used “monarch,” and changed the four sons to the four “children.”

Today, there are so many varied haggadot with more profound changes relating to gender than simply adopting gender-neutral language or adding a pink cover. Haggadot exist for a spectrum of observances, age groups and personal preferences, many with updated themes of freedom, plagues, renewal and more.

For those searching for readings and themes — and perhaps not ready to invest in new haggadot — there are many downloadable versions. HBI has compiled a few tools to help you design your own seder with an eye to HBI’s mission of developing fresh ideas about Jews and gender.

For example, JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, compiled numerous  Pesach Divrei Torah, described as “by women, for all,” in a 32-page free download titled Shema Bekolah, Hear Her Voice. This year, Kveller, a website devoted to ideas for first-time parents, interfaith parents, queer parents, adoptive parents, and everything in between” published a Haggadah for “curious kids and their grown-ups” available as a free download.  Also new to the market is the Emoji Haggadah with no words at all, but instead described as “hieroglyphics of the 21st century.”

For those who prefer a DIY version, there are resources. JewishBoston.com and The Wandering is Over Haggadah: A Seder For Everyone, has a free and downloadable, contemporary and customizable haggadot. Here, you will find readings and options on anti-Semitism, mental health, immigration, feminism, labor rights, social justice, climate change, racial justice, inclusion, Israel, LGBTQ liberation and more. The contributors include The Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN), JCRC, ADL, Ruderman Foundation, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Emilia Diamant, JewishBoston.com, New England Jewish Labor Committee and others.

Haggadot.com has a tool called Let’s Make Your Passover Haggadah Together, with a platform that allows you to create a custom seder, using content aggregated from more than 150 individuals, artists and 13 organizations. These can be tailored and either downloaded or printed for your seder.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, known as the “Velveteen Rabbi,” created a downloadable haggadah, the Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach, out of her desire for a seder text which cherishes “the tradition and also augments that tradition with contemporary poetry, moments of mindfulness, a theology of liberation, and sensitivity to different forms of oppression.”

Jewish Family & Children’s Services released two downloadable haggadot related to healing and wholeness: the Chaverim Shel Shalom Haggadah and the Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Jewish Healing Friendly Visitor Passover Seder.

As the four children in the haggadah remind us, it’s important to have a multitude of voices around the table asking questions and heightening our awareness of what the holiday means. For, this we may need to raise a fifth cup of wine to Mrs. Lillian Cowen.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

 

Comments

  1. Camille says:

    Thank you for the lovely tribute to my great-great-grandmother, Lillie Cowen!

    • aspowell says:

      Camille, Thanks so much. It’s great to hear from you. -Amy Powell, editor of Fresh Ideas

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