American Culture in Haggadahs from the Collections
by David P. Rosenberg, M.P.A., Reference Services Research Coordinator, Center for Jewish History

Last year I reflected on the vast variety and volume of Haggadahs in my blog post “Dayenu: A few Passover Haggadot would have been enough…really?”

This year I took a closer look at a handful of Haggadahs in the library of the American Jewish Historical Society here at the Center. I tried to approach the works not only as religious texts, but also as artifacts and windows onto our history as American Jews. 

The “First American Edition” of the Haggadah is a true gem of the AJHS collections. There are perhaps ten copies in existence with institutions such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton joining AJHS in owning copies. The 1837 work is in Hebrew and English “according to the custom of the German and Spanish Jews.”

This copy in particular has copious amounts of wine stains, particularly near the section with the plagues. It is moving to see a Haggadah from over 175 years ago with wine stains similar to those in the Haggadahs used in my family. This priceless artifact was really used in the ritual that dates back to between 217 and 360, CE, and is still done in much the same way by Jews all over the world today. That means that this book has survived about a tenth of the history of the “modern” Seder. Thanks to the facilities of the Center for Jewish History, it is poised to last far into the future. 

The collections also hold a German Haggadah, Haggadah: Erzählung von dem Auszuge Israels aus Egypten: an den beiden ersten Pessach-Abendenfrom 1889. It is notable not because it is in German, but because it is in German and was printed in New York. The publisher’s imprint is also interesting to me. “New York / J. Rosenbausm. / successor to H Sakolsko, 53 Division Street.” The area is now firmly part of Chinatown. I looked at the photograph of the address on Google maps  and saw that the street and store signs are now in English and Chinese. The Eldridge Street Synagogue is only one tenth of a mile away. The synagogue was built in 1887, and this Haggadah went to press two years later. At the time, one can only imagine that the local store signs were in Yiddish and Hebrew, not Chinese. 

There are also a variety of the illustrious Maxwell House Haggadahs available for reference in the collections. This includes the original from 1932. It has a much more modest cover than today’s version:

Prepared by the packers of
Maxwell House Coffee
Good to the last drop
KOSHER FOR PASSOVER
a General food product

The last paragraph of the introduction boasts:

And so General Foods Corporation, packers of Maxwell House Coffee, whose relations with the Jewish people have always been most friendly, take pleasure in the presenting this new, up-to-date edition of The Hagadah [sic], arranged in a most simplified and attractive form. They also take great pleasure in extending best wishes for a happy and joyous holiday.

The inside back cover encourages people to “Drink the original Passover coffee / MAXWELL HOUSE COFFEE.”

Maxwell House was not the first to give away Hagaddahs. Besides those from wine merchants, my favorite of the versions sponsored by companies are a pair “compliments of the State bank, New York.” The older 1907 copy declares that it is “sound, conservative, accommodating” and has “a completely revised English Translation with New notes, Music and Illustrations.”

Despite the new translation, it still reads “This is as the bread of Affliction” and “Where for is this night distinguished from all other nights.”

The 1917 version states that the bank is as “Strong as the rock of Gibraltar.” Despite its smaller physical size it has notably more advertisements than the 1907 edition with pages dedicated to telling the virtues of the financial institution. It is largely in Yiddish and includes an image of the bank vault and “$30,000,000.00” and “9 [to] 5” mixed into the Yiddish text. Interestingly, it has instructions in Rashi script, perhaps an insight into the different, more religiously educated, demographic that the bank was targeting. 

Over time there have been many other renditions of the Hagaddah including the San Diego Women’s Haggadah from the Woman’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education

The Freedom Seder: a new Haggadah for Passover by Arthur Waskow was originally used in an interfaith Seder held “on the third night of Passover, April 4, 1969, the first anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, in the basement of a Black church in Washington DC.” (Arthur Waskow founded the Shalom Center in 1982. There is an entire series dedicated to the organization in his papers, which are held by the AJHS  - see Series VI: Shalom Center/ALEPH, 1990-2008  in the finding aid available online; click here.)

Another Haggadah perhaps inspired by Waskow caught my eye: A Soviet Jewry Freedom Seder. It has a hammer and sickle superimposed on a Star of David on the cover. It was published in 1974 by Ohr Kodesh Congregation, Chevy Chase, MD 

The English explanation for lighting the candles reads: “It is a very small light we kindle here tonight; but because we do not forget our Soviet brethren, it is a light that will help dispel the darkness in which the Jews of Russia now live…”

The modified version of Dayenu in A Soviet Jewry Freedom Seder  also touched me:

If our Soviet brethren were permitted to have Jewish books
But not permitted to have schools, DAYENU
If our Soviet brethren were permitted to have schools
But not permitted to have synagogues, DAYENU
If our Soviet brethren were Permitted to have Synagogues
But not permitted to have talesim, tefillin, and prayer books, DAYENU
If our Soviet brethren were permitted to have talesim, tefillin, and prayer books
But not required to have a special Jewish identification mark on their passports, DAYENU
If our Soviet brethren were required to have the Jewish identification
But not required to obtain an affidavit from a relative abroad in order to leave the country, DAYENU
If our Soviet brethren were required to obtain the affidavit
But not required to obtain a “karakteristica” or evaluation from their school or work, DAYENU
If our Soviet brethren were required to obtain the “karakteristica”
But not required to obtain a document from the housing committee, DAYENU
If our Soviet brethren were required to obtain all of these documents
But not required to give up their jobs while waiting for a license to leave the country, DAYENU
If our Soviet brethren were permitted finally to leave the country
But were not required to pay a fee of 500 rubles for each member of the family to renounce his Soviet citizenship, DAYENU
If our Soviet brethren were required to pay the renunciation fee
But not required to pay a passport fee of 400 rubles each, DAYENU
If our Soviet brethren were required to pay the passport fee
But not required to leave other valuable possessions behind, DAYENU
If our Soviet brethren were required to obtain all these documents, pay all the fees, submit to all the humiliation 
But finally were permitted to enter Eretz Yisrael DAYENU

If you are interested in learning more, read my post from last year Dayenu: A few Passover Haggadot would have been enough…really?” or search the collections. I hope you have a very happy and meaningful Passover celebration, no matter what Haggadah you decide to use.

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