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New perspectives on the Passover Haggadah

Bruce Gilbert for The Boston Globe

Acclaimed authors Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander have collaborated on the New American Haggadah, the text read at Passover, the most widely practiced of Jewish holidays.

Bruce Gilbert for The Boston Globe

Englander, left, and Foer appeared together at B'nai Jershurn Temple in Manhattan.

Last month, after their new collaboration began flying off bookstore shelves, Jonathan Safran Foer called his friend Nathan Englander. Both writers have been riding hot streaks lately, Foer’s novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” having been made into an Oscar-nominated film and Englander’s latest short story collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” having debuted this winter to glowing reviews.

The success of their latest venture, already in its fourth printing, caught both off guard, however.

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“Jonathan said it was smart to name it ‘New American Haggadah: Hunger Games VIII,’ ” Englander recalls, laughing. “Really, it’s strangely nutty what’s happened. People are really getting involved with it. It’s opening up a lot of discussions, which is good.”

As Jewish families gather to celebrate Passover this weekend, they will be turning to a familiar text, the Haggadah (Hebrew for “story” or “narrative”), to guide them through rituals of the Seder.

The story of Moses leading his enslaved people out of Egypt has been recounted in thousands of versions and translations over the centuries. The prayers offered and questions asked (“Why is this night different . . .?”) have been presented countless times, in countless ways. One English version, published by Maxwell House Coffee in 1932, still has millions of copies in circulation.

Now come literary stars Foer and Englander with their own take on this ancient, seminal text. Their “New American Haggadah” combines Englander’s fresh translation with commentary by four Jewish writers offering differing perspectives on language, history, ethics, and other matters central to the retelling of the exodus story.

The four are novelist-philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein; political writer Jeffrey Goldberg; historian Nathaniel Deutch ; and Lemony Snicket (the pen name of novelist Daniel Handler), who writes for younger readers. The book is illustrated by Israeli artist Oded Ezer.

‘My grandparents were immigrants to America but natives to Judaism. Today we know our “American Idol,” but we don’t know our Jewish heroes.’

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Foer edited the project after launching it nine years ago. At childhood family Seders, he found the Haggadahs used to be lacking in clarity and lyricism.

“My goal here was not to please everybody,” says Foer. “I don’t think of ours as a better version, just a different one. And there will be others.”

Recontextualizing the story was equally important, says Foer, as Seder-table discussions have changed in the aftermath of events such as September 11 and the Arab Spring.

“For a lot of Jewish history, that wasn’t necessary. But it is now. My grandparents were immigrants to America but natives to Judaism. Today we know our ‘American Idol,’ but we don’t know our Jewish heroes.”

This new Haggadah is “a guidebook to our foreign country, which is Judaism,” Foer adds. “Judaism has changed. Jews have changed. The question is, How can a book respond to those changes?”

Foer initially recruited 30 writers to participate. Some extremely fine work was submitted, he says. But as the project approached anthology-size, he scrapped most of it and started over.

“The kill fees for the book were greater than the fees for the work that went in,” quips Foer. “It was an inefficient, but necessary, process.”

Three years ago, Foer invited Englander aboard as translator. In some ways, it was an unusual choice. Although Englander grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and lived in Israel, he identifies himself as “radically secular” and no longer studies religious texts.

Figuring he would spend six weeks translating the 40-page story, Englander devoted nearly two years to the task while also working on short stories and a play. Each passage — each word, even — became fodder for debate and revision.

“If I’m going to choose words by which people pray, I felt this deep moral need to understand their historical context,” says Englander. “I spent these beautiful, hair-pulling days interacting with language. That’s what writing is, though. It’s about committing to a word, about making choices.”

Those choices, as Englander had anticipated, have already raised questions about his judgment. “Eloheinu,’’ usually translated into English as “our God,” is rendered as “God-of-us” by Englander, for instance. At readings of the work, he is often asked why.

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Bruce Gilbert for The Boston Globe

Jonathan Safran Foer spoke to the audience.

“My point is, it’s not ‘our God’ that we own,” he explains. “The Jews of the Torah are chosen to serve God, to follow God’s commandments. If anything, it needs to be a modest thing. It’s not the Jewish God who belongs to us, as opposed to your God. It’s the God of us and over us, to whom we have fealty.”

More literally, he argues, it is one word, not two. “If that makes people slow down and think of what they’re saying, that’s the whole point.”

Assessing Englander’s translation in the Jewish Review of Books, critic Leon Wieseltier bluntly disagrees. Englander, he writes, “frequently ends up with versions that are awkward, ugly, or wrong,” “God-of-us” being an off-putting example.

“Our God” is “more intimate, and therefore more provocative, than Englander’s hyphenate version,” writes Wieseltier, who is no less harsh on other contributors. Snicket, for instance, is dismissed as “puerile, trivializing . . . a punk in a yarmulke.”

Foer and Englander hardly seem upset by the withering critique.

“Leon’s an old friend of mine. His take isn’t mine, but I respect it,” says Foer. Besides, he adds, “Could anyone conceive of anything explicitly Jewish that worked for all Jews? Impossible. And not a good ambition to have, either.”

Says Englander: “Sweet or challenging, the questioning has really been in that fine Jewish tradition of honest inquiry. And that’s what the Seder is about: Go home and wrestle with it.”

Jonathan Sarna, professor of Jewish History at Brandeis University and author of the new book “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” points out that no matter how ancient, the Passover story inevitably becomes relevant to current events. As it should be.

“Each year, each generation, we renew the Seder, interpreting its passages and characters in light of the events of the day,” says Sarna. “Young writers like Foer and Englander are simply continuing that tradition, updating both the translation and interpretation” of the text. If their version proves popular, he says, it reflects the sense that “people are looking for new ideas.”

Still, according to Brookline Booksmith co-owner Dana Brigham, it’s no secret the book’s popularity stems largely from Foer and Englander’s involvement. There was even a “Colbert bump,” she notes, after a recent appearance by Foer on “The Colbert Report.”

“People have been buying 10 copies at a time,” says Brigham. “I’m not Jewish, but a lot of people think the Haggadah is something that gets passed around through generations. So it’s not surprising to us, given the authors involved.”

One customer placing multiple orders with the bookstore this week was Marie Jellinek of East Sandwich. She bought her first copies last month because she’s a fan of Foer and Englander. At first she found the text and illustrations disappointing. She has changed her opinion, though.

“The more my husband and I looked at it, the more interesting it became,” says Jellinek, whose family has owned many different versions of the Haggadah. Normally, the Jellineks send out questions for guests to ponder before gathering around her Seder table. This year? “I’m just going to copy the essays in the book,” she says.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.
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