A Haggadah for every taste


Talk about piggybacking, or more like “brisket-backing,” on a holiday to build brand loyalty. More than 75 years ago, Maxwell House Coffee teamed up with Joseph Jacobs Advertising, then located on New York’s immigrant-teeming Lower East Side, to produce the first “Maxwell House Haggadah.”

Still free at many grocery stores, the coffee-brand Haggadah not only made Maxwell House a favorite in Jewish households. The booklet of prayers, blessings, commentary, history and songs — reportedly the longest-running sales promo in advertising history — also helped feed another phenomenon, the Haggadah collector.

Canadian-born Bonnie Vickar, now a naturalized American citizen living in Chesterfield, easily qualifies. “It’s my dirty little secret,” the grandmother admits, “that when I see a Haggadah, I buy it. I don’t even think, Do I need it?”

Amazon.com carries more than 1,300 different books with “Haggadah” in their titles. They range from “Haggadah for Jews and Buddhists,” which omits the word “God,” to “Sammy Spider’s First Haggadah,” which finds the arachnid dozing in his web, in the Shapiros’ ceiling.

Along with Vickar’s “Maxwell House Haggadah,” dear to her because virtually the same version was used by Jews during the 1930s in the Great Depression and also by penniless Jewish immigrants, she has amassed nearly 50 other varieties of Haggadot, all in the past 35-or-so years. In her “Polychrome Historical Haggadah for Passover,” different colored type denotes the eras to which various verses date. On the sentimental side, she counts her “touchy-feely” Haggadot, some with movable parts, used by her three children when they were kids themselves.

Some Haggadot bring Vickar solace. Others, which accompany her to the kitchen as she cooks the annual seder meal, elicit tears. When Vickar was growing up, her mother, like so many others, prepared meals from scratch. In a poem in one of Vickar’s haggadot, someone reminisces about childhood Passovers. The poem essentially says: Now I am doing it all. Please, help me manage the children.

“The first time I read it,” remembers Vickar, a member of Shaare Zedek Synagogue, “I think it took three days for me to stop crying.” She sent the poem to her cousins, who likewise prepare their own seders. They cried, too.

At least one Vickar haggadah has never been incorporated in her family seders, not even on one of her Post-it note references. “But if I’m having a bad day, it fulfills me,” she says. In 1945 and 1946, Holocaust survivors at displaced person camps near Munich put together an illustrated haggadah, to be used at the first Passover after their liberation. Mostly forgotten for five decades, “A Survivors’ Haggadah” has been reprinted by the Jewish Publication Society.

“What touches me,” Vickar says, “is that after suffering and watching your family being tortured and murdered, these people wanted to do something so Jewish, something we take for granted.”

The impetus for the seder, or ceremonial Passover meal, and the haggadah, which in Hebrew means “telling,” is the exhortation in the Bible for Jews to retell the story of their exodus from Egypt. No comparable prompt advises how many different haggadot to use.

Previously, Vickar would stack various haggadot on guests’ plates, in hopes that participants would find something of personal interest to share. When that proved awkward, she began giving everyone the same haggadah, but with different Post-it notes inside, on which she copied insights from other haggadot. The idea was to stimulate discussion.

But lest she sound “too Talmudic,” Vickar emphasizes that her fascination with haggadot is “cultural” and her aim is “fun.” Her six grandchildren have sealed the deal. For their benefit, she made Passover puppets. She encourages singing, dancing and tambourines.

One of her recent acquisitions, the book “300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions,” complete with a CD and DVD, details how speakers, including Shakespeare and a “like, uh, why …” Valley Girl, would pose their queries.

History has shown that haggadot are meant to be used. The 14th-century “Sarajevo Haggadah,” one of the world’s oldest Sephardic haggadot, is now owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Its pages are stained with wine.

Can brisket gravy and coffee splotches be far behind?

Tips for Improving Your Seder

Personalize. “The whole purpose of the seder is to see ourselves as if we were the ones liberated from slavery. The more we can discuss from our own experiences, the better. The haggadah is a vehicle. It’s not the whole experience,” says Rabbi Josef Davidson, adjunct rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona.

Don’t starve the guests. Once the parsley is dipped in salt water and the blessing thanking God for vegetables has been said, bring out a relish tray. This way, guests can nibble before dinner.

Loosen up. To approximate seders as the Romans held them, Rabbi Davidson says, why sit in upright chairs? Why not use sofas or pillows? “We’ve done it at some of our seders. It’s really kind of a neat thing,” he says.

Haggadot, Passover items in town:

Among haggadot and Passover paraphernalia available at The Source Unlimited shop, congregation gift shops or online:

* “Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb”: for vegetarians and “those concerned with cruelty in any form to animals or humans.

* “GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered) Haggadah”: Coming out sexually is likened to coming out of captivity in Egypt. Seder plates may include coconuts, sweet on the inside but with tough outer shells to shield against prejudice.

* Ecological awareness: Some haggadot cite enslavement to fossil fuels and our “leavened,” or inflated, sense of self-importance.

* Women’s and feminist haggadot: Many choices and an evolution, in some, from gender-free or “Queen of the Universe” text to embracing groups and things, including the homeless and redwoods, judged to be in need of more freedom or protection. An orange on the seder plate often represents women and inclusivity. The addition of Miriam’s Cup, filled with water, honors the well God gave her to nurture the Israelites in the desert.

* “Uncle Eli’s Special-for-Kids, Most Fun Ever, Under-the-Table Passover Haggadah”: wacky rhymes and illustrations.

* Jewish Federations of North America is among organizations providing free downloadable haggadot, from Orthodox to basic.

* Jewishfreeware offers online advice on creating your own haggadah.

* “The Two-Minute Haggadah,” an article written by Michael Rubiner in Slate online magazine, concludes with “Thanks again, God, for everything.”

* Song parodies: kosher4passover.com is one site whose offerings include “Elijah,” sung to the tune of “Maria,” and beginning: “Elijah!/ I just saw the prophet Elijah./And suddenly that name/Will never sound the same to me.”