Passover on the Potomac
The Washington Haggadah
by Joel ben Simeon, translated by David Stern
Harvard University Press, 248 pp., $39.95
If the Obamas conduct a seder again this Passover, the haggadah in the hands of family members and guests-Jewish and non-Jewish-will probably be the one they have used for the past two years, that most American of haggadot, the "traditional Maxwell House." Maxwell House was not the first company to use a complimentary haggadah to sell groceries, but it has been the most prolific, publishing more than 50 million copies since 1934. It is no surprise, then, to see it become a fixture of "our nation's seder."
Just across the Potomac in Bethesda, Washington insiders Cokie and Steve Roberts, bestselling authors, celebrities of TV, radio and print journalism, have been holding a Maxwell House-free seder for nearly four decades. The Robertses-he's a cultural Jew and she's a religious Catholic-will use their homemade text, just published as Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families and so will their kin and guests. Their roster of seder regulars recalls Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song": there's "Lesley Stahl, a Jew from Massachusetts, and her husband, Aaron Latham, a Protestant from Texas"; there's "Linda Wertheimer (Protestant, New Mexico) and her husband, Fred (Jewish, Brooklyn), and Nina Totenberg (Jewish, Massachusetts) and her husband, Floyd Haskell (Protestant, Colorado)."
The Robertses' initiative is a lineal descendant of the once famous and singularly high-powered seder presided over by former Secretary of Labor, Supreme Court Justice, and Ambassador to the UN Arthur J. Goldberg and his wife, Dorothy. In 1961, the Goldbergs' guest list included President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, the Speaker of the House, two Supreme Court justices, two senators, and the president of the AFL-CIO. In 1967, it included the newlywed Robertses, at whose wedding Goldberg had given a speech. The Goldbergs' homemade haggadah presented Passover's theme of freedom in American language: "The Festival of Pesach calls upon us to put an end to all slavery . . . Pesach calls us to the eternal pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Mrs. Goldberg, in her marginal notes, reminded herself to mention that "one of the best descriptions of the exodus is the great Negro spiritual ‘Go Down Moses.'" Cokie Roberts remembers participating "with gusto" when "the crowd started singing freedom songs from the civil rights and labor movements, held over from the days when Goldberg had been a leading labor lawyer."