Comes the Comer
New American Haggadah
edited by Jonathan Safran Foer
with a new translation by Nathan Englander
Little, Brown & Company, 160 pp., $29.99
A history of Jewish literacy remains to be written. It will be a colorful and complicated work, as befits the variegated linguistic history of the Jews, and for American Jewish readers of our day, I mean the honest ones, it will be a disturbing work. Whereas the Jews have always used many languages, Jewish and non-Jewish ones, and whereas complaints about the faltering level of competence in Hebrew appear in many medieval and modern sources, the awful fact is that Jewry of the United States has decided—it was a decision, even if it was never formally made—that the Jewish tradition may be adequately received, developed, and transmitted not in a Jewish language. Judaism's language, after all, is not English. Owing to the magnitude of their illiteracy, American Jews have broken new ground in Jewish incompetence. Translation is an ancient Jewish activity, of course—the sanctity of the Hebrew language notwithstanding, the rabbis always insisted that Jews understand the sacred words that they read and hear and utter. Meaningfulness sometimes demands accommodations and adjustments, and we are the enemies of meaninglessness. But no Jewry has ever been as pathetically dependent upon translation as American Jewry.
The comprehensibility of the liturgy—and the Haggadah is the most extensive liturgical text for use outside the synagogue—was always a premise of Jewish prayer. In the case of the Haggadah, the imperative of translation was no doubt enhanced by the pedagogical character of the commemoration of the Exodus at the Passover meal: It was designed as an education for the children. But in the cultural eddies of the diaspora the "children" often included the adults, who also had a need for a vernacular version of what was being read and sung. The first translations of the Haggadah into Jewish languages—Judeo-Italian, Judeo-German, and Judeo-Spanish—were published in 1609, and the first translations into a non-Jewish language—Spanish—appeared in 1620. (A translation into Latin was made in 1512, but not by Jews and not for Jews.) In 1770, the first Haggadah published in London included its first translation into English. The first American Haggadah, produced in 1837, also had an accompanying translation into English. There have been many English translations since, most of them mediocre or worse.
Now the New American Haggadah has appeared, in a translation by Nathan Englander that takes its place, alas, in that sad line. Englander, who is one of the very few American Jewish writers who knows our people's language, has some fine solutions—"from grief to good days" for me-evel le-yom tov, or the Tetragrammaton rendered as "the One Who Brings Being into Being," which is genuinely thoughtful—but generally he strains too much, and frequently ends up with versions that are awkward, ugly, or wrong.