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Family Haggadah: 30 years, a million copies

Shoshana Silberman with A Family Haggadah I and II     
Shoshana Silberman with A Family Haggadah I and II     

Some 30-plus years ago, before Passover, parents at The Jewish Center in Princeton would routinely approach Shoshana Silberman, then the religious school principal, and ask for Haggada recommendations.

Their biggest challenge, she said they told her, was how to keep their guests, including the kids, interested. 

They would go on to describe the diversity of the people expected at their tables, she told NJJN, including a wide range of religious, ideological, and generational characteristics. 

“My sister’s coming over with their teenagers,” she offered as an example of a typical litany. “My brother and his wife, who’s not Jewish, will have preschoolers; my mom’s eyesight is not that great and she can’t use small text; and I’m a feminist and I don’t like when I read a traditional Haggada.”

When she realized that she could recommend no traditional Haggada that would do the trick, Silberman said, she decided to write her own.

This year she is celebrating the 30th anniversary of A Family Haggadah I, published by Kar-Ben, a division of Lerner Publishing Group, in 1986.

When she started the process, she said, her first thought was of her own family seders, and realized the seder “is a multigenerational experience and everyone has to be drawn in.” 

To ensure inclusivity, she decided to keep in mind two “real” families she knew from The Jewish Center, imagining she was writing for them. The resulting Haggada was distinct from traditional ones in a number of ways.

“The first point was I knew that some people really cared about the issue of gender-neutral language — God not being addressed as a He,” Silberman said. 

Another departure was her summarization of the Exodus narrative. “A traditional Haggada assumes that you know the Passover story,” Silberman said, noting that the rabbis had left this out “because they didn’t want Moses to be the super-hero of the Haggada.”

She decided to include both Moses and his sister Miriam, who spiritually nourished the Israelites and led the women in song and dance at the Red Sea, as role models, especially for young children.

In her Haggada, Silberman also emphasized the key elements of the seder, but made some pointed omissions. She said her aim was to avoid a scenario in which people stopped mid-Haggada because everyone was tired and the kids had fallen asleep. “I wanted to make sure they go through the experience, from beginning to end, in the Haggada, and it would be transformative that way,” she said.

Her Haggada was also crafted in response to people’s perception that “someone — an elder, usually male — would read through the Haggada, but that it wasn’t a learning experience.” To fulfill the mandate to narrate the story to the next generation “it had to be a pedagogical experience in some way.”

She designed her work, therefore, to be interactive, using icons to indicate where music — on the tape that accompanied the first edition — was to be played, and to mark the integration of activities in the ritual; for example, where the young children were to display the paper wine cups they had cut out and colored, numbered one to four, before the seder.

Because a Haggada is not just for young children, Silberman said, she added interesting commentaries, enhanced with “stimulating questions so that everyone at the seder can participate.” 

Silberman also had definite expectations about artwork, all of which were met, she said, by illustrator Katherine Janus Kahn. She wanted art that would be appealing to children “but wouldn’t give the image of being a very babyish book.”

She also wanted the illustrations to reflect diversity. “One thing I absolutely demanded was that there would be no picture of a family on the Haggada,” she said. “I wanted all types of families. I didn’t want anyone to look at a family on the cover and say, ‘That’s not my family; this Haggada is not for me.’”

About eight years after the publication of A Family Haggadah I, Silberman started getting requests from parents who had consciously used the work, but whose seders now included only teenagers and adults. For these families she created A Family Haggadah II, with commentaries, questions, and activities geared to this cohort. 

Finally, she wanted both editions, now re-colorized, to be widely accessible. “One of the ideas I had was it would be wonderful to have the Haggada inexpensive enough but also beautiful enough so that people would like it and feel excited about it and could afford it, and everyone at the table would have this Haggada,” she said.

Silberman’s initial hope was that the initially $3.99, now $4.99, book would sell 1,000 copies — an expectation that has been multiplied a thousandfold. 

She said she has not made a fortune on them, “but it was a lot of nachas, a lot of joy and excitement” to see it in such wide usage. “People to this day tell me how their family used it, that it was the first time they were able to go through a full Haggada and have a ‘real’ seder.”

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