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Haggadah offers global approach to the seder
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Haggadah offers global approach to the seder

NJ rabbi’s guide incorporates tradition while stressing inclusion

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

It’s no coincidence that the new Haggadah written by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of North Brunswick opens with the image of a pineapple. After all, the subtitle of “Welcome to the Seder” is “A Passover Haggadah for Everyone,” and the pineapple is a colonial symbol of welcome.

Olitzky wrote this version of the ritual Passover volume, illustrated by Rinat Gilboa and published this year by New Jersey’s Behrman House, with the intention of making everyone who happens to be sitting at the seder table feel comfortable and included.

“This is for the family who invites lots of guests who come from different backgrounds, and wants to be as welcoming as they can be,” Olitzky said. 

Recognizing the needs of different Jewish subcultures served as the inspiration for so many of the early creative Haggadot; there were Haggadot for vegetarians, some centering on Soviet Jewry, others with a feminist message, and still others paying tribute to Holocaust survivors, among the hundreds of specialized texts. But the irony was that such Haggadot seemed exclusively for and about particular groups or concepts. More mainstream Haggadot, whether for children or scholars, for learned families or those with little background, mostly did not bring in marginalized groups.

Enter Olitzky, who has spent the last 20 years reaching out to people on the margins and bringing them into the mainstream. From 2000 until it closed its doors last year, he served as executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute (renamed Big Tent Judaism in 2007), which was founded in 1988 by sociologist Egon Mayer. A prolific author, Olitzky has written two other Passover books, one a Haggadah with Rabbi Ron Isaacs, the other a volume on preparing for the holiday. 

Olitzky told NJJN he views “Welcome to the Seder” as the culmination of the work he’s been doing on inclusivity. “In the white spaces of the texts,” he said, “are the last 20 years working to make Judaism as engaging as possible for those on the periphery, for those who have been historically disenfranchised, for those who have been excluded” from the Jewish experience. 

The narrative of the new work is streamlined, with considerably reduced sections, like Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals) and Hallel (prayers of thanksgiving); but there are signposts along the way for people used to a more traditional Haggadah. The rabbis in B’nei Brak make an appearance, as do some instances of awkward but familiar language, like “The Egyptians set harsh taskmasters over the Israelites.” 

There are tidbits thoughtfully planted throughout the Haggadah that draw varied traditions into the narrative. Roasted peanut charoset from the Ugandan-Jewish community gets a mention, as does a colorful custom of the Jews in India, who dip their hands in red paint at the beginning of the seder and then press their hands on paper to create a hamsa, or amulet to ward off evil, which they hang near the seder table.

The “Serenity” prayer accompanies the section on bitterness, along with a quote from Rabbi Mark Borovitz of Beit T’Shuva, which for a long time was the only Jewish residential addiction treatment center. Those elements offer “a way of subtly affirming the presence of people in recovery from alcoholism at the s  eder, without being in-your-face about it,” said Olitzky.

And non-Jewish customs that echo rituals at the seder also find a place in the Haggadah’s margins, including washing-of-the-hands ceremonies from Native American tradition and Islamic culture; as well as Buddhist, Christian, Shaker, and Muslim prayers before eating. 

“It recognizes that the people sitting around the table may have experiences within their own traditions with water” or food, said Olitzky. “It’s a way to bring them closer to the Jewish experience.”

The Haggadah also reflects another reality about the Exodus from Egypt: “The freedom story has become a story for many people,” said Olitzky. “The civil rights movement adopted the story, the liberation movement in South Africa adopted the story, abolitionists adopted the story. Many people through history have adopted the story and made it their own, and that is reflected in this Haggadah.” 

Acknowledging this widespread adoption, he introduced quotes from public intellectuals and politicians, from diverse writers, even from a nun.

Gilboa’s illustrations are lyrical and evocative, blending a watercolor palette with layered textures. She combines traditional acrylic and watercolor brush strokes; different papers, fabrics, and textures; and digital illustration to create expressive collages. The images echo the essential idea of inclusivity, with faces and bodies in hues from tan and brown to yellowish and blue. Gilboa told NJJN that “in Rabbi Olitzky’s text, I saw the ancient Haggadah text in a new light — a more global, open, and holistic approach to the Haggadah story.” 

The seder, Olitzky believes, is intended to remind us of something we have collectively experienced. “We all have this memory, but it’s buried,” he said. “I hope this Haggadah stimulates the memory of the experience of Exodus, which many of us live through on a daily basis.”

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