I recently went to England to speak about “New American Haggadah.” When I arrived at Heathrow, I was interrogated by an immigration officer. I seem to have this problem every time I go to London-despite my glasses, and relatively diminutive stature, and general absence of anything connoting terror-I manage to convey the impression that I am a terrorist. The officer looked over my immigration form: “Says you’re here on business. What kind of business?”
President Barack Obama and the first family mark the beginning of the Jewish holiday Passover in 2010 with a Seder with friends and staff in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House in Washington.
“I’m here to talk about a book.”
“A book of yours?”
“Hm…” I said, feeling the possibility of an easy exchange slip away from me. “Now that’s a complicated question.”
He looked up, raised an eyebrow and said, “That’s a complicated question?”
“It’s a work of fiction?” he asked.
“Hm… fiction. No, not in as many words.”
“So what kind of book is it–in as many words?
The exchange reminded me of just what a difficult book the Haggadah is to describe. Sort of fiction, and sort of not. Sort of a prayer book, a work of history and philosophy, sort of a user’s manual, a time line, an ethical argument, a poem and palimpsest. But not exactly any of those things. But all of those things and more.
No book has been revisited and revised more times than the Haggadah. (There are more than 7,000 distinct versions in existence.) But perhaps nothing speaks to its unique fullness as its ability to sustain itself-more than 3,000 years and 100 generations of readings. There are many ways of reading a Haggadah–I read it as a storyteller, a father, a Jew…–but engaged from any perspective, the book offers up beauty and provocation. It’s no coincidence that it is one of the oldest of all continually told stories, and most well-known across cultures. It’s no coincidence that nearly every social justice movement of the 20th century referenced it, finding contemporary meaning in ancient words. It’s no coincidence that my family will gather this Passover, as we have and always will, to open this most ancient, most new of all books.
Jonathan Safran Foer is author, most recently of “New American Haggadah.”