Jessica Greenbaum, coeditor (with Rabbi Hara E. Person) of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah, shares her experience working on the Haggadah. Mishkan HaSeder is available as a print book, ebook (Kindle and Google Play), and now as a Visual T’filahTM.
How did you come to serve as a coeditor for Mishkan HaSeder?
Mishkan HaSeder was one of those long-gestating dreams. I met Rabbi Hara Person in 1990, and as we became friends and I reveled in the poems she had paired with Torah text in the Women’s Commentary, it seemed inevitable that we would also pair passages of the Haggadah with poetry —and for the same reason, to feel closer to the text. We also knew that by choosing poets of any faith, time, and place, their work would reflect the universality of the story of the Exodus. We wanted participants to feel the seder as a microcosm for the human experience.
Mishkan HaSeder contains a wealth of poetry alongside the seder text. How did you choose which poems to include?
From her work with the The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and other texts, Rabbi Person had a clear method. We looked at every page of the Haggadah and then distilled meanings, symbols, and philosophies found at that moment in the seder. To find poems that reflected or refracted those ideas, we cross-indexed them with our own knowledge of poets and poems, with online databases of poems, and we thumbed through books upon books. It’s not hard to find poems that have a relationship to the story, but finding the very right ones that pop open the moment to new understandings and resonance—that was our goal, and it was thrilling. Like Torah, the story of Passover is ever-expanding; we wanted to find poems that sparked this dynamism.
What role can poetry play as part of the Passover experience?
Emotional intimacy! For example, Mishkan HaSeder’s very first poem, by Karl Shapiro, imagines a 151st psalm (there are only 150 in our liturgy) that begins, “Immigrant God, You follow me.” From the start the reader is offered, within this story of moving toward freedom, an example of freedom to reimagine one’s relationship to God and to the story. “The 151st Psalm” is followed by Jane Hirshfield’s great poem “Optimism,” which begins “More and more I have come to admire resilience”—because not only does Passover embody resilience, but so does survival for peoples all through time. When the Haggadah instructs us to honor the stranger, resilience is needed there as well, to strengthen our resolve against forces of exclusion on any number of levels.
What makes Mishkan HaSeder different from other Haggadot?
Many wonderful Haggadot offer paths from the traditional liturgy to a deepened awareness of the living presence of the Exodus story in the present day. One thing Mishkan HaSeder holds is an entire second Haggadah within it; people who want to conduct a seder with very little of the traditional liturgy can lean on the poems themselves to reflect the signs and wonders of the story. And because readers are used to understanding poems through a very personal scrim, participants can come to the evening knowing that their individual sensibilities have a seat at the table and a voice for the discussion. Mishkan HaSeder can also act as the salt and pepper at the table—the poems sprinkled within whatever text a host chooses.
Did you learn something new while editing the book?
I was grateful to become more conversant with the traditional liturgy and the relationship of one part of the seder to another. There will always be more to know, of course, but each layer of understanding offers new layers of discovery—and new ways of feeling profoundly connected.
Learn more about Mishkan HaSeder at mishkanhaseder.ccarpress.org
Jessica Greenbaum is a poet, teacher, and social worker. She is the coeditor, with Rabbi Hara Person, of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah.