Tag Archives: Passover

The Bronfmans’ New Haggadah

Cover of the newly released "Bronfman Haggadah."Cover of the newly released “Bronfman Haggadah.”

For Passover this year, Rizzoli has just released “The Bronfman Haggadah,” written by the businessman, philanthropist and Jewish community leader Edgar Bronfman Sr., illustrated by artist Jan Aronson, who is also Bronfman’s wife. Unlike other haggadot, this version includes the role of Moses in the story of the Exodus (read Bronfman Exodus Story on page 19). In his introduction, Bronfman suggests that the omission from the traditional telling may be because the rabbis who wrote the early haggadot “viewed Moses as a dangerous hero — one who could easily upset the religious hierarchy.” On the occasion of the book’s release, Bronfman and Aronson talked about why and how they created the book, rethinking the role of the haggadah to tell, in their own way, the tale of Jewish Exodus and liberation. The following is an edited version of that conversation:

Tom Teicholz: Why a new haggadah?

Edgar Bronfman: What I think should be done in the 21st century [is] to have a haggadah that teaches young children what Judaism is all about. And I think it’s all there in the Passover story — if you know how to tell it properly. What I’ve done is written a haggadah that I think children today can relate to — and not just on Passover.

TT: How is this haggadah different from all other haggadot?

EB: It’s different in a number of ways. First, and this was my wife’s idea: Why do you want to feed Elijah after you’ve finished your meal? If Elijah represents the poor of the world, then surely you should let him in to share the meal with you. Young people will learn that feeding the poor — that’s very Jewish. The second thing that’s different, very much different, is I don’t talk about the four children; I talk about the four different kinds of Jews there are in this world and how we have to have open arms to all of them to bring them back into our fold. The third thing that’s different, I don’t stop at the Red Sea and I don’t call it the Red Sea. I call it the Sea of Reeds — a shallow part of the Red Sea that the Jews crossed without thinking, but that when the Egyptians with their chariots and their armor came, they sunk. That put the Jews on the other side of the Red Sea. No one’s chasing them now. And they’re free. Free to do anything and everything, and that becomes chaos. So Moses leads them to Mount Sinai and gives them the Ten Commandments, and this the Jews accept because they can’t stand the chaos either. And that’s where I end [the narrative], rather than at the Red Sea.

TT: You mention the four types of Jews (the wise, rebellious, simple and indifferent). Who do you see as the audience for this haggadah?

EB: I see the audience for this haggadah as the young people who have not left Judaism but are not affiliated. … Hopefully this revives some interest — just like a Birthright trip to Israel revives interest in Judaism.

TT: Throughout your life, you’ve set yourself the task of very large projects, whether it’s running Seagram’s or leading the World Jewish Congress or addressing the third phase of life. Why did you, at this point in your life, decide to tackle one holiday, one night, one meal?

EB: I think Passover is the most important of the Jewish holidays. … [It’s] the night we became a people. … I think all the elements of Judaism are encapsulated in this story. … [Also], when children come to the table at Passover, they are happy … that’s a good time to teach them a little Judaism.

Jan Aronson and husband Edgar Bronfman in 2011. Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO

TT: Ms. Aronson, tell me a little about your artistic journey with this project.

Jan Aronson: With this particular project a couple of things happened that were unique in my career. Number one, I was able to do a lot of research into how I wanted the imagery to cohere with the history of certain aspects of the haggadah. [For example,] I thought it would be interesting to put in a biblical map, which is not something I’ve ever seen in a haggadah. … I added the map [to] put some interesting context and historical references that we are talking about in a visual form. …

My work is very painterly. … This gave me an opportunity to branch out and do other things with my work that I’d never had the opportunity to do. I was also able to draw on some of the skills that I had but hadn’t used in a long time. It was a chance to play and have a good time with patterns and imagery and go outside the box with certain illustrations.

TT: Did working on these illustrations give you any deeper insight into the haggadah?

JA: I thought a lot about which concepts I wanted to illustrate. The ones that were very important to me [from] a spiritual, metaphysical and also ethical standpoint were the ones I was drawn to. [For example,] the burning bush in my concept … [occurs at] sunrise while [Moses] is meditating on his life. … The sun is rising and the color is coming through the shrubbery of the desert. He decides to go back and deal with what he left in Egypt as well as meet his brother, whom he had never met. …

TT: On a lighter note, this haggadah does not make the seder shorter.

EB: My idea was not to make it short. My idea was to make it so that when you were finished with it, you had really done the seder and you had squeezed out a lot of knowledge of Judaism from it.

TT: You left songs for the end rather than integrate them in the seder. Any reason for that?

EB: I think singing is fun, but the [songs] don’t have much to say much Jewishly. … Well, at the end you’ve had your fourth glass of wine, you’re kind of relaxed. It’s fun to sing. If the children have gone to bed by then, we don’t care. What I care about is what we can teach them up until the time of the dinner.

TT: You introduce quotes from Frederick Douglass, [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and Marge Piercy as part of your seder.

EB: My rabbis.

TT: Your rabbis. To that point, this struck me as a secularist haggadah. The magic of faith doesn’t seem to play as great a role.

EB: The magic tricks and all that are good storytelling. I’m not sure it all happened, and I don’t think it teaches very much.

TT: As I read it, there is one omission in your haggadah, and please correct me if I missed it. We are commanded at the seder to feel as if we were slaves in Egypt. For me, the great contribution of Judaism to the world is first, monotheism and the notion of a living God that is not embodied in literal idols and is an abstract concept; and second, this commandment at the seder that speaks to empathy, one of the greatest features of the Jewish faith. But you don’t mention this commandment.

EB: [As to the contributions of Judaism to the world] I say a little more [about this] at the end, where the [Israelites] are all fighting and killing each other. It’s chaotic. Then Moses gives them the Ten Commandments. By accepting the Ten Commandments, they become God’s people. I want to leave it at that … because it’s impossible for most people to really imagine themselves as “this is the night we were freed from Egypt.” That’s a stretch. Nice words, but it doesn’t mean very much.

TT: Each of you has worked for many years in your separate spheres. Can you talk about working together?

EB: For me, that was a joy. What I did was I asked my wife if she would illustrate the haggadah. She said, “But I’m not an illustrator.” I said, “I want someone who’s fresh, and not encumbered.” I know my wife is bright and smart, and I know what a great artist she is [and that with her participation], I’m going to go from what I know is a good haggadah to a great one, by having it become beautiful.

JA: I had the opportunity of a lifetime. Number one, to collaborate with my husband, whom I adore and I respect, on a project that he already had worked five years to perfect … and he said, “Here, just take it and fly with it” — it was a tremendous opportunity and a lot, a lot of fun. I had total freedom, and when I would go into Edgar’s office and show him one of the paintings I had done. … He was always really happy with it. So it was a wonderful collaboration in a very special way.

TT: On that note, let me say: Hag Sameach.

EB & JA: Hag Sameach to you, too.

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William Shatner gets a place at the Seder

William Shatner Publicity Photo credit WilliamShatnerdotcom.jpg

William Shatner is God. And Pharaoh. And Moses, too.

Just in time for Passover, the Jewish Music Group (a division of Shout
Factory) has released “Exodus: An Oratorio in Three Parts,” performed
by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. It is conducted by David Itkin, who
created and composed the Oratorio, sung by baritone Paul Rowe and
includes dramatic readings from the Bible and from the haggadah, spoken
by none other than Shatner.

“It’s perfect seder entertainment,” Shatner said recently, but more
than that, “it speaks to people of all religions. It’s something that
should be in repertory.”

“Exodus: An Oratorio” is divided into three parts: “Moses and Pharaoh,”
“The Ten Plagues” and “Redemption.” The music mixes symphonic and
sacred, modulating strings, choral voices and baritone solos to provide
both uplift and ballast to the biblical material — as well as gentle
musical transitions between some of Shatner’s narrative performances.
While Shatner has been parodied for his ability to bring a level of
bombast to almost any material, here he gives a varied and nuanced
performance — his voice varies from sounding like a pulpit rabbi to
the muted and conversational tones of a line reading. And then there
are the special effects that are his signature — when he makes his
words pop with emphasis: (i.e., I…..AM…..THE…..LORD!)

“Exodus” was recorded live on April 9 and 10, 2005, at the Robinson
Center Music Hall in Little Rock, Ark., where the Arkansas Symphony was
joined by a choir of 350.

Click here for a short excerpt of Shatner’s performance. MP3. 700K.

“It was quite a happening,” Shatner recalled in a recent telephone interview.

The work is just one of a number of new projects for the actor, who
turned 76 on March 22. In the next few weeks, his autobiography, “Up
Till Now,” will be released, as well as a DVD of “William Shatner’s
Gonzo Ballet,” which is a feature-length documentary about a ballet
based on Shatner songs from his Ben Folds-produced album “Has Been.”
And, on April 26, he will host his annual event, Hollywood Charity
Horse Show to raise money for a therapeutic equestrian program for
handicapped kids.

To listen to Shatner tell the story of Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh, to
hear him read of the ten plagues and the story of the parting of the
Red Sea, mixed in with choral and solo performances in English and
Hebrew, is to realize how much of an icon he has become and what an
amazingly diverse career he has had.

Shatner was born in Montreal, Canada, to Jewish parents and grew up in
a kosher home. As a teenager, he was a counselor at a B’nai Brith camp
in the Laurentian mountains in southern Quebec, according to various
Web sites. He attended McGill University, earning a bachelor’s in
commerce. However, by the time he was 20 he had already landed a small
role in a Canadian TV series. Over the next decade, Shatner would
perform Shakespeare and appear on the Broadway stage in Christopher
Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine The Great,” as well as the Richard Mason play
“The World of Suzie Wong,” and the Harold Clurman-directed “A Shot in
the Dark,” alongside Julie Harris and Walter Matthau.

During the 1950s, Shatner appeared in several of the “golden age of
television” dramas, such as “Omnibus, “”Studio One” and “The Kraft
Television Hour,” including “A Town Has Turned to Dust” directed by
John Frankenheimer and written by Rod Sterling. Shatner also had roles
in such now-classic films as “The Brothers Karamazov” (with Yul Brynner
and Claire Bloom) and “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

A list of Shatner’s credits from the early ’60s includes almost every
famous series, including “The Twilight Zone,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Route
66,” “The Outer Limits,” “The Defenders,” “Dr. Kildare,” and “Gunsmoke.”

In 1966, he assumed command of the Starship Enterprise, as Captain
James T. Kirk. Although only 79 original episodes ran between 1966 and
1969, the “Star Trek” series cemented Shatner in the popular

Nonetheless, after the series was cancelled, and following a divorce,
Shatner was forced to live out of his truck, performing summer stock.
During this period, concerned that he had been typecast as Kirk,
Shatner wandered in the wilderness, taking whatever roles he could.

He returned to the helm of the Enterprise for the six Star Trek movies
(directing the fifth). And he also returned to TV as the star of the
police drama “T.J. Hooker,” and then to host the reality series “Rescue

At the same time, Shatner began to display a sense of humor about his
long tenure as Captain Kirk, and the legions of obsessed Trekkie fans,
in such films as “Airplane II” and “National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon”
and in skits on “Saturday Night Live.” He gained further notoriety as a
pitchman for Priceline.com.

More recently, Shatner hit gold again, portraying attorney Denny Crane
on “Boston Legal,” a role he originated on the series “The Practice.”
He is one of the few actors to receive consecutive Emmy awards for
playing the same character on two different series.

Shatner’s life has also had its share of tragedy: his third wife,
Nerine, drowned after mixing valium and alcohol. Shatner recently told
Details magazine that he didn’t “understand closure … we grieve

As for his recording career, it began with his much-derided 1968 album,
“Transformed Man” and with his over-the-top spoken word interpretations
of songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” In 2004, Ben Folds
produced “Has Been,” a collection of songs, many of which he co-wrote
with Shatner, including featured guest performances by Joe Jackson and
Aimee Mann. It was well received and became a commercial success.

Which brings us back to “Exodus” and its composer David Itkin.

Itkin grew up in a conservative Jewish home, began writing music at 14
and conducting at 16. A graduate of the University of The Pacific
Conservatory, he has been music director of the Arkansas Symphony since
1993, while also conducting and serving as music director for the
Abilene Philharmonic Orchestra. It has just been announced that he will
leave The Arkansas Symphony after the 2008-2009 season to become
director of orchestral studies at the University of North Texas at

At a seder in 2003, Itkin said he was stuck by the dramatic
possibilities of the Passover story. He developed the composition while
on sabbatical in Florence, Italy, the following summer and fall.

When Itkin secured a 2005 date for the “Exodus Oratorio” he still
needed a narrator. “We kicked around lots of names,” he said, and
always considered but was not wedded to using famous Jewish actors. “We
kept winnowing and winnowing the list” he said, “and Shatner’s name
kept coming up. And it wouldn’t go away.”

Itkin contacted Shatner, and it turned out that not only was he interested, he was available on the needed dates.

“It was intriguing,” Shatner recalled.

So with little preparation, other than years of reading the haggadah at
seders, Shatner arrived in Little Rock the night before the first

“He was great fun to be around,” Itkin recalled.

There were two rehearsals and two performances — one on Friday and one
on Saturday night. Itkin was impressed by how Shatner was able to
deliver his narrative within the very proscribed places and vary each
character, much like different “takes,” affording choices for editing
the eventual produced work.

“On Saturday,” Shatner said, “everything fell into place.” He reveled
in the experience of being on stage with 350 choral members and a
72-piece orchestra, he said.

“There’s no magic like a live audience,” Shatner says in the
recording’s liner notes. “The performer sends out the words, the music,
the love, and he gets back the energy of the audience in waves.”

In the final section, “Redemption,” he intones the words of the
priestly blessing: “May the Lord Bless you and keep you; may he be
gracious to you; may the Lord make the light of his countenance to
shine upon you; and may he grant you peace.”

“The words were like a benediction over the whole audience.” Shatner recalled.

At the seders I attend, I am not above some moments of audio-visual
enhancement. I recall one spectacular seder where, at the strategic
moment, the late Charlton Heston burst onto a screen to part the Red
Sea. In recent years, the immediate post-seder entertainment has been
funny Passovers songs (like “There’s No Seder Like Our Seder” to tune
of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”). This year may well find
our seder going forth with Shatner and the “Exodus Oratorio.”

And let us all together say: Amen.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else,
he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times
Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every
other week.

Audio courtesy JTA

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