Two great texts that text great together

art&ideas to engage with contemporary life and uplift our fullest selves 

Kevin Roozen, professor of rhetoric, reminds us: “Rather than existing as autonomous documents, [All texts] are profoundly intertextual in that they draw meaning from a network of other texts.” Understanding texts-in-relationship as a means of better understanding them both on their own terms and in relation to the reader is the fundamental experience of Jewish study. We might describe Jewish learning as a long-running conversation amongst human beings across time, unfolding in spaces created between texts.


While we explore the purpose and usefulness of this space, the following reflection functions, in a limited fashion, as an expression of its guiding values:

In the Spring of 2020, before traveling north at the start of lockdown, I stopped at my parents’ house and, maintaining a healthy six foot distance, borrowed a dozen copies of the Zemel Family Passover Haggadah to bring to Vermont. Like many of the other elements of my family’s seder–the gefilte fish, the matzo balls, the maror–the ZFPH is homemade, and reflects the care and wisdom of my parents and their teachers.

It is a humble object–the current edition was printed on 8.5 by 11 inch paper and spiral bound at a Fedex Kinkos sometime in the late aughts or early 2010s. The edition before that had a yellow cover and plastic binding. If you are ever in my parents’ home for Seder, you will find one sitting on your chair when it is time to take your seat. 

Despite its workaday presentation, the liturgy is profound. 

The spine of the text is a collection of photocopies from mainstream Haggadot (a lot of Kaplan’s Reconstructionist). But the other pages, the inserts, typed with his hunt-and-peck fingers or copy-and-pasted in 12 point Calibri, were quilted together with care and attention by my father from a wide range of sources: Neil Postman and Janusz Bardach on spiritual degradation and physical enslavement in the (post)modern era; Jonathan Safran Foer and Ariel Sabar on intergenerationality–the beating heart of the Seder ritual, Pesach, and (perhaps) all of Judaism; David Ben-Gurion on the political-cultural-historical impulse for Jewish return; Emma Lazarus, Martin Luther King, jr. and Abraham Lincoln on the unanswered question of freedom in America. 

Then there are the inserted inserts, the poems and passages from books and essays that my dad accumulates and flags as useful to the retelling of the Exodus story at our Pesach table. So freshly gleaned they have not made it into the bound edition. 

These deeply-considered modern cultural translations sit side-by-side with cartoonish illustrations of kids singing the four questions in a photocopy of a photocopy from Kar-Ben Copies Family Haggadah. 

The juxtaposition is a signifier: the Zemel Family Seder is for everyone, accommodates every age as we grow and change over time. When I FaceTimed my dad during lockdown on the afternoon before Seder ask about the use of beets in the place of shank bones on the plate, he was rooting in a basement crawlspace for Passover-themed coloring sheets to entertain my three-year-old nephew, one of the only guests in physical attendance that year. May all who are hungry come and eat my mom’s brisket, may all who are eating come and find something that speaks to them in my father’s haggadah.

This slim photocopied volume and its animating spirit are the practical starting point for the Jewish American Intertext.


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