Title: Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel
Jordan D. Gorfinkel and Erez Zadok
It was exciting to unpack Jordan B. Gorfinkel’s Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel. As one of just few graphic novels discussing Jewish tradition in depth (for others see, for example, Debating Truth (2017), The Illustrated Pirkei Avot (2016)), the Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel is a fascinating, worthwhile addition to this genre, opening it up to Jewish practice. It was published in 2019 as two identical English and Hebrew versions by Koren Publishers.
The Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel will remind readers of their favourite DC or Marvel comics, no matter how old they are. Gorfinkel has worked for the Batman series for many years. Together with illustrator Erez Zadok and Koren’s editorial team, he created a haggadah with marvellous and dramatic multi-layered illustrations that will be exciting for readers of any age and regardless of their liking of comics. Recently, he also published a graphic novel on Megillat Esther as part of the new The Koren Tanakh Graphic Novel series, which sounds like an exciting addition to bookshelves of young and old.
Pesach reminds us of the liberation from Egypt, but also commands us to live through its events as if we were there. Every generation and every Jew, no matter which community they belong to, can, in their own way, relate to the story of Pesach. The cover page illustrates this: Modern Jews, both religious and secular, from all backgrounds, walk through the Red Sea alongside Jews from the Middle Ages and from Ancient Egypt. How communities and individuals have gone through their Passover, their liberation from the constraints of a discriminating, cruel society, subtly features in this haggadah on multiple occasions, but more about this later.
The haggadah starts with an introduction as to the hows and whys of Pesach. Ironically, it is a family of goats guiding the readers through the haggadah. They give readers pointers as to the intricacies of the Passover seder while explaining how the graphic novel is structured. The unabridged Hebrew version of the Pesach seder is on the right side of the book, alongside a transliteration. The English translation is woven into the comic panels, taking up the left side and sometimes both pages. This makes the haggadah accessible for readers with varying degrees of familiarity with Hebrew and Aramaic. This haggadah is also inclusive in other ways: The families who make a Passover seder in their homes are diverse, represent Israel and the Diaspora, and so are the illustrations of Maggid.
The storyline of the Maggid section is engaging and easy to follow. Intricate and dramatic illustrations show the significance of liberation not just for the enslaved Jews in Egypt, but also for Jews who left the USSR, were liberated from Nazi camps, or airlifted from Ethiopia to Israel. Nathan Sharansky, Rabbi Lau, and Ethiopian Jews feature prominently at the beginning of Maggid, highlighting crucial events of liberation of the 20th century (p.25). The haggadah’s message is also relevant to our day, asking whether we enslave ourselves through work and technology (p. 19), but also incorporating digital media in a positive way: Page 87 is a huge, intergenerational selfie of those who left Mitzrayim. Jews across time, space and culture feature: Moshe, Aharon and Miriam, Theodor Herzl, Rabbi Sacks, Sara Silverman, Steven Spielberg, the families of the graphic novel who were hosting their seder previously and many more.
Several illustrations merge the text of the haggadah with midrashic motives. The illustrations of the plagues capture the direct involvement of God and His miracles by referencing aggadic material. The same is true for the scene in which the Jewish people go through the Red Sea. Eliyahu, in line with his representation as a Jewish superhero in Jewish tradition, is portrayed here as a Marvel hero, dispersing the evil forces crouching at the door of a family hosting their seder at Sh’foch chamatcha (p. 113-115). The songs towards the end of the haggadah are also beautifully illustrated, unlike the Birkat HaMazon, where, for practical purposes, the focus is on the text itself.
The haggadah offers three interpretations of the four sons: One is the traditional depiction of four different individuals as they are reflected in a family (p. 34-39), a second one sees these four sons as four characteristics of an individual (p.33), each of them a foundational part of one’s identity. The third one, which I personally find very meaningful, is appended to the haggadah. It illustrates four generations of Jewish women and how they approach Jewish identity in their own, individual way, always influenced by the generation(s) that came before them (p.170). As Jordan Gorfinkel informed me in an email conversation about this, this rendering of the four sons used to be the initial draft for the main text of the haggadah.
This haggadah is packed with fascinating insights and illustrations. One reading, one Seder is not enough to notice all references and intricacies of the book. Jews from all of history are featured, creating a diverse chain of Jewish tradition. The second part of dayenu (p.81) illustrates the meaning and relevance of the message of this central Jewish holiday by turning biblically and/or historically significant individuals and ordinary Jews into the narrators of this significant event: Miriam, Aharon, perhaps Esther, a Maccabean fighter, a medieval Jew, Jewish women hinting at important female personalities like Garcia Mendes Nasi and Glückel of Hameln as well as a young Zionist pioneer are all conveyors of message of Passover. The radical inclusivity embodied in the haggadah resembles the mitzvah of viewing oneself as having been liberated from Egypt. Everyone can be, and, in fact, is, part of this story and this heritage that goes back to foundational moments of G-d forging a redemptive relationship with the Jewish people.
Turning a centuries-old text into a graphic novel allows for innovative ways of portraying the story of leaving Egypt. This haggadah encourages readers to see themselves as part of the Jewish people leaving Mitzrayim for a better world. Graphic illustrations, can, at times, however, be limiting. A second look at the historical references that the haggadah made had me note Gorfinkel’s and Zadok’s representation of those who wanted to destroy the Jewish people in the illustrations accompanying VeHi SheAmda (p.51). They are six men: An Egyptian with a whip, a Roman soldier, a crusader, and, skipping almost 900 years of history, a Nazi guard, a communist officer, and a terrorist. I would have appreciated a more detailed analysis of the historical impact of persecutions that Jews had to face between the Middle Ages and the 20th century. This, however, is the only critical remark I would have concerning the haggadah’s content.
The family of goats, most importantly the father, guides readers through more than 3,000 years of Jewish history. A fascinating read, the Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel is an exciting addition to the Seder table. When I received my review copy, many friends and family members were curious about this colourful rendering of our story of liberation. Comic fans, teachers, history nerds, aestheticists, and aficionados of great haggadot were equally thrilled about it. This haggadah is not just an entertaining but an enlightening and thought-provoking read, contributing greatly to the experience of leaving Mitzrayim.