A book you can safely pass over

The radical Jewdas Haggadah provides a rag-week version of the Passover ceremony for pubescent Marxists

Books
“The Family at the Seder”, a detail from a 1936 version of the Haggadah, by Arthur Szyk (©THE ARTHUR SZYK SOCIETY CC BY-SA 4.0)

Oy veh iz mir.” This is the cry of the diaspora Jew from Newcastle to New Jersey. “Nu?” Now what? Oy for the sadness, the salt tears, the tears of laughter, the shock of the new persecution and blame mingling with the weariness of the same old, same old. Woe is me. Why is this night different? Why me? Why measles? When do we eat?

And why me? For in this year, 5779 — the final year of EU. . . gh, allegedly — I get the job of reviewing the Jewdas Hagaddah, an alternative version of the text that tells the story of Passover. I didn’t, to be fair, have to take the job but sometimes, as Comrade Corbyn might say, it pays to sit down and learn from the opposition. (In his case, that’s Hamas, the IRA and Hezbollah obviously, not Chuka Umunna).

On Passover, when the Lord wreaked vengeance on the Egyptians for the enslavement of the Jews, “passing over” the Jewish homes and slaying the firstborn of their captors, it is incumbent upon the Jewish community to re-tell the Exodus story to our children. We are to narrate the tale as though it happened to ourselves, not our ancestors, and to consume unleavened bread and other edible symbols by the plate-load.

As a child I had a beautiful, wine-splattered Hagaddah, filled with playful gimmicks, including a tab you could pull to release baby Moses in a coracle along the Nile, and a wheel you could push round to reveal the ten plagues — all guaranteed to keep a bored little girl engaged in the story while covertly fighting with her wicked older brother about who least wanted to ask the traditional Four Questions (more of that later).

Jewdas, whose website describes its aims as to “mercilessly satirise Anglo-Jewry, suggest new and more radical ways of being Jewish and also throw excellent parties”, is the organisation with whom Jeremy Corbyn spent Seder (Passover) night in the year 5778 — or, if you favour the nomadic calendar, 2018. At that particular Seder, by all accounts, an anti-capitalist beetroot was waved, “Pin the blame on the bosses” was played, “The Internationale” was sung in Yiddish already, and everyone joyously shouted “Fuck capitalism.” No wonder Jeremy said, “I learned a lot . . . a lovely time.’’

And now they have published this radical Haggadah, which claims to celebrate “free-thinking, socialist and diasporist Judaism” and promotes, in a foreword, by “Rabbi Geoffrey Cohen”, a collective loathing of capitalism, the State of Israel and the Jewish Chronicle — “Describes itself as the Jewish Organ. We all know which organ.”

A word from the Foreword, as it is said: “Rabbi Geoffrey Cohen here. I’ve been dragged out of retirement to write a foreword for some piece of banal narishkeit they’re calling the Jewdas Hagaddah. Unpaid of course, the fucking shnorrers. Don’t they know how busy I am? In the time it’s taken me to write this I could have ate twelve fishballs and a challah and cream cheese.” The scribe of this cutting-edge stuff purports to be a 44-year-old lesbian mother-of-three living in a bedsit in Slough, whose passion for Sheffield knows no bounds. So far, so right on.

In the pages that follow, Jewdas celebrates its newfound notoriety by giving supporters a rag-week version of the Passover ceremony for pubescent Marxists. On the cover it claims: “Jewdas activities are infused with satirical humour, joyfulness and radical politics.’’ But inside it’s tricky to find much satire. There are good-natured asides about pickles, salt beef and bagels — or, sorry, beigels — yes, lots and lots of jokes about the spelling of beigel/bagel and almost as many mentions of the F word both as verb and adjective, plus a suggestion to procure menstrual blood to smear on Jewish doorposts. It’s so undergraduate that one almost wants to smile and say “Bless.”

To be fair, I did learn a few interesting things. Who knew there were six different recipes for charoset (a sweet paste symbolising the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves to build the pyramids)? In my neck of the woods — Hull — it was made from almonds, apples, cinnamon and sweet Passover wine. But here I discover it is made with figs, dates and coriander in Yemen or boiled eggs, raisins and matzo-meal in Italy. The Ashkenazi recipe “fails on all categories. Doesn’t bear a resemblance to poo”. The word always raises a laugh from my four-year-old grandson, so fair doodoos, Jewdas.)

The Four Questions, usually asked by the youngest member of the party to explain some of the traditions of the Seder, are reinstated here from the pages of the Jewish Labour Bund in 1900. These, too, are new to me and contain the cries of the poor workers, for instance: “Question 3: They do nothing and wear the most expensive clothes and we toil like oxen and have not a shirt on our bodies.” Not actually a question but a useful reminder to Ken L. and George G. that there were and are such things as poor Jews.

There is a new Brocha (prayer) for Israel, which states that “Israel cannot be pro-LGBT while gay Palestinians are shot while protesting and trans Palestinians’ houses are demolished. For Israel, the LGBT community is a shield with which to fight off attacks from the Western world and behind which to hide their oppressive regime.’’ Yeah, sure, gay and trans Palestinians are being targeted by one of the gay capitals of the world, while Hamas, Hezbollah and the Arab states just kvell over their queer populations.

In the fictionalised minutes of the organisation, beneath the strapline “Destroying the Nuclear Family”, it reads: “Campaign to promote homosexuality and undermine the nuclear family is going well. Yael W. is still working on turning Luciana Berger gay but no luck since their last date.” OK, I did smile at that, but I keep wondering if the whole thing isn’t just a send-up with its tongue so far in its cheek that it just ends up plain cheeky.

This is not a Hagaddah I would ever dream of using, but no doubt it straddles a line for those who are ambivalent about the faith and want to pay a lippy sort of lip-service to tradition. It has nerve, chutzpah in fact, and you know the Leo Rosten definition of that? A small boy peeing through someone’s letter-box, then ringing the doorbell to see how far it went. Too far in my book, but then my book is old and tearstained.


A Jewdas Haggadah
By Jewdas
Pluto Press, 128pp, £12.99