Passover story goes digital


Thousands of years after Moses led his people out of Egypt, the Passover story is going digital.

At Monday’s Seder meal, dozens of families will be reading the traditional tableside ceremony from a Haggadah, a text guiding the Seder, that they have personalized by uploading family photos to replace stock illustrations of Pharaoh and the slaves.

Behrman House, a Jewish educational publisher in Springfield, N.J., has sold more than 100 sets of the cyber-assisted version of its Family Haggadah.

The personalized Haggadah -- the Hebrew word means “telling” or “narrative” -- recounts the biblical Exodus story and instructs families to relate it to their children as though they were along on the journey.

“We see it as a way for people to make the experience their own, that they and their families are the Jewish people who went through this,” said Behrman House project coordinator Jessica Gurtman.

Gurtman has designed a version for President Obama and the first lady, with pictures of the first family and readings that tell the story of freedom from slavery to the American civil rights movement. The book’s cover is a photograph of the Obamas hosting a White House Seder last year, and Gurtman sent 30 copies to the president in the hope that he will use it at a celebration this year.

For ordinary customers, there is a YouTube video instructing how to customize the Haggadah. The publisher has also devised a Facebook game called “Find the Afikomen,” an online version of the tradition in which a piece of matzo is hidden and must be found before the service can continue. There is even an iPhone application called iMah Nishtanah to help children recite the four questions, an integral part of the evening’s ritual.

“They can practice it word by word, use it as flashcards or play it out loud to hear it, even at the Seder,” Gurtman said.

Such digital innovations are the latest in the long-standing practice of adding to the Passover story so that Jews of every era can understand the suffering of the oppressed and the value of freedom.

This year, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has produced a Haggadah with photos and texts from its 95-year history of aiding Jews in need around the world.

“By showcasing the relief and rescue efforts of the [committee] in our lifetime, we show how the lessons of the Passover story have been practiced in the modern era,” said Linda Levi, the agency’s director of global archives. Her team spent two years combing through 100,000 photos, letters and documents for the soft-cover book.

The American Jewish Legacy organization has compiled a Haggadah showcasing the 350-year history of Jews in the United States, many of whom held onto their traditions whether settling the Midwest prairies, joining the California Gold Rush or serving on Iwo Jima during World War II.

Scholars say there are more versions of the Haggadah than any other Jewish text -- at least 7,000 major print editions. American Jews have become used to editions with references to the Holocaust and Soviet Jewry, even Darfur and Iran. There are feminist versions and rock ‘n’ roll renditions.

“As long as you tell the story in a way that is not irreverent or sacrilegious, anything that keeps the family focused is a good thing,” said Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, supervising rabbi at the Manischewitz kosher food company and founder of American Jewish Legacy, which documents the history of traditional Jewish practice in the United States.

The website of the international Jewish Agency for Israel lists 22 links to Haggadot that can be downloaded in their entirety. Other links offer excerpts and partial texts. And there are sites where users can create an entire Haggadah by picking and choosing what to download, including beautiful pictures and funny songs.

Meanwhile, religious Jews have turned to the Web to help secular families with the Seder, which for many in America is the only Jewish ritual they observe. Shlomo Perelman, owner of, recorded Pittsburgh’s Rabbi Chaim Davidson chanting such Passover tunes as “Dayenu” and “Chad Gadya,” which can be downloaded to an MP3 player.

“It’s to assist people with limited Hebrew skills or who aren’t familiar with the Passover melodies,” Perelman said.

For Horowitz, a key concept of his American history Haggadah was that it be available free online, disseminating images and anecdotes that appeal to religious and secular Jews.

The text describes a kosher table set for Jews at Pennsylvania’s celebration of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. There are letters by Civil War soldiers about Seders in the Confederate and Union states.

It shows an 1864 ad from an Anaheim Wine Growers’ Assn. manager who “respectfully informs his co-religionists” that he had superior kosher wines, brandies and white wine vinegar for the holiday that he would sell wholesale and retail. And there is a 1984 San Francisco newspaper clipping with the headline “Revolt Against Matzoth prices,” reporting that frustrated Jews founded “The People’s Matzoth Association of San Francisco” to combat unfair pricing.

The Passover message of redemption, wrote Horowitz in the Haggadah’s introduction, resonates with generations of American Jews who are grateful for “the ability to celebrate the traditions of their religion in the Land of the Free.”

[The Haggadah] “highlights the commitment of patriotic men and women who from the mountains to the prairie have helped build this country while maintaining the traditions of their forefathers,” he wrote.