Two weeks ago, after I finished interviewing President Obama on the subject of Iran and Israel, I handed him a copy of the New American Haggadah, the Passover user's guide edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, which includes commentary by Goldblog. It is an all-around excellent Haggadah (except for my bits, he says fetchingly). Jonathan did a masterful job, first by recruiting Nathan Englander (whose new short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, I just read on the flight over to Tel Aviv -- by the way, I'm in Tel Aviv -- is the equal, at least, of his first collection) to re-translate the Hebrew, in order to de-stultify it. Jonathan also recruited, in addition to yours truly, Nathaniel Deutsch, Rebecca Goldstein and Lemony Snicket to write commentaries, and found a genius named Oded Ezer to design the Haggadah.
It is not, as The New York Times points out, a Brooklyn-hipster Haggadah (as the Foer-Englander combination might suggest, particularly when you realize -- just go click on that Times link -- that they go shirt-shopping together), but an intelligent and beautiful Haggadah, very modern but also deeply respectful of everything that came before.
When I handed him the Haggadah, President Obama, who famously stages his own seders at the White House, (which is a very nice philo-Semitic thing to do, IMHO) spent a moment leafing through it and making approving noises. Then he said (as I told the Times): "Does this mean we can't use the Maxwell House Haggadah anymore?"
George W. Bush was, in his own way, a philo-Semite, but he never would have made such an M.O.T. kind of joke (see the end of this post if you're not sure what M.O.T. means). Once again, Barack Obama was riffing off the cosmic joke that he is somehow anti-Semitic, when in fact, as many people understand, he is the most Jewish president we've ever had (except for Rutherford B. Hayes). No president, not even Bill Clinton, has traveled so widely in Jewish circles, been taught by so many Jewish law professors, and had so many Jewish mentors, colleagues, and friends, and advisers as Barack Obama (though it is true that every so often he appoints a gentile to serve as White House chief of staff). And so no President, I'm guessing, would know that the Maxwell House Haggadah -- the flimsy, wine-stained, rote, anti-intellectual Haggadah you get when you buy a can of coffee at Shoprite) -- is the target, alternatively, of great derision and veneration among American Jews (at least, I'm told there are people who venerate it). I'll grapple with the meaning of Obama's Jewishness later, but the dispute between the Jewish right and the Jewish left over Obama is actually not about whether he is anti-Jewish or pro-Jewish, but over what sort of Jew he actually is.
After he cracked wise about Maxwell House, I told the president -- this is the part the Times left out -- that, as commander-in-chief, he could use whatever Haggadah he liked, though it seemed to me that our Haggadah might add some depth and meaning and aesthetic charm to his seder, as it would to any seder. I knew, of course, that he would stick with the Maxwell House Haggadah -- tradition! -- but it didn't strike me until later exactly why he would stick with it. The reason he's sticking with Maxwell House is the same reason he spoke at the AIPAC convention, and is once again not speaking at the upcoming convention of J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel group.