The Paschal Parents

For those of you looking for a way to enjoy the last moments of Pesach relaxation, I highly recommend Leon Wieseltier’s brilliant review of the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and featuring a translation by Nathan Englander.

Warning: the review is neither for the faint of heart nor the thin of skin.

As a blog which deals with families, I’ll leave the comprehensive review to Wieseltier, and address myself to that perennially fascinating section of the haggadah, The Four Sons. Except, in this maverick Haggadah, the editor has invited an entry by author Lemony Snicket aka Daniel Handler, in which he introduces the notion of The Four Parents.

So much is wrong with this, beginning with the assertion:

Some scholars believe there are four kinds of parents as well.

Really? I’d be curious to see a reference to these alleged scholars since the notion that children are asking questions of parents is so central to the Haggadah, and to the very dynamic of conveying the Exodus from Egypt from one generation to the next, that I have certainly never encountered an authentic Jewish scholar who holds such a belief.

Indeed, I once learned that the importance of having children asking questions of parents is that to allow for the dynamic of questions, the parent must put his own ego aside, contract somewhat, and make way for the offspring to make their own way in the world. So too on Pesach, God births the Nation of Israel, as it were, and in doing so needs to contract somewhat to make room for this new entity to make its way in the world. Thus, the use of the child metaphor is significant.

But that is just me quibbling. Take a look at this innovation and judge for yourselves:

The Wise Parent is an utter bore. “Listen closely, because you are younger than I am,” says the Wise Parent, “and I will go on and on about Jewish history, based on some foggy memories of my own religious upbringing, as well as an article in a Jewish journal I have recently skimmed.” The Wise Parent must be faced with a small smile of dim interest.

The Wicked Parent tries to cram the story of our liberation into a set of narrow opinions about the world. “The Lord led us out of Egypt,” the Wicked Parent says, “which is why I support a bloodthirsty foreign policy and am tired of certain types of people causing problems.” The Wicked Parent should be told in a firm voice, “With a strong hand God rescued the Jews from bondage, but it was my own clumsy hand that spilled hot soup in your lap.”

The Simple Parent does not grasp the concept of freedom. “There will be no macaroons until you eat all your brisket,” says the Simple Parent, at a dinner honoring the liberation of oppressed peoples. “Also, stop slouching at the table.” In answer to such statements, the Wise Child will roll his eyes in the direction of the ceiling and declare, “Let my people go!”

The Parent Who Is Unable to Inquire has had too much wine, and should be excused from the table.

Really? This is how Foer and Englander saw fit to rework one of the most amazing and enduring Jewish texts of all times? So much could be written, but I will make it brief.

The simplest reading of the traditional Four Sons leaves us with some hope; there are better sons, and there are not great sons. In our maverick version, all parents stink and they have nothing to teach us. This is the inverse of numerous commentaries which attempt, despite the simple meaning of the text, to explain that each of the sons has an aspect that makes him special, each has something to teach and each has something to learn. For a further discussion of the inadequacies of the Paschal Parents approach, check this out.

Moreover, as I hinted above, one  the striking features of Pesach in particular – and the transmission of Torah in general – is the role that conveying our history and values to the next generation plays. Certainly, parents always have much to learn from children, and one of the ways in which we do that is by listening to our children’s questions, grappling with answers, and even admitting that for certain questions we have no answer.

In presenting their New American Haggadah, do the authors seek to break so firmly with Jewish tradition and values that we now ritualize scorn and disdain for the previous generations?

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2 Responses to The Paschal Parents

  1. Rachel Hershberg says:

    Esther, you got it was a satire, right? More about Foer and Englander’s ambivalence about their Jewish identity and confusion about their role as authority figures than anything else.

    • shaananlaw says:

      I can get that it is a satire, I just don’t think that as such -and as it is written – it has a place in The New American Haggadah, which seeks to create “a new way of experiencing and understanding one of our oldest, most timeless, and sacred stories.”

      For a wonderful take on the irony and humour in Dayenu, take a look at Howard Jacobson’s article in the Tablet from before Pesach (
      We discussed it so much at seder and lunch the next day that one on my kids told us “Dayenu.”
      I also recommend printing out Wiesteltier’s review linked to in the post abov for your holiday reading enjoyment.
      chag sameach.

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