Marcia Falk is the author of Night of Beginnings, a new Passover haggadah, the reading used for the Jewish holiday. Her other books include The Book of Blessings. A poet, translator, liturgist, and artist, she lives in Berkeley, California.
Q: What inspired you to write this new Passover haggadah?
A: Night of Beginnings is my third book of liturgy.
In the first of these, The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, first published in 1996 and currently in print from the CCAR Press, I re-created the daily and Sabbath liturgy from a nonhierarchical, nonpatriarchal perspective.
This was a radical re-visioning of the traditional prayer book, and it garnered a great deal of attention—and controversy. It included new blessings, in poetic form, in both Hebrew and English, something that had not been done before.
After The Book of Blessings was released, many readers pressed me to write a similar book for the High Holidays. In 2014, Brandeis University Press published The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.
After The Days Between came out, I received more requests from readers for another book, this time a haggadah. I had been thinking about creating a haggadah for many years, and had in fact created a booklet of new blessings for my own home seders.
Night of Beginnings was the logical next step. I worked on it for quite a number of years and finished it when Covid came along. The two years of quiet isolation were a perfect time for completing a book.
Q: You write, “This haggadah is an attempt to...reveal meanings beneath the surface of the Pesach ritual and deepen our personal connections to the holiday.” What do you see as some of the changes in your haggadah from other haggadot?
A: In our times, we have seen a profusion of new haggadot. And yet, strikingly, in virtually none of them do we find a full, uninterrupted recounting of the biblical story of our exodus from Egypt.
This is true of the traditional haggadot as well: instead of giving us a continuous narrative of the exodus, they provide rabbinic anecdotes, comments, and exhortations, punctuated with biblical quotations, that show us how the generations of rabbis who created the haggadah viewed the purpose and meaning of the Pesach festival.
For many of us, this compilation fails to draw us deeply into our own search for the festival’s meaning.
One of the main innovations in Night of Beginnings is its offering of the full biblical story, in a condensed version, as an uninterrupted narrative, accompanied by new commentaries that move us to reflect on the meaning of the story and the holiday.
In recounting the full Bible story, Night of Beginnings seeks to provide a more direct connection to the origins of the holiday.
Importantly, unlike the standard haggadah, which omits any mention of the story’s main human protagonists, “Maggid: The Telling,” includes the voices and actions not just of Moshe and his brother, Aaron, but of the female characters, among them Moshe’s mother, Yocheved; his sister, Miriam; Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopts the baby Moshe; and the midwives Shifrah and Pu’ah, who save the lives of Hebrew male infants.
There are several other innovative elements in this haggadah, most prominently the substitution of the traditional seder blessings with new, nonhierarchical blessings, in Hebrew and in English, based on the model of the blessings in The Book of Blessings.
And I created a new genre, something that does not exist in other haggadot—meditative prose poems which I call kavanot, or “directions of the heart”—to amplify and enrich the blessings and to expand upon the themes of the holiday.
Q: Why did you choose Night of Beginnings as the haggadah's title?
A: Night of Beginnings refers to two beginnings: the departure from Egypt, the first step in our becoming a free people; and the start of the year, which, in the Book of Exodus, takes place in the springtime month of Aviv.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m taking a break from writing liturgy and focusing on just my poetry, putting together a book of poems collected from three decades of writing. I may also do some more translating of poetry from Hebrew and Yiddish. We’ll see.
My first priority, once Passover has come and gone, is to get away from my desk and take some respite in the woods of northern California. In other words, hibernate. Or—if you prefer—fill up the well.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I co-designed Night of Beginnings in collaboration with a graphic designer, and I created all the drawings in the book and on its cover. We decided to tint the pages in a suite of pastel colors to distinguish the various genres in the book.
The drawings, in colored pencil and graphite, are of spring flowers, to highlight the seasonal aspect and agricultural origins of the festival. (One of the biblical names for Passover is hag ha’aviv, the holiday of spring.)
I wanted the book to have a fresh, clean look, eschewing hackneyed illustrations of matzah and pyramids. The visual elements of the book were as important to me as the content; my aim was for them to work together to create an aesthetic whole.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marcia Falk.