For me, Passover always had a double meaning.
It was what happened to me when neighborhood kids were choosing sides for a stickball game.
It was also a significant family holiday that coincided with spring cleaning, the beginning of baseball season, and a long, festive meal sandwiched between bouts of arguing, praying, and singing in a variety of strange languages. To keep my cousins and me from falling asleep at the table, Uncle Izzy would break a piece of matzoh, wrap it in a napkin, and hide it until “discovery” by the family urchins. Then he would have to buy it back – then with a bag of marbles, but probably now with the keys to a hot blue Porsche.
Stealing the afikomen may not be proscribed in the Haggadah, which details the flight of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, but it was a family tradition as long as I can remember.
Passover is all about tradition. It is even traditional among those Christians who believe The Last Supper was a Passover seder. It is no accident that Passover and Easter often overlap, as they do this year.
Today, religious and secular Jews observe their eight-day holiday in a variety of ways. Many go to synagogue, others avoid bread, and virtually all engage in some sort of family gathering – from the five-minute seder to the five-hour version.
According to the Haggadah, the Hebrews left Egypt in such a hurry that they had no time to let their bread rise – leaving them with a hard, flat residue called matzoh. If hot dog sales plummet at New York ballparks between April 14-22, it’s probably because wrapping hot dogs in matzoh doesn’t work all that well.
What does work well is a seder that follows the Haggadah. But there are so many different kinds that keeping everyone on the same wine-stained page isn’t easy. Until now.
Enter the Bronfman Haggadah, a 128-page hardcover created by the late Edgar M. Bronfman and illustrated by his widow Jan Aronson. Together, it took them nearly five years to produce.
“Edgar always loved doing Passover,” said Aronson, an accomplished artist who divides her time between her Long Island City studio, Westport weekend retreat, and Sun Valley vacation house. “Like most people, you pick your way through the Haggadah, finding the passages and songs that are particularly interesting and omitting those that aren’t.
“Edgar kept reading through various Haggadot, trying to find one that adhered to his philosophy but never did. So he wrote his own. He wanted to write something that was all-inclusive, especially for unaffiliated Jews or those who let Judaism lapse in their lives. He wanted it to appeal to everybody — especially young people — to keep them interested in the seder.”
Aronson, primarily a portrait and landscape artist, was surprised when Bronfman asked her to do the art. “I told Edgar I was a fine-artist, not an illustrator, but he had great belief in my ability to bring his words to a visual interpretation that was personal and beautiful.”
Aronson, who moved to New York in 1985 and taught at Pratt before meeting Bronfman three years later, worked solely on the Haggadah for the next few months. It’s literally her baby, since she and Bronfman had no children together (he had seven children and 24 grandchildren from previous marriages).
The handsome Haggadah, published by Rizzoli International last year, has evolved into an $8.99 app that has things the book does not: animation, narration, singing, and a glossary of terms.
According to Aronson, “At our seder, no one knows the complete tunes for everything. The app is very 21st century. Edgar had always embraced technology. He was one of the first people I know to have a home computer and was always ready to try the newest iPhone, Mac, or tablet. He loved using those things and saw the great potential they had to make our lives easier. He also loved appealing to young people and being around them.”
The Bronfmans, who met on a blind date in 1988, often invited young friends for food, drink, and conversation every Thursday, which they dubbed Chili Night. How the Seagram’s magnate had time to write the Haggadah plus four previous books staggers the imagination. Perhaps the answers lie in two autobiographical tomes, The Making of a Jew and Good Spirits.
Like her husband, who died in December, Aronson turned boundless energy into professional success. The 64-year-old New Orleans native, whose current studio is her third in Long Island City, exhibited her work fairly regularly before undertaking the Haggadah project.
Originally an abstract painter, she switched to landscapes after ‘discovering’ the desert during a trip to Israel. Her travels opened new horizons, especially in the American West, but she also found time to do portraits of celebrities, from Mariel Hemingway to her husband. Inspired by art history, she is now recreating works of Michelangelo, DaVinci, and other legendary artists.
The 2001 attack on the World Trade Center was a watershed in her career. “The 9/11 incident really changed my work dramatically,” she said. “I started working with the Leaves Series, which was a memoriam to the catastrophe. I worked on the concept of Leaves, the structure of Leaves, drawings and etchings of leaves. Then I started working on water.”
There’s plenty of water around New York, an island surrounded by rivers. “I love New York,” said Aronson, who got her MFA from Pratt in Brooklyn before teaching at the school’s Manhattan Center. “It’s impossible to be bored. I like the fact you can walk down the street and kind of be anonymous. There’s inspiration and culture everywhere, and that appeals to a certain competitive spirit. That’s why so many artists come to New York. Living in New Orleans, I always felt I must have been dropped on my head and abducted from some other place.”
With the hardcover and electronic Haggadah project, Jan Aronson is giving back to the city that gave her so much. I welcome the chance to bring the Bronfman Haggadah to my seder table.