The Moment I Knew It Would Fly: Introducing the 2015 T’ruah Anti-Slavery Haggadah
“Why write a whole haggadah?” you might ask. “Surely you don’t think anyone will use the whole thing?”
You would probably be right — although as more communities plan “anti-trafficking seders,” we wanted to provide a resource that could support their efforts. But more to the point, it was time for T’ruah to take the next step in our work against slavery. We had the policy side fairly well covered, as well as the halachic sources and analysis. We were hungry for a deeper exploration of spirit, self, and God, and that would require some space. It was going to take us from Kadesh to Nirtzah to get there. We’d be happy to split it up for easier use after the fact, but it had to be written as a cohesive whole.
We embarked on that project with a fair amount of confidence in our network and ourselves as writers and thinkers, activists and teachers. This would probably be a success. What we didn’t have any clue about was art.
A haggadah needs to be more than straight text on a page (though I’m pretty sure the red-and-yellow haggadah I grew up with came down from Mt. Sinai, tucked into the back pocket of Moses’ cloak). It has to capture people’s attention and engage the soul as well as the brain. Clip-art was out of the question. Our handbook on fighting modern slavery was illustrated with photographs of protesters, diplomats, and trafficking survivors—fitting for a somewhat wonky how-to guide, but the wrong tone for a sacred text. And the cover…every idea we tried out fell flat. The shot of a man’s feet standing in the sand was too Planet of the Apes. The dancing silhouetted women reminded us of the iconic iPod ads. The Red Sea parting looked like a dozen other haggadot we had seen.
Then it hit me: surely, some trafficking survivors must be artists. We’d talked at length about the importance of including their voices in our haggadah—as any justice movement should be guided, if not led, by those most affected by it—but why should “voices” be limited to words? Were our relationships robust enough to find those people, and would they be interested in contributing their artwork?
Of course they were. The moment I opened Margeaux Gray’s email with “Ocean in a Drop” attached, I knew we had our cover, and I knew our haggadah would fly. Margeaux’s painting evoked Miriam’s timbrel and the people dancing on the other side of the sea. Her use of found objects spoke so clearly to me about restoring value to the things and the people that our society is ready to discard. It also brought to mind the midrash (BaMidbar Rabbah 1:7) that says if you do not make yourself hefker—ownerless—like the desert, you cannot acquire Torah and wisdom.
That’s when I knew. The proof that it wasn’t just in my head came four days after we launched the haggadah, in the form of an email from a Presbyterian minister in White Plains—a total stranger. She was seeking to contact Claudia Cojocaru, the other contributing artist, for permission to reprint one of her paintings in an upcoming worship program. “Your pieces are compelling and powerfully express your story of survival and commitment to justice.” she wrote.
For me, the topical and intellectual heart of the seder comes in “In the beginning, our ancestors worshipped idols,” where we come face to face with America’s legacy of slavery, and in Tzafun-Barech, where we imagine the hidden world we want to see and then begin taking steps to actualize it. (Don’t let the end of the seder fall victim to your food-coma!) But the soul of the haggadah, without question, is the artwork of people who survived human trafficking and have the courage to tell us about it. They embody the Torah and wisdom that I hope we can all acquire this Pesach.
You can download the haggadah online here. Brought to you by Truah: The Rabbinic Call to Human Rights.