Web Developers Give Passover Guidebook A Digital Makeover

At Passover, Jews all over the world sit down for a Seder meal, enacting an ancient ritual. But this year, many of them will be guided through it by a very modern text — a crowd-sourced haggadah. Designer Eileen Levinson launched a website inviting anybody who wants to contribute selections for the Passover service. It now boasts over 2,000 contributions — from children's activities to songs to interpretations of the exodus story through the lens of social justice or interfaith relationships — which people can click through to create a personally meaningful document. Deena Prichep reports on how modern technology is being used to create a varied, living document, and how this contemporary practice is very much in the age-old Passover tradition.

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The Haggadah is the ceremonial guidebook for Passover, which begins this coming Monday night. It tells a story thousands of years old. And now, the Haggadah is interpreted in varying ways by Jews, depending on their beliefs or interests.

So it was only a matter of time before the personalized Haggadah met the digital age, as Deena Prichep reports.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: The commandment of Passover is to retell the story of Exodus, but more than that. Jews have to feel as though they personally came out of slavery. And one way people do that is to take the text into their own hands.

HOWARD PATTERSON: Yeah. It's amazing to me just to see the photocopy of the carbon copy of the original typewritten transliterated versions that my sisters put together.

PRICHEP: Howard Patterson's family first cut and pasted their own Haggadah in 1953, back when it still had to be mimeographed. But now, there's an easier way to do this.

PATTERSON: OK. I will log in here.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

PATTERSON: Wow, it's a Wiki. That's great.

EILEEN LEVINSON: The goal with the site is to make Passover feel more meaningful and more personal and just radically pluralistic.

PRICHEP: Designer Eileen Levinson is the founder of haggadot.com. It's the Hebrew plural of Haggadah. The site lets users browse and click to create a Haggadah or upload submissions of their own. The online library now has over 2,000 contributions.

LEVINSON: And that ranges from different takes on traditional rituals or commentary on the Passover story, artwork, videos. There's even yoga on there.

PRICHEP: You can find different versions of the four questions or search for texts geared towards interfaith families or kids or social justice.

LEVINSON: Not just with the Haggadah, but in general, it's really part of our time. It's the iTunes model to be able to personalize our experience in just about any way.

PRICHEP: The Haggadah has always been an evolving document. Some early ones didn't even mention Moses. And in places where Jews were persecuted, there were some fairly harsh words for oppressors. Marc Michael Epstein teaches religion at Vassar College and has written about the Haggadah. He says that these changes continued in the form of commentary.

MARC MICHAEL EPSTEIN: We tend to think of commentary as a sort of ornament that has been sewn onto a garment. But in the traditional Jewish way of looking at text, commentary was inextricably linked with the text itself, more like something woven into a garment.

PRICHEP: Epstein's own Passover Seder interweaves the commentary into a very traditional text.

EPSTEIN: (Singing in foreign language)

(Singing) We were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt...

PRICHEP: As he chants the melody he learned from his grandfather, family and friends add modern perspectives right at the table.

EPSTEIN: People interrupt, and people interact. And people say, wait a second, that sounds strange to me. What do you mean we'd still be slaves? Is that a historical statement? Is it a metaphorical statement? We weren't slaves. We were born in Brooklyn, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

PRICHEP: Whether you end up going with the traditional text or a modern one full of yoga and politics, Epstein says the message of Passover remains the same.

EPSTEIN: Be bold. Go forward. The waters of the Red Sea did not split until the Israelites went into them up to their necks. The Haggadah will only be alive if people forge ahead into that sea of commentary, embrace it and to add their own. Make a Seder that is meaningful.

PRICHEP: And Epstein says that that collaboration and engagement is what creates a sense of meaning, whether it happens at the Passover table or online or both. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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