There are multiple symbols of the Passover seder, some beautiful, some simply evocative, but perhaps none more emblematic than the red, yellow and black haggadah that so many grew up with and still use. Functional and easy to follow, many people insert personal touches, running the gamut from nostalgic to aspirational.
Pearl Richman adopted the latter approach. Over the years, the haggadah she used to lead her seder overflowed with sticky notes and photocopied readings to bring a deeper meaning to the holiday she cherishes. Eventually, instructions to participants resembled the gestures of an orchestra conductor.
From year to year, her seder “evolved” to reflect her research. At the end of her 2017 seder, Richman’s mother, Lil Brown, suggested that she collate her many creative additions into one organized entity. The casual remark set her upon a creative path culminating in a chic and concise new haggadah she calls “a modern take on the traditional.”
Richman is an educator and an interior stylist. Her love of learning and teaching is as apparent as her eye for beauty. The personal objects in the photos are stunning, as is the photography by Arthur Mola and the graphic design. The beautiful visuals will provide inspiration to both neophytes and seasoned seder holders, but it’s not just about esthetics. While Richman states outright that, “I’m not a Jewish scholar,” her haggadah reflects a reverence for tradition and follows age-old order.
Like her mother before her, Richman strives to imbue rituals with contemporary meaning. Brown is, in fact, the inspiration for how Richman approaches the seder. Her earliest Passover memories include setting the table for her mother. A single mother, Brown would host two dozen people in their two-bedroom apartment, renting tables and serving homemade delicacies.
About 30 years ago, Richman moved the seder to her home, where she continues to work side-by-side with Brown.
Richman’s husband Steven’s tallit is featured on the cover of the new haggadah. Kids Maxie and Cole Richman, who are in their late 20s, influenced the “family friendly while meaningful and relevant” style.
Since taking over hosting the seder, Richman has continued to embrace the songs and prayers she grew up with, incorporating new ideas every year, seeking stories from around the world that will resonate. Richman occasionally veers from the standard English translation to imbue compassion and inclusivity. For example, when discussing the four children, she replaces the adjectives “wicked” and “simple” with “challenging” and “innocent.”
The haggadah draws on contemporary concepts from other sources, including the orange on the seder plate representing women and the LGBTQ community. Miriam’s Cup honours women in the Pesach story and a fifth cup for today’s refugees and displaced persons. The broken “Matzah of Anguish and Hope” reminds us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Israel whose lives are continually shattered by terrorism. There’s the poignant fifth child lost to the Holocaust who cannot ask, and a page on why Elijah is relevant.
Richman cites rabbis describing matzah as “plain food, for slaves and the poor, not puffed up,” and suggests using Passover to clean not only our cupboard, but to spring clean our minds of “puffed-upness,” too.
This curated compilation, infused with mysticism and optimism, includes family recipes at the back. Richman commemorates her two late sisters into this legacy of love with photographs of a candlestick and a bowl for matzah that belonged to them.
Upon receiving a copy, Brown said she never envisaged how far this project would go. This year, setting one out for each guest will allow Richman to ensure that “everyone is on the same page – literally.”
The book is available at Type Books in Forest Hill in Toronto and by emailing [email protected]