iPhoning It In


Passover is about storytelling (“Haggadah,” of course, means “the telling”) and order is the meaning of the word “seder.” The tension between the freedom to create one’s own Passover script and the set form of the seder—the 15 steps, from kadesh through nirtzah—makes Pesach something like a jazz performance.

1. The Jews have no single Haggadah, and thank God for that. The lack of a centralized text, and Passover’s dining-room setting, means that Pesach is, in many respects, a homemade chag.

2. While some sedarim emanate directly from, say, the rabbis of Maxwell House, some people dare to create a story specifically for the people around their table.

3. For me, a great seder is highly interactive; it’s a chance for our own family or Jewish community to perform together the story of Jewish liberation.

4. The big question: How to get a table full of Jews to engage proficiently with the Haggadah? One would need all the children—the wise, wicked, simple, and the question-free children—along with their parents, to listen carefully and respond with ample intelligence and feeling. A place at the table can be earned with one’s ears, brain, mouth, and vocal chords. Technology can help.

5. Someday soon, sedarim will be conducted from iPhones. No more Manischewitz

6. Here’s a Passover tweet of the future: “Manischewitz = the wine of affliction.”

7. Yes, iPhones. For those of you for whom the term “People of the Book” isn’t just a bitter 21st-century joke—for whom Jewish culture remains the ne plus ultra of bookishness—hear me out. Many serious readers own and use iPhones. Their lives are seriously bound up with email and texting, and they understand that using social media (that is, the sort of communally written content one gets on YouTube, FaceBook, and Twitter) is not merely a rebarbative habit of the computer-drugged young. These people will one day put their smartphones to a real Jewish use.

8. Imagine a table of family and friends, heads bent over illuminated little screens. Emails and tweets and digital pictures of Hillel sandwiches shooting across the table and to the outside world, and then back again around the table. Imagine how empowering this will be to the young and shy—wicked and wise children writing wicked and wise things with a few expert taps. Imagine having the ability to fact check any and all points raised at the seder table.

9. The iPhone Passover can be chaotic, with any number of pishers virtually heckling the seder. With a premium on responding quickly in the world of social media, one writes back with comments. You like. You share. If you fear and hate interruption, this innovation isn’t for you.

10. But the truth is, even at a good, nondigital seder, there is a lot of disruption. It might be useful to have those blurted-out questions and comments put into writing. It might force the blurters to be more thoughtful, to formulate better blurts.

11. If your seder is one where all the guests are intent on strictly following the order—the words and paragraphs and pages—of the Haggadah, or following the halakhot on iPhones, this seder is not for you.

12. If the print-based Haggadah is a game of follow-the-leader, the iPhone seder is choose-your-own adventure volume.

13. A caveat: If your guests aren’t curious or courteous or interested in the Pesach story in the first place, the iPhone will probably make things worse, because the iPhone can easily lead the uninterested to check their email, stocks, and sports scores.

14. Is it feasible? There are millions of iPhone users right now, and you can download a Haggadah app from a company called Hada Porat for $2.99 and the Union Haggadah goes for $.99. Neither of these apps is ideal, but they are a start. My wife looked at both and said, “They’re cheat sheets.” Perhaps they are, but I prefer to think of them as lead sheets. Love that Passover jazz.

15. The truth is, the iPhone is a tool—as is a Haggadah. It’s only as useful, or as dangerous, as the people touching it.

This essay originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.