Retired rabbi Jeffrey Cohen wants to inspire audiences with his poetry on the Haggadah, discovers Brigit Grant
Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen has spent the past 50 years interpreting religious texts and writing serious books, articles, sermons and speeches. On retirement from the rabbinate, he turned to writing poetry in order to, as he puts it “synthesise my literary creativity with our traditional texts”.
What followed were three books Genesis in Poetry (in 2010), The Siddur in Poetry (2012) and The Machzor in Poetry (2012), and now he has turned the Haggadah into verse.
“There are many fine commentaries on the Haggadah in English,” says Rabbi Cohen. “One drawback is that there is little time to delve into them at the seder. Attempting to read selections of their learned interpretations is unlikely to hold the attention of the gathering, and especially of the younger generation. “They necessitate, therefore, a good deal of reading and preparation in the run-up to the festival, for which not everyone has the time.”
Rabbi Cohen is also aware that many people struggle to read Hebrew. He says: “So the sublime beauty of the psalms and the other Biblical Hebrew passages in our prayer book, is lost on them. “Some synagogue worshippers are deft at concealing their inability to read Hebrew, simply by engaging their neighbour in conversation or by closing their eyes to give the impression of fervent meditation.”
“But around the seder table, however, that is hardly an option; and many fear not only that they may be asked to lead a Hebrew passage, but even one in English, given that so many translations are archaic and turgid.”
So passionate was Rabbi Cohen about turning Jewish text into rhyme that he published the books himself. “It is almost impossible these days to get a publisher to do religious poetry so, as with my [other poetry works], I have had to publish it in-house through my own Gnesia Publications imprint. But the reward is hearing those who own it read the words.”
As the seder is meant to be fully participatory, he set himself the task of providing a lucid and flowing, rhyming paraphrase of the entire text, with no long words or technical terms over which the reader might stumble.
“It is certainly challenging to provide a narrative that will appeal to our text-messaging generation,” he adds. “But I am optimistic my poetry will prove engaging, inspirational, and, in parts, humorous. I wanted to demystify the text, increase interest and participation, reflect the lively and lyrical quality of the Hebrew, and, above all, provide inspiration and a lot of fun for old and young alike.”
• The Haggadah in Poetry by Jeffrey M Cohen, published by Gnesia Publications and priced at £14.95, is available via www.gnesia-publications.co.uk