During the Passover Seder, we’re instructed to feel as though we ourselves were slaves in Egypt, liberated by God’s outstretched arm. I’ve always loved this particular injunction for its ardent commitment to the power of storytelling—I like to imagine all the Jews taking a giant, kvetchy carpet ride together through history, playing the world’s biggest game of make-believe.
But it’s also an audaciously ambitious conceit, especially for children: First, you have to consider an event that supposedly occurred thousands of years ago, then you have to empathize with the major characters, contemplate God’s wrath against the Egyptians, take a deep dive into collective Jewish memory, and assimilate the story of Exodus into your religious and ethnic identity. It takes a kind of delusional barroom swagger to tell your readers, “No, dude, this story is so amazing you will literally become a slave in Egypt.”
For the privileged millennial attendees of Jewish day schools in the 1980s and ’90s—including me, growing up in Melbourne—this process of cultural transmission took many forms: We colored in pyramids and burning bushes, learned the story of Exodus in chumash class, practiced reading the haggadah out loud. For a few years in primary school I attended “model Seder” in the gym, where we twisted our tongues around “Chad Gadya” and ate from tiny plastic plates filled with charoset, egg, lettuce, and matzo. In grade three I was so anxious about getting “Ma Nishtana” right that I actually practiced singing it walking to and from school. The burden of Jewish continuity weighed heavily.
But nothing in my Passover education was as memorable or as delightful as The Animated Haggadah, a 25-minute claymation film shown to us every year, often more than once (“approximately 800 times,” quipped a friend on Facebook) in the weeks leading up to the holiday. It was produced in 1986 by Scopus Films with support from the Gesher Foundation, and directed by the renowned Israeli animator Rony Oren, who now teaches at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy.
I don’t quite know where to begin my description of the movie, because every frame is so visually and narratively rich that it boggles my mind, even now: We meet the protagonist, Danny (“a charming, red-headed, and slightly troublemaking 12-year-old”) at the beginning of his family’s Seder, but we’re soon magically transported to ancient Egypt, where Pharaoh and his evil henchmen, dressed in lime green, are fashioned after Nazis, replete with Hitler mustaches and Brownshirt-style armbands. The plagues are rendered in plasticine horror—the aesthetic is Munch’s “Scream” meets Chagall meets Where the Wild Things Are—to a gruesome soundtrack of popping boils, scurrying animals, and piercing human screams. It’s creepy AF, as the kids say today, and also completely wacky and enchanting. I loved it so much I asked family friends in Israel to send me a copy of the VHS tape, and I’d watch it at home year round. My cousin Sophie, six years my junior, had a copy of the accompanying print haggadah that I coveted well into my teens. (This is definitely my nerdiest Internet confession to date.)
This year—the 30th anniversary of the film’s release—I was determined to track down The Animated Haggadah and watch it again. The VHS tape had long disappeared from my parents’ house, and it had been at least 17 years since I’d last seen the film. I didn’t think a decent digital version would be that hard to find—after all, the Internet is a repository of millennial nostalgia—but it turned out to be completely elusive. The DVD was out of stock with the American distributors, and neither the production company nor the director’s website offered any leads. I found a downloadable file on what appeared to be the American distributor’s old website, but the video was so small and grainy it was basically unwatchable. Amazon, eBay, Judaica stores in the U.S.: nope, nope, nope. A Christian bookstore in Jerusalem seemed to be a promising lead for a day, but when the owner checked the inventory after Shabbat he informed me that they were, indeed, out of stock. A librarian at Hebrew Union College in New York told me he could get the tape from their L.A. campus, but I’d need to bring a VHS player into the library to watch it, because they didn’t have one. Because it is 2016.
After this period of fruitless enquiry, I finally posted the trailer to my Facebook feed (“help a Jewess out,” I pleaded) and was immediately inundated with responses from friends. It seemed that every person who attended a Jewish elementary school or Hebrew school between 1986 and 2006 had seen the film and loved it (though a few mentioned that they found it terrifying). Friends from Australia, the U.S., Canada, Israel, and the former Soviet Union all recognized the iconic imagery and music; some could even quote their favorite lines—a true signifier of cult status. Within 24 hours I’d acquired the footage from an unnamed, but evidently well-connected source in New Jersey, via Tablet contributor Michael Orbach. It was all a bit cloak and dagger—apparently my source had dubbed the English narration over a Portuguese version of the film (it was translated into seven languages)—but I didn’t ask any questions. I just sat down and watched the movie three times in a row.
Reader, it wasn’t as good as I remembered. It was better. All the jokes and references that went over my head as a kid—the amusing little Easter eggs (LOL) buried for the grown-ups—were a revelation. The interior of Danny’s home looks like the set of a Neil Simon play, with some subtle mid-’80s Squid and the Whale vibes. Danny explains that his grandfather performs the “traditional role of kindly old reader” at the Seder, while his father is “resistant.” (“Say more!” I yelled at the screen.) Like most kids on Passover, Danny’s a little bored and grumpy, but also curious about the weird rituals, foods, and stories being shared around the table. The entire story takes place in the liminal state between Danny’s imagination and the actual Seder proceedings happening in the room—this narrative device allows him to transport himself and his family (and the viewer) into ancient Egypt.
The Passover story told in The Animated Haggadah isn’t canonical by any means, or even especially religious: It’s a mash-up of anecdotes from the haggadah, midrash, and Exodus, embellished with anachronistic details and references to 1980s politics and culture, filtered through the imagination of a mischievous pre-teen. Danny and his family fly into Egypt on a tubby plane, where their identity scrolls are stamped by Egyptians who wear black-and-red armbands emblazoned with the motif of a menacing-looking bird. It’s a truly sinister moment of foreshadowing. That the villains of the Passover story are compared to Nazis in an educational film for little kids strikes me as pretty wild now, but as a child I don’t think I even noted it as anachronistic: The Holocaust played a big role in the formation of my cultural and religious identity (as it may well have for Danny), and analogies are a great way for kids to understand the world and contextualize new information—so, sure, ancient Egyptian Nazis, why not?
The classic midrashic tale of Abraham’s rejection of polytheism—his destruction of the idols in his father’s shop—is also incorporated into The Animated Haggadah, but here it’s presented as a critique of contemporary idolatry: consumerism. Danny flips out in his dad’s imaginary “idol boutique,” gleefully smashing the merchandise (little statues, a groovy old TV, giant green dollar signs!) with a cannon. (“Feel the Bern!” I yelled at the screen.) The rasha–the wicked son—is a glum, hostile punk with a safety pin in one of his ears. The depictions of Jewish enslavement, mournfully narrated by Danny’s grandfather in his Yiddishy, Borscht-Belty accent, haunt me now as they did then—the Jewish figures are literally flattened under the burden of their bricks to ghostlike, 2-D paintings, their faces distorted in pain, yellow ropes wrapped around their necks, their suffering bodies suspended in the air like characters in a Chagall painting. But the highlight of The Animated Haggadah—the culmination of Oren’s painstaking artistry—is the depiction of the ten plagues. Wild Sendakian beasts trash Pharaoh’s pillared palace, locusts and rats swarm the place, and giant balls of hail destroy his decorative idols, echoing Danny’s Abrahamic rampage earlier in the film. The final two plagues—darkness and the slaying of the firstborn—are depicted against a backdrop of piercing, bloodcurdling shrieks. The screen goes dark, but in flickers of light we see dead Egyptians illuminated on the ground, their bodies distorted, mouths and eyes agape in terror. As the Jews hurry to pack up their possessions (books, utensils, and matzo), the tone becomes more contemplative. “In every generation,” Grandpa Sam sagely intones, a clarinet piping in the background, “each individual should regard himself as if he personally had gone forth from Egypt.” We then see a series of single frame images depicting Jews in various states of oppression, flight, and suffering. One is a little boy with his hands raised, a yellow star pinned to his gray jacket. The film concludes with the search for the afikoman and a sweet, mellow rendition of “Chad Gadya”—there’s a cheeky Garfield-lookalike cat just begging to be turned into a GIF.
After that first viewing, I felt surprisingly moved—more than I would have expected. Revisiting beloved films and books from childhood is always a risky enterprise. These stories are siren songs of nostalgia, luring us back to a time when the pleasure of reading and watching was completely earnest and (mostly) uncritical. It’s always disappointing to discover shortcomings, and for all its originality and brilliance, The Animated Haggadah certainly has some: The only women in the story are relegated to supporting roles, and the history of the Jewish people is confined to biblical and Ashkenazi narratives (though we do get a brief glimpse of a Jewish family in Ethiopia at the very beginning). There’s no reference to the fact that people are still enslaved in the world today; no mention of our moral obligation to help alleviate the suffering of others.
But, these criticisms aside, I found myself charmed by its aesthetic appeal and timelessness. If my Facebook friends are any indication, The Animated Haggadah made its way into the homes, schools, and hearts of Lubavitch, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, secular, and Yiddish-speaking Jews all over the world, which is no small feat. (The Gesher Foundation’s mission is to promote understanding between secular and religious Jews.) What is the film’s secret sauce? Well, there’s the lush, expressive animation, the dark comedy of the script (more than one friend said the creators must have been high when they were working on it), and the fact that the story doesn’t shy away from the terror and morbidity inherent in the story of Passover.
But there’s something ineffable about how I feel when I actually watch it—and trying to put my finger on the feeling is a little like fumbling around for the afikoman when you’re half-asleep and half-drunk. Though I loved the biblical stories I learned in Jewish studies classes at school—especially the midrashic interpretations—I never believed that the Torah was actually given to the Jewish people by God. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate my convictions in such a way at the age of 9, but they were sincerely felt, and they did present certain obstacles to, you know, fancying myself a beneficiary of God’s miracles. The Animated Haggadah, however, was a portal through my skepticism to that place of collective memory. For 25 minutes every year, I was actually inside the story, disbelief suspended, absorbed by the audaciously ambitious conceit of the haggadah—hitching a ride on the meta-narrative of Danny’s absorption. As I get older, it’s more and more difficult to access that space, but it’s nice to know that The Animated Haggadah can still take me back—and out of Egypt.
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