In the tradition of painfully long and drawn-out Passover seders, Dave Barry, Alan Zweibel and Adam Mansbach wrote a haggadah that, despite not having divine origins, brings to the table some of the most profound questions we have all asked ourselves at one time or another.
“For This We Left Egypt?” is a frank, humorous approach to the holiday that throws sacred text into the trio’s comedic line of fire.
The title, of course, is a play on the constant kvetching and Jewish dissatisfaction, and the book begins with an explanation of a haggadah that one would assume was written for Barry, the token non-Jew and only Pulitzer Prize winner among the authors. I wonder what the mothers of Mansbach and Zweibel had to say about that little tidbit of gentile trivia, which sets the sarcastic tone for the rest of the book.
Immediately they attack Reform Judaism, the topic of Jewish jokes for years. “The book you hold before you contains the liturgy for Seder service on this festival of Passover — or, as Reform Jews sometimes call it, Chanukah.”
The book is laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end with its explanations of the afikomen, five glasses of wine and the Ten Commandments. The tongue-in-cheek retelling of the supernatural way Jews were given the law adds 21st century humor to the age-old tale.
“Then G-d spoke from inside the cloud. At least he said he was G-d, there’s no way to tell for sure because of the cloud.”
There are numerous holes in the biblical Passover story, as pointed out by the writers, but it’s how the holes are punched that earns the chuckles. Their ability to insert Jewish schtick and logic into stories we’ve heard our entire lives without coming off as outdated slapstick makes “For This We Left Egypt?” a fun read.
Barry, Zweibel and Mansbach ask the hard questions, such as “Where the hell did the Israelites get enough gold for a Golden Calf?” and “How come the Angel of Death needed lamb’s blood to know which house the Israelites lived in? … Also does it seem weird that slaves would live in a house next to and indistinguishable from the people enslaving them?”
The “discussion” topics spark an internal dialogue that leads to even more questions, such as “What have we been reading this entire time?”
But, of course, overachieving Jews who have taken up a more evolved form of Judaism involving art criticism can “make a papier mache sculpture that answers these questions” while they drink the last bit of wine and argue whether Steve Carrell is Jewish.
The three authors of “For This We Left Egypt?” outlined the process of their collaborative effort for the AJT. They are appearing at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16, in a session sponsored by the AJT.
AJT: Is this a book you always wanted to do, and why?
Barry: I have always, all my life, wanted to write a haggadah. The weird thing is, I was raised Episcopalian/Presbyterian, and I had no idea what a haggadah was. But I STILL wanted to write one. It might be a chemical imbalance.
Mansbach: In the sense that I have always dreamed of collaborating with Alan and Dave, no. Not at all. In the sense that I’ve always wanted to get paid for making a bunch of semi-risqué jokes about grain storage, also no.
Zweibel: “Do” a haggadah? Never. Write one? Yes, since the first time a band of angry gentiles beat me up on my way home from Hebrew school.
AJT: What was the process for compiling the haggadah?
Barry: We divided up the sections, and then Adam and I wrote the book, and Alan provided the snacks. In his defense, they were mostly delicious.
Mansbach: I don’t know that I’d say they were uniformly delicious. And I know for a fact that those croissants he claimed were homemade were actually from a gas station.
Zweibel: With all due respect to Adam, he is mistaken. The Cheez Whiz was from a gas station. The croissants were stolen from a hospital cart.
AJT: Are there particular, personal Passover anecdotes that stood out while you were working on the book?
Barry: Well, we were all pretty surprised when Elijah actually showed up and drank from his cup. We thought he was a mythical figure, like Batman.
Mansbach: The fact that when the Israelites initially sent spies into Canaan, the spies returned and reported that the land was occupied by giants came as a surprise to me. Also, somehow the issue of giants never came up again.
Zweibel: I had totally forgotten that it was Abraham Lincoln, and not Moses, who freed the slaves from Egypt.
AJT: “For This We Left Egypt?” falls into a tradition of taking the sacred and adding profane logic. How do you think this has helped Jews navigate the Jewish experience?
Barry: A lot.
Mandel: I’m going to say somewhat.
Zweibel: I’m saying not at all.
AJT: Why do you think the holiday of Passover is at the heart of Jewish humor?
Barry: I would have to give credit here to the plagues. I mean, frogs!
Mansbach: When you get that many Jews around a table and then deny them food, all that’s left is jokes.
Zweibel: Because Chanukah is the lung and Simchat Torah is the spleen of Jewish humor, the heart was the only vital organ that was left.
AJT: Who are some comics and writers who inspire you?
Barry: Robert Benchley and Woody Allen.
Mansbach: Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel. Not my co-authors — I happen to know another Dave Barry and another Alan Zweibel, both of whom are very funny.
Zweibel: Dave and Adam. They said my name, too, right?
AJT: The discussion questions poke fun at Jewish stereotypes as well as offer satirical insights into the evolution of Judaism. For example, “Should Bruce Willis play Elijah, or can you think of someone better? … Make a friendship bracelet to answer the question.” Why is that important to include?
Barry: “Important” is not a word I would use in connection with any part of this book.
Mansbach: I see nothing amusing about the question of who should play Elijah, and I say that not only as the author of a haggadah, but also as someone who recently optioned the film rights to the Torah from G-d. For a very reasonable fee, I might add.
Zweibel: I would have Elijah Wood play Elijah because that would be one less thing he would have to memorize.