Ritual and Rhyme ; JEWS -- CULTURE; BOOKS -
SEGAL, ELIEZER LORNE; PASSOVER
DAVID L. ULIN, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES, Wednesday, March 31, 1999
After circulating for three years on the Internet, Eliezer Lorne Segal's Seuss-inspired kids' haggada is finally in book form. It's an amusing blend of the religious and the irreverent.
early 20 years ago, when his oldest son was 2, Eliezer Lorne Segal
got the idea of creating a Passover haggada in the style of Dr. Seuss.
"It started as a joke, a parody of what it would be like if the
haggada were a children's book," recalls the 48-year-old Talmudic
scholar, now a professor of religious studies at the University of
Calgary. "Originally, it was less for kids than for adults who brought
their children up on Dr. Seuss."
Beginning with his own take on the "Four Questions," and adding
additional chapters as inspiration struck, Segal built his haggada, as he
says, "in spurts." But although the first laser-printed copies began to
circulate as early as the mid-1980s, even Segal had no idea that his
little "entertainment" would eventually evolve into "Uncle Eli's
Special-for-Kids, Most Fun Ever, Under-the-Table Passover Haggadah," a
full-fledged reinterpretation of the Exodus story that, after more than
three years on the Internet
(http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Uncle_Eli/Eli.html) has just been
published in book form by San Francisco's No Starch Press.
"Uncle Eli's Special-for-Kids" is the haggada like you've never seen
it, as silly as it is reverent, as traditional as it is new.
Comprising 15 brief verse chapters, it re-creates the Passover saga
from the point of view of a boy who has no patience for his family's
Seder until an elderly stranger--the Uncle Eli of the title--appears in
Initially, Segal says, Uncle Eli was little more than an exaggerated
alter ego, but later, the character came to represent the biblical
prophet Elijah, who plays an integral role in the Seder feast. Either
way, he is, in Segal's telling, a subversive element, a trickster, who
fools the protagonist into learning about Passover by giving him a
version of the story that is flat-out fun. As Eli himself explains at the
Instead of just sitting there twiddling your hands While the grown-ups read
words that you don't understand,
I've brought you a special Haggadah to read.
It'll keep you in stitches!
It's just what you need!
Of course, more than Elijah, Uncle Eli brings to mind another famous
... with those that artist Bonnie Gordon-Lucas created for the book, and
taking down all but four chapters of the haggada itself. The latter,
Segal says reassuringly, is a temporary move, undertaken as a courtesy to
his publisher, and after Passover, he plans to restore the missing
This should come as a relief to all the Uncle Eli fanatics who have,
with Segal's blessings, downloaded and e-mailed the haggada around the
world, or found themselves charmed by the site's low-tech "bells and
whistles," like its lounge-style instrumental versions of such
traditional songs as "Dayenu."
If, for some people, merging technology and tradition seems a radical
innovation, Segal doesn't see the ideas as incompatible. Among his other
Web sites is one re-creating a page of the Babylonian Talmud, and, he
says, "the traditions are, in fact, sympathetic. Religious people have
Neither does he believe there is anything sacrilegious about
interpreting the haggada in a popular milieu. Passover, after all, is at
heart a children's holiday, when the purpose is to transmit the cultural
memory to a new generation, so it will carry on.
"The commandment of remembering the Exodus," Segal says, "appears in
many different contexts through Jewish life. It's like the story of the
four sons; you tell it differently, depending on the context, and yet we
continue to read this uniform text of the haggada and not go beyond it.
"But part of the tradition is interpretational and improvisational.
There's a tradition of creativity I'm tapping into."
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved