Leading a Seder? Tips for a kvetch-free evening
If you are a seder leader, you work a tough crowd.
Just as the Children of Israel complained in the desert to Moses, all gathered at the seder table will level their pre-meal kvetching at you.
Fear not. The Passover seder is the ultimate multi-sensory teaching tool that asks each of us to think of ourselves as going on a journey and leaving Egypt and slavery behind for freedom in the Promised Land. Long before any educational theorist came up with the idea of teaching to multiple intelligences, the Hagaddah text clearly states that all who participate in a seder must feel as they themselves experienced the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of redemption.
“From sports to music fans, you’ve got to know your audience,” said Jeff Lasday, director of Alliance for Jewish Education. Lasday has led family seders for the past 30 years. When Passover falls during the annual NCAA basketball tournament, Lasday emails his family in advance a Jewish-themed “bracket” of favorite Passover foods, Jewish traditions and Jewish heroes. Before the seder, he compiles the results and intersperses reports between different parts of the Hagaddah.
STEP AWAY FROM THE SEDER TABLE
In the 2005 Passover comedy, When Do We Eat?, a dysfunctional Jewish family celebrates Passover in a Bedouin tent pitched on a suburbanite Long Island lawn. Though it is not necessary to go through such lengths, setting the stage visually will get your seder guests in the right frame of mind for the evening. At the beginning of the seder, don’t even bother with the table. For one seder, I brought the whole family into the tiny front storage area of my parent’s basement. This subterranean start symbolized that we were about to go on a journey and the dark basement represented just how low we felt during slavery and how we were about to rise to freedom. Amy Newman, director of leadership development for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, suggests hanging blue cellophane from doorways to simulate the parting of the Red Sea. She also recommends giving permission for kids to draw on the dining room walls — covered carefully with butcher paper — to depict scenes from the Haggadah. “The more experiential you can make your seder, the more meaning it will have for your guests, no matter their age,” Newman said.
YES, YOU CAN EAT
Nibbling is permitted during the first half of the seder after reciting the blessing for karpas (green vegetable, often parsley). Pass around bowls of dried fruits and nuts, even crudites with guacamole to stave off hunger during the seder.
Prior to the seder, get them invested by asking them to think about their own interpretation of slavery, freedom or plagues. Newman also suggests providing older kids and young adults with a lunch bag filled with different items to be used during the Maggid section of the Haggadah to tell the Passover story. From food insecurity to the environment to human trafficking, teens and young adults are passionate about causes. The internet provides great supplementary Haggadah readings that can spark conversations on all of these topics to bring the messages of the holiday into a contemporary light. When it comes to including a discussion about Israel, organizations from AIPAC to J Street publish Haggadah supplements. For example, last year, a friend of my niece joined the IDF as a Lone Soldier. I was able to find a Hagaddah reading online that offered short profiles of Lone Soldiers and what it meant to them to serve in the Israeli army.
SONGS OF FREEDOM, REDEMPTION
My earliest Passover memories are steeped in song. Growing up at my no-nonsense Hebrew school, teachers taught us how to lead the seder by singing our way through the Haggadah. The more singing and music you add to your seder, the more enjoyable it will be for all guests. My husband’s own “Passover Rappin” YouTube video has not gone viral like those of the Maccabeats, but in our family, it has become a seder standard. If you are fortunate to have Jewish preschoolers coming to your seder, your evening will ring with the wonderful songs they learn. For older guests, if you want to divert a bit from the traditional Haggadah text but still stay on topic, Newman suggests having a sing-down. How many songs can those around the table think of about slavery, freedom, spring or redemption?
My grandmother used to tell me stories of being shushed at the seder table as a child while a bearded elder quickly mumbled through the whole Haggadah. As time went on, American Jews started to read from the Maxwell House Haggadah in a round-robin fashion, but they were still bored with the formal English and cumbersome sentences. One year, my brother-in-law proclaimed, “This is awful. Why do we use the same boring Haggadah with these ‘thines and thous’ year after year?” Before the next Passover came around, I researched and found other Haggadot, such as A Family Haggadah (Kar Ben Copies) and A Different Night by Noam Zion. Do not be afraid to cull different passages from different Haggadot. But when all is said and done, don’t permanently retire your Maxwell House Haggadot. As corny as it is, my kids and their cousins still love to use them to read Hallel: “Thine yea thine, thine only thine” … verse after verse late into the night. There are many new traditions to enhance your seder, but sometimes the old standbys are the ones that truly create family seder memories.*