Passover goes on for a WEEK? What Will We Eat?

April 16, 2014
Matzah!

Matzah!

Newcomers to Judaism are sometimes shocked to discover that Passover isn’t just a day – it’s a week-long event!  (To be precise: Seven days in Israel, or eight days in the Diaspora, unless you are Reform and think that Rabbi Hillel’s hard work in calculating the calendar should be honored, in which case, seven days.  Short version: ask your rabbi.)

Yup, you got it right: We are only at the beginning of a week of NO CHAMETZ.

Veterans of many years of Judaism and/or Jewish childhoods will tell you about the wonders of matzo brie (fried matzah), matza pizza, etc.  Those are fun and well worth trying. Some come to love them, and some not so much. It’s OK either way: you ate matzah at the seder and that’s all the matzah we are required to eat. 

Newcomers may also be appalled at the sudden outbreak of constipation jokes from fellow Jews who don’t indulge in such humor except at Passover.  All I know to tell you is that those jokes will disappear in a week, not to be heard again until next year. (To the purveyors of those jokes I say: no one forced you to eat that much matzah. Ahem.)

So in the meantime, what to eat?

Unprocessed fruits are all perfectly fine.

Vegetables will depend on whether you eat “kitniyot” or not. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about it this year. If you are among the Jews who refrain from kitniyot at Passover, you know what not to eat. Again, if this has not been part of your practice until you’ve read this article, don’t worry about it – veggies are OK! – but you may want to study and ask your rabbi before next year.

Meats, dairy products, fish, etc are all good, as long as there’s no chametz mixed in with them. (No yogurt with granola on top.) Again, just avoid the processed stuff and you will be ok.

Menu suggestions:

  • Leftovers from the seder, if there are any.
  • Tuna salad on matzah.  Ditto for egg or chicken salad.
  • Tuna salad on a nice mess of greens. Ditto for egg or chicken salad.
  • Green salads with meat or dairy for protein – always good.
  • Stews and soups are good, just (1) not processed – there will be chametz in there somewhere and (2) no dredging things in flour and (3) beer is chametz, so no Guinness stew. Serve over mashed potatoes, if you want.

Snack suggestions:

  • fruit
  • nuts
  • cut-up veggies
  • leftover seder treats (macaroons? candies?)
  • Kosher for passover chocolate and snacks

Before you panic, remember, it’s only a week. If you start feeling crazy, remember the story in Exodus 16. When our ancestors had been in the desert for more than 40 days, living on nothing but matzah, they complained to Moses about the food. God promptly sent them manna. I like to think that God was thinking, “Well! Finally! You learned to ask for what you need!”

So remember: you don’t have to live on matzah. Eat fresh if you can afford it. Look upon this time as a yearly “reset” button for your eating habits. And don’t forget to give tzedakah for those who cannot afford fresh food.

Happy Pesach!

Image by Avital Pinnick, some rights reserved

 


Ready for the Journey!

April 14, 2014
Brisket, Potatoes, Gravy

Brisket, Potatoes, Gravy

I’m ready! The brisket is cooked and carved, the potatoes and gravy are packaged, and as soon as I get cleaned up we’re on our way to the friends’ home where the seder will take place tonight. Just as our ancestors of old packed their baggage, only I have Ziplock and aluminum foil (and centuries of advice on how to make it all kosher for Passover.)

I wish us all a Pesach journey of adventure and merriment and serious reflection. I wish us matzah crumbs galore, and maror that brings tears to our eyes. I wish us stories and games and laughter and tears. Remember all who are not at our tables: those who are prevented from coming, those who are afraid to be seen, those who do not feel “good enough” to be there. Next year, let us all gather and let all who are hungry come to eat. Next year in Jerusalem.


What Question Will You Ask? #Blog Exodus

April 8, 2014

blogexodus

What question will you bring to your seder table?

Most people have heard of the Four Questions at the Passover seder, but those are intended only to “prime the pump.” The seder is designed to take us deep inside the experience of Exodus, and questions are one of the most potent ways for us to experience it personally.

Here are some questions you might bring to your own seder table, but I hope you will think of some of your own, as well:

  • What plagues does the world face right now?
  • What are the family stories about Passover?
  • In which parts of our lives do we feel enslaved?
  • What is freedom? Freedom from, or freedom to?
  • What single thing could I do this year to become more free?
  • What single thing could I do this year to make someone else more free?
  • What could modern day leaders learn from Moses?
  • Where or what is “Egypt” today?
  • When in your life did you feel most free?
  • When in your life did you feel most enslaved?
  • What does it mean, to experience the Exodus as if you had really been there? Is that possible?
  • Are there parts of my life that are broken and hidden, like the Afikomen?
  • What would I like to be different about my life by next Passover?
  • What about my life do I want to keep the same through next Passover?

Can you think of other questions?  I invite you to share them in the comments!

Want to join in? We’re sharing #BlogExodus for the next 2 weeks. All you have to do is use the hashtag and there are suggested prompts on the graphic above (feel free to grab it). Maybe you just want to post on your Facebook or Twitter about these topics…or maybe you want to try #Exodusgram, posting photos related to these themes? I am late to the party but I’ll be posting my #blogExodus posts here from now till Passover. Many thanks to the clever rabbi who started this pre-Passover celebration of words and images, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs at Ima On and Off the Bima.

 


Passover Shopping Tips

March 11, 2014
The variety of Passover products can be dazzling.

The variety of Passover products can be dazzling.

Spring is on its way.

I know this because my friend Mark has begun stockpiling matzah. Ever since the Great Matzah Shortage of 5768, he has watched for the first kosher-for-Passover (KforP) matzah to appear in the stores and he snaps it up. He’s discriminating – he has his preferred brands – but he is not going to be caught short of matzah, because eating matzah is a commandment for Passover.

This weekend Linda mentioned to me that Mark found some matzah, so now I know it: spring is coming.

Since some of you may be wondering about shopping for Passover, I thought I’d pass along some basic tips. I hope that some readers will add their tips to the comments, too.

1. BUY MATZAH EARLY – You do not want to be looking for matzah at the last minute. It truly is a requirement for any seder, no matter how liberal or laid-back.  You also want to check the label carefully, because often the nice people at the secular grocery store don’t realize that there is matzah and then there is kosher-for-Passover matzah. Just because it has “Maneschewitz” on the box doesn’t mean it is OK for Passover. Somewhere on that box it must say “Kosher for Passover.” [Some people like to eat matzah year round; they buy regular matzah anytime.  Kosher for Passover matzah is made according to the laws of the season, and for more detail I will point you to the Orthodox Union page on the subject.] (Thank you to Rachel Fleming on Twitter for this tip.)

2. BUY KOSHER WINE EARLY – If you are hosting a seder, or if you are taking a bottle of KforP wine as a table gift to a seder, pick up your wine early. As with the matzah, it is a commandment to serve it or grape juice at the seder. Particularly if you crave “nice” kosher wine (not the cough syrup some of us traditionalists insist on buying) it may be hard to find in the days immediately before Passover.

3. DON’T GET CRAZY – If you shop in a Jewish store or in a city with lots of Jews, you may find the wild variety of processed KforP  food pretty dazzling. Particularly if you are a newcomer to the Jewish world, you may either be dumfounded or you may feel like you need “one of each.” Stop right there: step AWAY from the shopping cart!  All that stuff is still processed food and most of it is not particularly nutritious. If there’s something a family member particularly loves, of course that’s different. But truly, you don’t need to break the bank buying lots of mixes and faux-cornflakes. Passover is a great time to improve our diets by eating lots of fresh fruits and veggies, most of which are automatically kosher for Passover. If you enjoy cooking, get a Passover cookbook and get the ingredients you need for some interesting-sounding dishes.

Speaking of “Don’t Get Crazy,” if you are feeling confused or crazed when you think about Passover cleaning, I wrote an essay a while back that may help: Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt.

4. STORE YOUR PASSOVER FOOD. Until you get the kitchen and/or house ready for Passover, leave your Matzo and KforP wine in its wrappers and away from your regular food.  You don’t want them mixed in where someone may snack on them or get chametz in there. This is the reason the KforP matzah comes in a box that is also shrink wrapped: the manufacturer is not taking any chances.

5. PACE YOURSELF. I know, it’s easier to say it than to do it. Start early, go steadily, and do your best. Don’t be so busy getting ready for Passover that you fail to enjoy Purim. Always remember that human beings are more important than anything else.

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#BlogExodus: Am I a Slave?

March 28, 2012

Crumbs

To whom or what am I a slave?

The question is on my mind as I clean for Passover.  The evidence lies before me, in trails of crumbs.

There is chometz by the computer.  What is a slave, if not someone who cannot rise from her task long enough to eat a meal?  Is that addiction to work, or addiction to mindless wandering on the Internet?  Addiction to netflix or addiction to facebook?  Make a note and find out.

There is chometz in the car.  Again, I could not stop to eat like a civilized free person?

My addictions/slaveries are writ large on the kitchen shelves:  I buy processed food for “convenience” but the question is, does it nourish?  Some does, some does not.  A free person would have the time to find out.  That is, if she were truly free from her addiction to the tastes of processing:  sugar, salt, and who knows what unearthly thing from the likes of ADM.

Then there is the source of all this bounty I am pondering:  where did my food come from this year?  Did I enslave anyone, or benefit from their slavery?  Did the crunch in my salad come cheap because someone else was in chains?

Passover is about the passage from slavery to freedom.  The question is, Will I make that passage to genuine freedom?  And whom shall I bring with me?

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to find some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.

Cleaning for Passover: Begin In Egypt

March 28, 2012

Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.  [Pirkei Avot 2:16]

It is very tempting to take an “all or nothing” approach to mitzvot.   Some of us are overachievers; we want an “A” in everything we do.  Some of us are worried about the opinions of others.  Some worry that if a commandment is not fulfilled properly, there was no point in bothering.  But to any beginner in Jewish observance, my first word of advice about almost everything is: Start Small.

The journey of the Exodus began in Egypt.  The Hebrews could not keep the commandments; they had not yet received the commandments.  Anyway, they were slaves:  they were not free to keep the commandments.

So if this is your first time cleaning for Passover, do not think, “I must do all of this perfectly,” because you are in Egypt.  You are only beginning the journey!   If this is your first time cleaning for Passover, think:  what can I reasonably do this year to observe Passover in my home?  Here are some ideas for beginning your journey to Passover, one step at a time.  Even if you do only the first step, or the first two this year you will have made a good beginning.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for official standards on how to prepare a proper kosher-for-Passover home, and you are already an old hand at this, you will be much better served by the 5772 Pesah Guide published by the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Movement.)  This post is for those who are new to the mitzvah of preparing for Passover.

1.  LEARN ABOUT CHOMETZ.  Chometz / Chametz / Hametz (all spellings are transliterations, all are the same thing)  is a product that is both made from one of five types of grain (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, or barley) and has been combined with water and left to stand raw for longer than eighteen minutes.  Chometz is sometimes defined as “leavened products” which is confusing, since that makes modern people think of leavening agents like baking powder and yeast.  But no, chometz is basically wet grain,  or grain that has been wet at one time for more than 18 minutes.

In short, anything in your home that contains one of those grains (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, barley) and may have had any moisture get to it (on purpose or by accident, no matter) is chometz.  Ideally, a Jew will find and get rid of all the chometz in the places under his or her control before Passover begins.

You can learn more about chometz and Passover observance in an article at My Jewish Learning.  There you will also learn that Ashkenazic Jews also dispose of rice, millet, corn and legumes like beans and soy [kitniyot] because those things often behave like the forbidden grains.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

2.  CHECK YOUR CHOMETZ.  The Hebrew name of the process of looking for chometz is bedikat chometz, literally “checking for chometz.”  The first step is to figure out where the chometz is.  You can’t get rid of it if you don’t take stock of it, right?

Go into the kitchen, open the cabinets, and make note of all the chometz products you normally own and use.  There may be bread, and flour, and mixes, and cereals.  There may also be processed foods that contain grain products.  Notice what they are, how many they are, how basic to your cooking and consumption these products are.  Notice, also, all the beer and spirits and other grain-based fermented products you may have: those, too, are chometz.  Then close the cabinets, and move on.

Go into the rest of your home, and think about all the places that crumbs can hide:  sofa cushions, carpets, pockets, shoes.

Contemplate the ubiquity of chometz:   It’s really everywhere.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK. 

3.  GET RID OF BIG CHOMETZ.  I said “start small” but at this stage of the journey, we’ll just get rid of the big chometz.  Set aside all the chometz in your kitchen and say, “what can my household consume before Passover?”  All the rest of the chometz will need to go for you to complete this third step.  Eat it up, give it away, or throw it out:  those are the chometz choices between Purim and Passover.  Locate a donation dropoff for your local food bank, and use it.

If you have gotten to this stage, you will also need to think about “What will my household eat during Passover?”  This does not mean that you must buy many specialized products for Passover.  Maybe you will choose to buy matzah, and otherwise stick to unprocessed non-grain foods for the week of Passover:  salads, fruit, meat, fish, etc. If you live with other people, you need to include them in the menu-planning for Passover week.  The average child (or adult, for that matter) will not feel loved if you simply announce that we are out of Cheerios and will be out of Cheerios until next week, tough luck!  If you have animals, you will need to plan for them as well.  However, keep in mind that an animal that eats grain needs proper nourishment:  consult your rabbi if you have questions about how to meet the needs of pets during the holiday.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

4.  DISHES AND UTENSILS  If you are even more serious about keeping a kosher for Passover home, you will want to seal up or pack up all your usual utensils and dishes, and use either “Passover dishes” that you keep boxed up the rest of the year or use disposables.  This is more or less expensive depending on how you go about it.  My everyday Passover dishes are not particularly nice (they were on sale at Target)  and I only have a few of them, since other than the seder, I don’t entertain during Pesach.  However, I only look at them for one week a year, so I wasn’t picky.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 

5.  FIND AND DESTROY HIDDEN CHOMETZ.  This brings us to something that looks suspiciously like “spring cleaning.”  Remember the chometz you thought about back at #1:  the crumbs in the carpet, your pockets, the car, the back of cabinets?  At this level of cleaning for Passover, you will get rid of as many of those as you can.  Take a moment to think a grateful thought for  all the clever inventors of the vacuum cleaner.  Most observant Jews will get their carpets cleaned in the week before Passover. Wipe surfaces down.  Dust everywhere.  Vacuum out the shoes in the closets.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 
6.  RECONSIDER “CHOMETZ  There are Jews who observe Passover by refraining from eating chometz, and who may or may not be meticulous about cleaning out their houses, but who take other understandings of chometz very seriously.  To learn more, consider these articles on the web:
7.  REMEMBER, LIFE, LIKE EXODUS,  IS A JOURNEY.  In the beginning, start small.  Don’t tear your home up and then collapse in despair.  Pay attention to the mitzvah that you are doing, to whatever degree you can perform it.  Remember that at different stages of life, our abilities are different:  a beginner, starting out, will not approach Passover in the same way that a person who has grown up in a kosher observant household will approach it.  In a year with illness, or money troubles, or other challenges, our ability to observe the mitzvah will change.
Instead of judging ourselves for what we cannot do, and comparing to others who “do more,” we accomplish the most when we approach the task with kavanah [intention] and do what we can to the best of our ability.   Remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon that opened this post:  It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.
_____
This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to find some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.


The Learning Holiday

March 26, 2012
Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth centur...

Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth century. Русский: Празднование Песаха. Лубок XIX века. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With this post, I’m joining a group of rabbis who are blogging from three days ago (1st of Nisan) to the beginning of Passover:  Blogging the Exodus.  If you want to find some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.  Today’s theme is “Learning and Teaching.”

When I am meeting a new person, they often ask me what I do.  I always say, “I’m a rabbi.”  That doesn’t really answer the question so usually they try again, this time by saying, “What congregation do you serve?” and then I say, “I’m a teaching rabbi.”

That’s a partial truth.   I teach classes for Lehrhaus Judaica.  I teach classes at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.  I occasionally teach in odd venues, like Catholic churches, when they invite a rabbi in to explain something about Judaism.  Next month I’ll teach a class on Food Ethics at Temple Sinai, and I’ll teach for a whole weekend about Jewish Time at the congregational retreat  of Temple Emanuel in Tempe, AZ.  Sometimes I even teach in coffee shops (hence the moniker.)

The real truth is that I am a learning rabbi.  I bring information to people, and then we talk and learn things.  That’s how Jewish learning works:  you begin with some raw material, like a text, you put in on the table among you, and then by pulling and pushing at it, talking and listening, everyone at the table learns.  I love learning, so I love my work.

What does any of this have to do with Passover?  Passover is a learning holiday.  The Passover seder is one of the greatest pedagogical devices in history:  it’s been used to build Jewish community and transmit a sense of Jewish peoplehood for close to two thousand years.  Once a year, we sit at the table.  We bring some raw information:  a haggadah, a few songs and stories, our own perceptions and thoughts.  If we seize the opportunity to share them, really share them, to pull and push and talk and listen, then we come away from the table with new thoughts, perhaps with new plans.

They say that at a certain seder in Bnai Brak in the year 132, five rabbis stayed up all night, moving from discussing the Exodus to planning a revolution.  The revolution failed, but we still read about the seder every year at our seders.  Maybe they left the table a little too early.  Maybe they needed to plan some more.

If you are reading this and saying to yourself, “I never learned anything at a seder!”  let me suggest very gently to you that perhaps you were not listening enough.  Or talking enough.  Or perhaps you were so hungry that you forgot to pull and push at the text with the others at the table.  It happens.*

But when, this year, you hear someone read “How is this night different from all other nights?”  Say to yourself (or, heck, say it aloud):  “This seder is different because we are going to talk and listen and push and pull and exchange ideas and make some plans!”

I dare you.

For more information on making a great seder, check out Rabbi Noam Zion’s writings about Passover and seders on My Jewish Learning, or the haggadah and guide he co-authored with Mishael Zion, A Night to Remember.  Ira Steingroot’s wonderful book, Keeping Passover has all the essential information and some more as well.  Or go to your local bookstore and browse the many haggadahs available .  (If you have a local Jewish bookstore like Afikomen, lucky you, but even luckier, they also do mail order.)

*About that “too hungry to learn” problem:  Karpas (the greens on the seder plate) was not meant to be a few strands of parsley wet with salt water.  Think of it as a salad course:  have a nice salad of lettuce, or endive, or whatever green thing you love to eat.  No need to starve on this night of all nights, when we celebrate moving from slavery to freedom!


Seven Ways to Be a Great Passover Seder Guest

March 18, 2012

English: President Obama hosts a traditional S...

You are going to your first Passover seder!  Your feelings may range from excitement to dread, depending on why this is your first seder. Here are some tips to make the evening easier on you and everyone else:

1.  KNOW THAT YOU ARE WELCOME. If you have never been to a seder before, that’s OK. Even if you are born Jewish and one of your grandparents was a rabbi, but somehow history conspired that you are now attending your first seder at the age of 35, it’s OK. If you are not Jewish, and you are afraid you don’t belong there, don’t sweat it. When the Haggadah (the script for the evening, that little book by your plate) says, “Let all come and eat” it really means it. At a seder table, of all places, no one needs to apologize for her presence, his existence, or the path that brought you here.

2.  ASK QUESTIONS. The seder is a forum for questions, but really the questions start before the seder. Ask your host, or the person who invited you, LOTS of questions. Ask about clothes:  what will everyone else be wearing? Ask, “What time should I be there?” And definitely ask “What can I bring?”  They may say “nothing” but it is nice to ask.  If the answer is “Yes, bring X” then get them to be very specific about X. Does it need to be kosher? A particular brand? Food is a tricky subject at Passover, so ask questions and follow directions exactly. If you are not sure, it’s OK to keep asking. Passover is all about questions.

Note:  If you wish to bring a “hostess gift,” or contribute to the meal, pre-packaged food in its original wrapping is the safest bet. Look for the words, “Kosher for Passover” on all packaged foods, including candy. Flowers are an even safer bet.

3.  ARRIVE WITH AN OPEN MIND. No two seders are alike, so the one you saw in a movie is not the seder you will attend tonight, even if the movie was a documentary. Every seder is a new experience, even for the “old hands” at the table.  One way to think of a seder is as a partially scripted piece of performance art. The Haggadah is the script. The grandmother who seems to know everything is one of the players. The fourteen year old who doesn’t want to be there is one of the players. The three year old who  has a great time crumbling matza is one of the players. And you, too, are one of the players, even though you hardly know what to ask. Ask about what you see. If you have an insight, share it. If you notice you are talking a lot, sit back and listen for a while. Treat every person at the table as someone who has something important to say.

Note: Some parts of the seder may be in Hebrew. Don’t worry if you don’t read Hebrew; just listen to the sound of it, and ponder the fact that these words have been said around seder tables for almost two thousand years. Your copy of the haggadah may have a translation that you can read. If you get lost, ask your neighbor for help. If you are unsure what to do, copy the other adults at the table, or ask one of the children what to do. Remember, questions are good!

4.  BE PREPARED TO STAY A WHILE. A Passover seder is not a quick thing. Even the speediest takes a while: first there are ceremonies to do and a story to read, then a festival meal to eat and savor. You are not going to get home early. If you are hiring a babysitter or have other time constraints, that’s another question to ask your host. Do not ask the question as if you are looking to eat and run; rather, you are asking for the sake of the babysitter. Yes, there is a book on the market that advertises a thirty minute seder. A good Passover seder is like a great evening of theater, only friendlier, with good food. There’s no point in rushing.

5.  BE PREPARED FOR UNFAMILIAR FOOD. Food at the seder is not simply sustenance. This is not an evening of “eating to live.” Nor it is an evening of “living to eat.” This is an evening of multi-sensory experience, and food carries enormous symbolic freight. Matzah, which looks a bit like a huge saltless saltine, is the “bread of affliction.” It is food made by slaves to be eaten on the run. You are only required to take a bite of matzah, but it is rude not to take a bite. Charoset is a fruit and nut mixture eaten with the matzah. Maror is horseradish, and watch out for it:  some families compete to see who can find or grind the hottest  maror. You may be served gefilte fish, which is a ball of  stewed minced fish. It is better with a lot of horseradish, if you didn’t grow up with it. You can say “no thank you” if something is just too unfamiliar, but you may be surprised at the things you like.

Note: If you have food allergies, let your host know ahead of time. Nuts are in a lot of Passover foods, as are eggs. Matzah and its gluten are found in surprising places, so it is important to communicate with your host.

6.  BE PREPARED TO DRINK WINE OR GRAPE JUICE. Four cups of wine are served at the seder, to underline the fact that we are slaves no more. They are an essential part of the seder, but it is OK not to drink full glasses. If you don’t drink wine, that is OK; your host should have grape juice available. It is OK to drink small glasses of wine. It is not OK to get drunk. People at the table may express strong opinions for or against kosher wine; try the various kinds, so that you can form your own strong opinions for future seders.

7. BE PREPARED TO BE SURPRISED. The Passover seder is a meal, a ritual, an event, a happening. It has almost two thousand years of history, and a good one is as fresh as tomorrow’s news. It is personal and political. It speaks to one of the great human yearnings, freedom, and it teaches the great Jewish values. It is delicious, thought-provoking, and exhausting. It is a great piece of communal art. It contains many of the secrets of Jewish survival through the centuries. Whatever you think it is, it is more.

Enjoy!

P.S. – Afterwards, send your host a note thanking them for including you.   Hosting a seder is a lot of work, and it deserves thanks.

What suggestions would you give a person attending their very first seder as a guest?


Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success

March 17, 2012

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So:  This year you are going to host your own Passover seder!  You’ve decided that this year it’s going to be at Your House.  Alternatively, someone else has decided that this year it’s going to be at Your House. Either way, you are now feeling a mixture of excitement and dread, because this is the first time you’ve hosted.  Here are seven tips for making your first seder one that you will remember with a smile, or maybe a laugh.

1.  PARTNER, DIVIDE, and CONQUER!  Your partner may be your spouse, your beloved, your roommate, your best friend, or the other Jew in your book group.  The point is, you don’t want to do this alone.  One of you is going to be in charge of food  and the other in charge of setting the table and leading the seder.  Don’t be fooled by the word “leader:” these two roles are co-equal and equally critical to success.  During the first part of the seder, both of you will be busy.  One of you will serve as Maestro/a of Ceremonies, making sure that things move along, that everyone participates, that everyone has a good time, etc.  The Food Czar will be monitoring final developments in the kitchen, or monitoring the warming of potluck dishes, or making sure the cat stays out of the kugel, while supervising the movement of greens, salt water, wine, grape juice, and other necessities.

2.  CHOOSE a HAGGADAH.  Your first seder is not the time to roll your own Haggadah (that’s next year.)   You need at least one Haggadah for every two participants, and really, each guest having their own is best.  This is one reason the Maxwell House Haggadah and other free ones are so popular.  The Maestro/a of Ceremonies should read the Haggadah well ahead of the actual seder, cover to cover.  Consider possibilities:  if you find, mid-evening, that you need to skip, where do you intend to shorten things?  Are there other readings or stories or games you have experienced at other seders you’d like to include?  If you are adding things to your seder, make sure to have as many copies as you need.

3.  PLAN YOUR GUEST LIST.  Yes, I know that your Great Aunt Sadie always had at least 50 people at her seders.  Trust me, she started small too.  In my experience, a minyan [10 people] is a nice maximum for a first seder. Think about dishes.  Think about where everyone will sit.  Think about whether you can cook for this number, or if you will be potluck.  Think about the ratio of seder “veterans” to newbies.  A minyan of people who have never been to a seder trying to have a seder is adventurous but might result in 40 years lost looking for the afikomen, or even trying to figure out what the afikomen is.

Note:  if you have inherited the family seder, and like it or not you will have 50 people in your home for your first time seder, grab the relative with whom you feel the most comfortable and level with him or her about exactly how freaked-out you are.  Ask for help. Humbly accept help. Keep reading this list, there is still stuff here that will be useful to you.

4.  PLAN THE MENU.  Rabbi Noam Zion, in his wonderful book, A Night To Remember, pointed out than in the ancient seder, no one sat starving for hours while we told the story. The scrap of soggy parsley you had at seder years ago could also be a bountiful plate of crudités with dip for everyone to nosh [snack] on while you tell the story and talk about what it means. Keep the parsley on the seder plate, and have a nice plate of celery, endive, and other crunchy goodies for everyone — then you won’t need a salad for the meal.  As for the meal itself, let the Food Czar decide what he or she wants to wrangle and how.  Whatever you choose, avoid foods that require last minute fussing.

Note:  Not all of your guests may be of the same mind about what constitutes kosher-for-Passover food.  Check in with any guest you expect will have a strong opinion on the subject, so that you can plan for everyone’s comfort.  If the meal is potluck, make sure that guests who may not know anything about Passover food are assigned something specific, lest they show up with home baked bread or some other labor-intensive inappropriate food.  Hospitality is a Jewish value, and embarrassing a guest is a Jewish sin.

5.  CONSIDER THE TABLE.  Maestro/a of Ceremonies: if your group has several young children, plan entertainment for them:  crayons, finger food, costumes, age-appropriate activities.  Join in the children’s activities, lest the children suspect they are being snookered.  If you have a table full of adults, the Maestro/a of Ceremonies should be ready with some leading questions or statements or a clipped article to get a lively discussion rolling.  Most adults have at least one part of their lives in which they feel they are in servitude, or one wild plan for a jailbreak from that servitude:  the trick is to free them to talk about it.  The wine will help. Speaking of which:

6.  PREPARE THE WINE.  The seder is planned around four cups of wine.  Even if you are absolutely certain that everyone at the table will be over 18 and is not a recovering alcoholic, have a bottle of grape juice handy.  No one should have to drink a glass of alcohol after they feel they’ve had enough.  By the same token, make sure your table setting includes water glasses and water.  Sweet kosher wine is a love/hate thing: some love it, some hate it.  I put both Manischewitz and a “nicer” kosher for Passover wine on my table, to accomodate both.

The Maestro/a of Ceremonies might want to have a joke about the Red Sea ready for the almost-inevitable spilled glass of something.

7. REMEMBER, THERE IS ALWAYS NEXT YEAR.  The purpose of the seder is to tell the story of freedom in a way that will make it a part of everyone around the table.  It is a shared experience that will build memories for the group at the table.  Have fun with it.  Some of the best seders I’ve been to involved spilled wine, crumbs everywhere, a burnt side dish, and a lot of laughter.   If you skip something in the haggadah, or you forget a dish, or the dessert melts, it isn’t the end of the world.  After all, every year at the close of the evening, we remind ourselves that Passover will come again next year.

What advice do you have for someone hosting a first seder?


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