For A Very Hard Year: The Movie Seder


Passover 2009 was a time when it seemed like we could not get a break. I don’t remember all the troubles – it’s a fog now – but I had been struggling with depression and after six years in rabbinical school, I had only part time work as a rabbi. One son had a job so scary that I couldn’t think about it. The other son was having a tough time with bipolar disorder, and we were still adjusting to it. The previous year California voted in Prop 8, saying, yeah, you lesbians are worthless.

We didn’t have energy for a seder that year. Looking back, I think we were in the depths of Egypt and it was hard to even imagine a seder. I didn’t feel like going to someone else’s seder and smiling and making nice, and neither did Linda.

But we still had the commandment to observe the chag (festival.) I take these things seriously, and so does Linda. It wasn’t OK to just ignore it, no matter how tattered we felt.

So we came up with what I remember as The Movie Seder. Purists will be horrified, but that year it was perfect for us. We had a box of matza, we made a green salad, charoset and something basic for dinner, I think roast chicken.

At the kitchen table, we did the preliminaries: lit and blessed the candles, made kiddush, and washed without blessing. Then ate our salads and broke the matzah, moving to the living room couch. There we had more matzah, horseradish, greens, charoset and the roast chicken. We put on a recording of The Prince of Egypt and settled in to watch as we munched on the ritual food. When they got to the red sea, we broke into dessert (chocolate matzah!) We sipped wine all the way through; I’m sure we had four cups.

And I have to tell you, while it wasn’t a proper seder, at the end we felt hopeful. The music and the beautiful messages of the film had lifted us just a bit. Watching it together, eating together, talking about the movie reconnected us in ways I still don’t entirely understand. I just know that I rose from that seder “table” ready to trudge on through that year’s personal wilderness.

That seder was years ago. A lot has changed. We aren’t nearly so worried about either son. Prop 8 and DOMA are gone (good riddance) and we feel like citizens at last. I’m in a good place emotionally right now, and I have work I love. Linda survived cancer, again. Linda and I are solid, baruch Hashem. But I think of that funny little seder with great affection: it got us through a very bad time.

When you are deep in Egypt, sometimes your seder has to be basic. If you are having a rough year of your own, I encourage you to buy a box of matzah, a jar of horseradish, some salad greens, and a bottle of wine. Make the blessings. Put on a good Exodus film (I recommend The Prince of Egypt or The Ten Commandments) and relax with one of the great stories of all time. Be in it; in a rough time, that story tells us things we need to know.

The Haggadah teaches us that “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.” Part of the reason this works is that over the course of a lifetime, most of us will have an experience of our own personal Egypt. If you are in Egypt today, I wish you deliverance.

L’shanah haba’ah birushalayim!

Next year, in Jerusalem!

Escape the Passover Anxiety Trap!


Passover is coming at us like a freight train. I’ve gotten rid of my chametz, but my kitchen is buried in preparations: pans and ingredients are in piles only I understand and the refrigerator is filling up fast. I’ve located the Passover boxes with dishes and linens and seder-stuff.

Company is coming and I can feel some old anxieties rising. Will they have enough to eat? Will they like what I’ve planned? Are there enough dishes for everyone? Who will sit where? Will so-and-so behave nicely? What will I do if they don’t?


I invite you to take the moment I took earlier this evening and go through your anxieties. Separate them into three lists: (1) things I can control, (2) things I can’t control, and (3) things that don’t matter anyway. The only worries that are worth my precious time right now are the things I can control.

It will be OK. There will be food. If I burn all of it, we’ll eat Hillel sandwiches and have a story to tell for years to come. They’ll all like something, and if they have any manners at all, they won’t announce what they don’t like. I have enough dishes. They can sit where they want, since that is what they’ll do anyway. And if someone misbehaves, that is their bad behavior, not mine. Again, maybe a story to tell someday.

It’s easy to get so wound up over a “perfect seder” that we forget what we are really doing: We’re gathering to tell the story and make it our own.

“I Hate That Part of the Seder!” Four Solutions


What part of the seder do you wish would disappear?

For one friend of mine, it’s the Four Children. She cringes every time she hears about the “wicked child.” As she points out, somewhere there is a child who identifies with that child, and she worries that there are children who internalize those words and never feel connected to the Jewish people. I think she has a point. The Four Children need some explanation to make a constructive point.

In a proper seder, we don’t just read through the haggadah like radio announcers reading the news. We encourage conversation at the table. We encourage feelings. We ask questions – not just the Four Questions, but lots of questions. We make it clear to the children at the table that adults ask questions, too.

When there is a part of the seder that we don’t like, we have choices:

Replace it. If there’s something that really bugs you, check out other haggadot and see how they handle that section. If you find something better, use that haggadah instead, or maybe use some hybrid of the two.

Rewrite it. If you can’t find a text you like for that section, rewrite it yourself! You can get help – make an appointment with your rabbi to talk about the section of the seder that bothers you, and ask for help in figuring out what you’d rather say instead. Or just do it.

Refer it. Look at your guest list. Is there someone coming who might enjoy the project of tackling that section? If you are going to do that, you can’t control how they do it, but you can say, look, that section doesn’t work for me, can you come up with something different?

Reframe it. Many of the commentaries on the haggadah and books about Passover suggest alternate ways of understanding the traditional text. For instance, one popular way of reframing the Four Children is to see them as four aspects of every human personality. In some of us, one or another of the “children” is dominant, but most of us have all of them. Then incorporate that explanation into your seder, either by reading the commentary aloud or by paraphrasing it.

The Haggadah is a script for the seder. Like any script, we can adjust it to our situation, to the actors, and to the moment in time. Some years a very simple children’s haggadah is really the best thing for our table. Other years, something else will be best. And some years, parts of it need to be done as improv.

#BlogExodus: Join Us for Dinner


Kol dichfin yeitei v’yechul.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat.” – The Haggadah

As Robert D. Putnam pointed out way back in 1995 in Bowling Alone, Americans have ceased to be joiners. We do things alone from home, or we do them with our friends. We don’t join clubs and we pride ourselves on being private, perhaps because there is indeed so little real privacy in our lives.

Passover is a curious holiday. In some ways, it is the most private of Jewish observances. We keep it primarily at home. Its central observance, the Passover seder, is a retelling of our foundation narrative, the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Also, because the seder involves seating and food and other limited resources, even when it is a community event, it’s by invitation or reservation only.

And yet the Haggadah, the script for the Passover seder, pushes us towards a greater sense of community: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” At one point in the seder we open the front door “for Elijah,” an act that at some points in Jewish history has been literally dangerous, since there were roaming antisemites in the street looking for Jews. Even in our darkest hours, the Haggadah has pushed us to open doors, to invite strangers in, to expand our circle while at the same time maintaining the boundaries of identity.

And that, too, is true to the story. The Torah tells us in Exodus 12 that “v’gam erev rav alah itam” – “and also a mixed multitude went up with them” out of Egypt. Significantly, the text doesn’t specify who they were. They were the “all” who are welcome to come and eat, to share the danger and the promise of exodus, to taste the sweetness of charoset and the bitterness of the herbs.  Our horseradish will bring tears to their eyes just as it does to ours. And with any luck our tears will mingle, joined together so that next year, in Jerusalem, they will be our old friends.


#blogExodus, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the weeks leading up to Passover through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions. The topic for the 10th of Nisan is “Join.”

What’s on Your Seder Checklist?


Getting ready to host your seder? I am, and I thought I’d share my checklist. If this is your first seder, I recommend reading 7 Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success. However many sedarim you’ve hosted, I still recommend a checklist!

This is my checklist. You’ll need to customize this one to make it suit your customs.

Guest List: This is the first thing to do. The guest list will determine a great deal about your seder. Are there children? What ages? Are there people for whom this is their first seder? Will there be non-Jews at the table? What do you know about the observance of Jews at the table? Any vegetarians? Vegans? Food allergies to consider?

Haggadah: Choose a haggadah [script for the seder] or make your own. Making your own is a great thing to do, but start well ahead – for more about that, David Arnow has a wonderful website with information. If you have a haggadah you use every year, have the person who will lead the seder look through it and plan ahead what they’ll read, what they’ll skip, what may be done by other means (invite some of the guests to put on a skit for the Maggid [story] section, for instance.)  Decide where you can shorten if there are fussy children or restless adults. Remember that this is supposed to be engaging, not a dry recitation or reading.

Also, in combination with the cook, discuss what if anything you will serve during the early part of the seder. Some people think that growling stomachs are part of the experience. Personally, I like to give my guests lots of greens to dip, and lots of dips, so that discussions won’t be cut off because we’re all starving.

Wine/Grape Juice: Remember, everyone drinks four cups of wine or grape juice during the seder! Count your guest list, look at your wine glasses, and use this formula:

[# of guests] X [volume you put in the wine glass] X 4 

Keep in mind, if you have guests driving home, that you may want to make the later glasses of wine smaller or lighter or substitute grape juice. I generally figure on having at least twice as much grape juice as wine available – yes, it’s fun getting tipsy but I want everyone driving home to be sober.

Water: Water isn’t just for Miriam’s Cup. If you don’t have water on the table, your guests may get thirsty and unhappy during the seder. People drinking four cups of wine need lots of water. Plan for water glasses and a water pitcher on the table.

Hardware: Seder plate? Elijah’s cup? Miriam’s cup? Plates or chargers for the pre-meal portion? Wine glasses? Plate for matzah? Cover for Afikomen? Cover for matzah plate? Sufficient dishes for the meal and dessert? Flatware? Napkins? Tablecloth? Serving dishes? Serving spoons?

Note about table linens: Be prepared to see your linens doused in red wine and grape juice, if that’s what you are drinking. If they are priceless heirlooms and don’t already have stains from previous Passovers, you can use white wine and grape juice. Personally, I tend to see faint wine stains on a Shabbat or seder tablecloth as a sign of a household where people take those holidays seriously, but that’s just me.

Menu: Everyone’s menu is different, but sometimes it can be quite rigid in families. If you have a blended family at the table, you may want to check in ahead of time to be sure that if half the people at the table need matzah ball soup for it to be a proper seder, that wish is at least considered. It’s not fun to spend the rest of the meal listening to grumbling. (Hint: if something is essential and you don’t want to or don’t know how to make it, ask those guests to be responsible for that part of the meal.)

Salt water: You’re going to need salt water for the ritual. Make it ahead, and serve it from something other than your regular water pitcher.

Matzah: You will need lots of matzah, preferably Kosher-for-Passover matzah that doesn’t have eggs or salt or other interesting ingredients. Read the box. “Gluten free matzah” is not technically suitable for a seder. If someone is avoiding gluten because their doctor has forbidden all gluten, of course they should not eat regular matzah. However, don’t just automatically buy gluten-free matzah for everyone; it doesn’t fulfill the mitzvah.

Charoset: Always make more charoset than you think you’ll need. Trust me, you will eat it up before the end of the week, or your guests can take some home.

Horseradish: Ditto. More than you think you will need. You don’t want to run out: there’s always someone who wants it on their Hillel sandwich and their brisket, too.

Seder Plate: Read How To: Seder Plate Setup for the checklist for the seder plate and its options.

Toys: If you have children at your seder table, consider decorating the table with things they can play with, or making things appear during the seder for them. P.S. – Adults like toys, too.

Carry Home Containers: I always have a supply of “disposable” containers ready (either repurposed jars from other foods, ziplock bags, or the commercial ones) so that I can send leftovers home with guests without worrying about whether my Tupperware will come home or not.

Sense of Humor: This is a Passover Seder, not a solemn high Mass. If something goes wrong, make light of it, make it work, and above all, make whoever spilled that glass of juice comfortable by telling them it’s no big deal. Bring your sense of humor and apply it liberally.

Ask the Rabbi: Hostess gifts at Passover?

Ask the RabbiA reader asks: What can I bring as a gift to a Passover seder?

First and foremost, unless you are certain of your hosts’ Passover practices, don’t bring any food that is loose or homemade. While there are basic rules for Passover that apply in most households, no two families are exactly the same. Food marked “Kosher for Passover” in an sealed, unopened package is probably all right but for myself, I tend to avoid all food gifts at this time of year unless I have special knowledge of tastes and Jewish observance in that home.

Some good non-food items to bring:

  1. An interesting Haggadah is a nice gift. Some have beautiful illustrations, some have texts or commentary by famous rabbis, and some are just unusual.
  2. Small housewares are welcome this time of year: dish clothes, napkins, placemats, salt-and-pepper shakers, etc. Many families pack away their “regular” wares in favor of “Passover” things and so something new is particularly welcome at this time.
  3. Flowers are always lovely.
  4. If there are children in the house, bringing a Passover book, puzzle or toy for children is a very nice thing to do.
  5. Books or games are a fine idea.

If nothing on this list appeals to you, perhaps it has given you other ideas. Readers, can you suggest gifts you have given at Passover time that have been particularly welcome?

Ask The Rabbi: How are Sephardic rules for Passover different?


Regular reader and commenter temelevbarg wrote to ask, “Can you explain what is included in a Sephardic diet for Passover?”

Sephardic Judaism is the Jewish tradition handed down through the Jews of Sepharad, the Hebrew name for the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal.) It includes specific interpretations of Jewish law, liturgical forms, and folk customs.   Other traditions of Judaism include the Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe) and the Mizrahi Jews (Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean.) While the majority of North American Jews today are descended from Ashkenazim and follow Ashkenazi customs, the first Jews to settle in North America were Sephardim.

For Passover, Sephardic Jews like all other Jews eliminate all chametz from their diets and their homes. This is based on Biblical commandments to observe Passover by refraining from eating or possessing chametz. (Exodus 12-13, Deuteronomy 16) Chametz is usually translated as “leavened bread.” The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud later defined it more narrowly as any product of wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats which might have become moistened. (The standard method of leavening in both the Biblical and talmudic periods involved the use of sourdough, wetting flour and allowing yeast from the air to grow in it.) The only bread allowed is kosher-for-Passover matzah, water and flour mixed and cooked so quickly that the leavening process has no chance to start.

Sephardic tradition differs from Ashkenazic tradition in that since the 13th century, some Ashkenazi authorities have prohibited the eating of kitniyot (rice, millet, and legumes) in addition to the prohibition of chametz.

Another difference is in the seder menu. Sephardic seder menus often include lamb, in memory of the original Passover sacrifice (pesach). Just as First and Second Temple era families roasted the lamb and ate it while telling the Exodus story to their children, Sephardic families eat lamb at the seder. By contrast, in Ashkenazi tradition one does not serve lamb at the seder out of an awareness that the Temple is no longer standing, so there can be no pesach sacrifice.

So when someone asks if you keep Passover by Ashkenazi or Sephardic rules, they are usually asking if you do or do not eat rice during Passover. It’s also possible that they are inquiring about the menu for seder.

Thanks for a great question! (For more depth on these matters, follow the links in this article.)

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson – Some rights reserved.