Image: Passover seder with Dawn & Mark. Photo by Linda Burnett.
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.
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.
For more preparation for the seder table, especially for Christian guests, read To Christian Friends Coming to Seder.