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

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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?

5 Things to Do if You Want to Become a Jew

So, you’re thinking of conversion to Judaism? Here are five things you need to do.

1.  FIND A RABBI, and make an appointment to talk with him or her. You do not need to be “sure” to do this. The rabbi will not immediately whip out a fountain pen and suggest you sign on the dotted line. He may say something vague like “We can study together” or suggest that you take a class. She may suggest that you come to services for a while, and see how it goes. Jews do not seek out converts or proselytize, and the conversion process is long and slow. What you need to know, though, is that the process cannot move forward until you have a rabbi. Rabbis do not charge for conversion, by the way; if someone calling himself “rabbi” talks about a fee for conversion, move on. To make an appointment with a rabbi, call the congregation and ask to make an appointment.

2.  FIND A CONGREGATION, partly because that’s where you are likely to find a rabbi and also because that’s one place the Jews are. Judaism is not only a religion, it is a religion embedded in a people. If you think you want to become a Jew, get to know some Jews. Hang out with the Jews.  Becoming a member of the Jewish People means you will also be spending time with Jewish people:  better find out if you like them. If there is more than one congregation in your town, try different congregations, because they will be quite different. To find out service times and other good times to visit, look at the website of the congregation. To find those websites, try Googling the name of your city and the word “synagogue.” You do not need to be a member of a synagogue to attend as a visitor.

3.  DO SOME READING. Your rabbi will recommend books. If you are not ready to find the rabbi yet, here’s a good list of books recommended by actual converts to Judaism.

4.  TAKE A CLASS. Many Jewish communities offer classes with titles like “Basic Judaism” or “Introduction to Judaism.” Your rabbi may offer a class; if you don’t have a rabbi, taking such a class is a another way to meet a rabbi. (I teach such classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.  For more info on my current online classes, check out the catalog at HaMaqom|The Place.

5.  CHECK OUT JEWISH LIFE. Visit Jewish museums. Learn about Israel. Watch Jewish films. Read Jewish fiction. Eat Jewish food. Find out if your community has a Jewish newspaper, and watch for cultural events, speakers, concerts, festivals, and other opportunities to taste Jewish culture and life in your city.

One final thing:  it’s OK, in fact it is critical, to listen to your heart. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first rabbi you meet, talk to another one. If you don’t feel welcome at the first synagogue, check out another synagogue. Find books that speak to you and your situation. Listen to your heart!

I wish you a fruitful journey!