Seven Ways to Be a Great Passover Seder Guest

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.

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.

For more preparation for the seder table, especially for Christian guests, read To Christian Friends Coming to Seder.

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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 classes, check out the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.)

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!

Waiting For A Miracle?

Imagine the scene: the armies of Pharaoh thunder toward the Hebrews, who are cornered at water’s edge.  The people begin to scream and cry, asking their leader, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt, that you had to bring us out here to die?”  Moses, their leader, replies, “Stand still, calm down, God will fight for you.”  Then — in the movie version, not the Torah version — God commands Moses to stretch out his rod over the sea, and a miracle happens.  The bad guys die, the good guys live, and everyone parties.

What? you say.  That is in the Torah, I’m sure of it!  That may be the way we generally tell the story, but it leaves out a line.   Here’s what it says in Exodus 14: 13 – 16.

And Moses said unto the people: ‘Fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Eternal, which He will work for you to-day; for although you have seen the Egyptians to-day, you shall see them again no more for ever.  The Eternal will fight for you, so hold your peace.’ 

 And the Eternal said unto Moses: ‘Why cry to Me? Speak to the children of Israel, and let them get moving!  And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground. 

Somehow, in all the drama, one very important line often gets lost.  Moses was looking for a miracle.  He told the people to look for a miracle.  He said, “Don’t be afraid, stand still, wait for God to save you.”  And God’s response to Moses was direct:  “Why speak to me?  Talk to them!  Tell them to get moving!”

Vayisa’oo – get moving! – is a key word in this week’s very famous Torah portion, Beshallach.  Don’t wait for miracles.  Talk to each other.  Encourage each other.  Don’t be passive.  GET MOVING!

Forward movement precedes miracles, even in the greatest miracle story of all time.

So in those edge-of-the-sea moments, when it is tempting to hope for a miracle, or even more tempting to despair, the trick is to look for the way to move forward.  Even in the panicked crowd, can I move my foot forward just a bit?  Can I encourage someone else to move forward too?

Fear and paralysis are the great enemies of survival.  Fear and paralysis would have left the children of Israel at the wrong edge of the sea, trampled and slaughtered.

Vayisa’oo — get moving.  Write to your elected representative.

Vayisa’oo — Volunteer to help someone in need.

Vayisa’oo — Vote, whenever you have the chance.

Vayisa’oo — Keep moving to the next job interview.

Vayisa’oo — Keep moving on the project, whatever it is.

Vayisa’oo — Encourage others, rather than discourage them.

Vayisa’oo — and we’ll all dance, on the other side.

What time is it anyway?: Reflection on the Creation Story

Time Selector
Image by Telstar Logistics via Flickr

Jewish “days” start at sundown, because in Genesis 1 it says, over and over, “It was evening, and it was morning.”  This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with it.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

There is no doubt about it, we are a stiff necked people, as the God of Israel comments to Moses in Exodus 32:9.  Only a stiff necked people could insist on their own cockeyed timetable for thousands of years of diaspora, tripping over other people’s holidays and calendars and clocks and whatnot.  Ask anyone who asked for Rosh HaShanah off this week:  it’s a nuisance.  Yet we stick out our stiff necks and insist on it year after year after year, annoying our bosses, confusing our neighbors, and making some paranoid types certain that we are Up to Something, an international conspiracy, perhaps.

Why not accomodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Notice the passage of time.  Notice the cycle of seasons.  Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention.

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:  “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”

Parashat Nitzavim: Not Beyond Reach

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.  (Deut. 29: 11-14)

“There is so much to learn!” Every conversion candidate I’ve ever worked with has said that, at one point or another.  They don’t call it “The Sea of Talmud” for nothing. Jewish learning is vast and it can be overwhelming, with languages and laws and endless intricacies to master.

This particular passage from this week’s Torah portion comes near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, after a wide-ranging catalogue of things to do and to remember.  After all the 613 commandments, then God says, “Surely, this Instruction … is not to baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.”  Just as I reach the point of overwhelm, reading the book, it says, “Surely you can do it.”

When I became a Jew, Rabbi Steve Chester handed me a large Torah scroll in front of the  congregation.  I was delighted to hold it in my arms, despite the fact that it was very, very heavy.  He asked me, “Got it?” and I nodded.  I recited the Shema with the congregation.  Then he began to talk to the congregation about conversion.  Periodically he’d stop and ask me, “Is it too heavy?” and I would shake my head:  no, not too heavy.  Meanwhile I clutched the scroll and my arms  began to  quiver.  My back began to complain.  I shifted the scroll slightly.  “Are you OK?” he said, and I nodded.  He went on teaching.

Finally I reached my limit.  “Are you OK?” he said, and I gasped, “It’s very heavy.”  He took it from my trembling arms, and said, “Yes, it’s very heavy.  No one can hold it alone.”  And then he got to the real lesson, that it takes a Jewish community to “hold the Torah” properly.  It simply isn’t something a person can do alone, because the Torah is indeed very heavy.

When I feel overwhelmed by Jewish living, whether it is the cleaning before Passover, or the teshuvah before Rosh HaShanah, I try to remember that lesson.  I do not have to carry the Torah alone.  Surely, with the arms of a minyan, with the minds and hearts of my Jewish community, it is not beyond my reach.

L’shanah Tovah!

Rearranging the Furniture

Coffee Shop Rabbi is an experiment in Jewish outreach, and as such, I’m constantly watching to see what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved.  This fall big changes are afoot:  I am going to offer “Intro” classes of various lengths in four different cities in the SF Bay Area:  Oakland, Palo Alto, San Rafael, and Lafayette.  Three of the classes are sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica, and one is sponsored by Temple Isaiah of Lafayette.

Two of these classes are my road-tested Intro to the Jewish Experience, 24 weeks, revolving enrollment, an ongoing process of building and learning about Jewish community.  The San Rafael class will be much shorter, a three part series of four classes each, exploring the practical aspects of Jewish spirituality and life.  The final class, at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, will be their Exploring Judaism class, and it will follow a year’s arc with the life of that congregation.  I’m excited to expand my own learning about adult Jewish beginners in new settings and formats.

L’hitraot!