I’ve been making Seders since my Grandmom Gus passed away when I was in my early 20s. I inherited her dining room table and furniture and, over the years—more than I care to say here—I’ve learned a lot about what’s worked and what hasn’t.
There is no law against having a good time at a Seder during which we recline, discuss, and drink like those at a Greco-Roman symposium. Since we’re Jews we eat too, engaging our full set of senses in a narrative experience filled with music, art, symbolism, and drama—all in the quest find meaning in the Exodus, free from bondage.
So here are some tips that I hope will enhance your Seder enough so that future guests will, hopefully, clamor for an invite next year (in Jerusalem?). From my table to yours…
Ask your guests to contribute. Zal Suldan, a Passover-obsessed, New Jersey-based friend of mine who gives elaborate seders and encourages others to do so, suggests that guests bring to the Seder objects—photos, for example—that symbolize freedom and slavery. This will encourage discussion. Moshe Rosenberg, the true anointed headmaster of the unofficial house of the Hogwarts Haggadah, says to make things magical by engaging kids and eliciting questions from them.
Set a mood. Suldan suggests getting ice cube trays in the shape of frogs and adding green food coloring so when guests sit down, they have frozen green icefrogs in their water. The site Seders for You has loads of creative and themed ideas depending on how elaborate you want to be. Theme options include Egyptian archaeology, flight to freedom, and the unSeder (or “inverse” Seder).
Do things that will loosen people up and get them talking. Think of a Passover-based icebreaker. Ask guests to share their favorite Seder memory or favorite Seder food, or to tell the group who (dead or alive) in Jewish history they’d most want to have a Seder with. Again, be sure to include the kids!
My daughter, an art history student, is good at asking guests to look at an illustration, ask them what they see, and express why they feel they are having that reaction. So have a sampling of haggadot handy, or print pictures from the Internet, that displays Pesach-related art.
Another idea proposed by Abigail Pogrebin is to put topics for debate on index cards under guests’ plates and at a certain point have them pull them out and discuss, one by one. Wine helps. Suldan uses Pesach points which he prints up and gives out when guests answer questions. Of course, there are prizes as well as the fun of (hopefully) friendly competition among siblings/cousins/guests.
Assign parts. Ask each guest to lead or research or discuss one particular aspect of the Seder and try to use their talents. For example, someone might ask the four questions in a different languages. Murray Spiegel and Rickey Stein have written a book of 300 languages to ask the 4 questions, including Klingon if that is your thing.
Feed people early. Magical advice from Rosenberg: “Never stand between a Jew and their food.” My custom is to serve lots of veggies, including potatoes at the karpas course. Suldan serves bananas (the same blessing (“the fruit of the earth”) as with the traditional karpas parsley) with chocolate syrup. Some hosts serve vegetable soup at this juncture. The key is to keep people sated enough to engage in conversation. Again, wine helps.
Engage the senses by singing the order of the Seder to a different tune. One of my kids’ favorites is the Jeopardy! tune. There are plenty of places on line to get some refresher tunes, better than what you learned in Hebrew school. Try BJ in Manhattan or gain some inspiration from the Maccabeats’ “Dayenu” rendition. Producer Hillel Tigay of IKAR in Los Angeles has some new tunes for old words. Singer-songwriter Craig Taubman suggest music that fits the theme of a Seder, such as this rendition of “Motherless Child” by The Sheba Choir.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.