Making a Memorable Seder

The seder need not--should not--stick to the script. Innovation is key for a memorable and fun educational experience.

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Although the seder is the single most observed Jewish celebration of the year in North American Jewish families, many of us base our conduct of the seder on a model we knew as children--each person takes turns reading a paragraph out of the Haggadah. In some families, that is considered a "participatory" experience. It might be, but it's hardly engaging.

When I interviewed families for The Art of Jewish Living: The Passover Seder, I learned that the search for creative ideas for seder celebration is never-ending. So, here are ten tips on how you might enliven your family's seder experience this year.

1) Give homework. When the Weber family invites the Wolfson family for seder, we are asked to prepare a presentation on some aspect of the seder ceremony. The presentation could be a d'rash--an explanation of what the Haggadah is trying to say. But, over the years, our presentations have also been given as a play, a song, and a take-off on a game show. Not everyone in your family may be able to do this, but there is no better way to encourage participation in the seder than by asking people to prepare something in advance to bring to the table.

2) Buy time. The seder ceremony of my youth never lasted more than 20 minutes. That's how long it took to say Kiddush, do Karpas [the spring vegetable], break the matzah, and fight over who was the youngest grandchild who could say the "Mah Nishtanah" [the Four Questions]. After a few minutes of everyone-take-turns-reading-a-paragraph, my Uncle Morton would ask the infamous "Fifth Question," "When do we eat?" End of ceremony.

One way to buy time to spend on the telling of the story is to offer your guests something to nibble on between the vegetables of Karpas and the meal. My very creative wife Susie often prepares an edible centerpiece. She and the kids slice jicama very thin and with "Jewish" cookie-cutters, stamp out jicama Stars of David, Torah scrolls, and Kiddush cups. She places the shapes on the end of bamboo "sheshkabob" skewers and inserts them into a head of red cabbage placed in a wicker basket. She adds color to the display by cutting flowerettes of green and red pepper, carrots, celery, and other vegetables and placing them on skewers and into the cabbage. The result is a spectacular vegetable bouquet which we use as a centerpiece on the seder table.

After Karpas, we invite our guests to "set the centerpiece" by taking the skewers out of the cabbage and dipping the vegetables into saucers of Pesahdik salad dressings placed around the table. Our friends Gail and Shelly Dorph buy time by using artichokes for Karpas instead of parsley. They then dip the artichoke leaves into dressings for nibbling until the meal is served.

3) Tell the story. The core of the seder experience is the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The traditional text of the Haggadah contains four different tellings of the story, each one beginning with a question (Mah Nishtanah, the questions of the Four Children, "Tzei u-l'mad," and Rabban Gamliel's questions), a response, and praise for God. Think of ways to tell the story that supplement the Haggadah. One year, we were invited to a seder where the host family put on a skit. Stan Beiner's Sedra Scenes is a good source. Another family we know of uses puppets and story books. The most unusual telling, however, had to be the family who presented a magical version of the Ten Plagues in costume. The father played the Pharoah who, after complaining about how thirsty he was, asked one of the kids to fetch him some cool, clear water from the Nile. The child left the dining room and returned with a pitcher of water and an empty glass. As the "Pharoah" poured the clear water into the glass, it turned red! It turns out the father was an amateur magician who incorporated a variety of magic tricks into their telling of the story. It was amazing--and unforgettable! 

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Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the president of Synagogue 3000.

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