My grandparents were holocaust survivors. When they came to America, their primary focus was becoming American. So instead of Hebrew school, my mom was a girl scout. And instead of speaking Yiddish to their children, they struggled through English (with crazy thick accents). When we grandchildren came along, my grandfather (Papa) thought is was a good idea to get a little Judaism back into the family, so they sent us all to day school. When Passover came around, although Papa would sit at the head of the table, it was the grandchildren who led the seder. We divided up the parts and sped through the Hebrew reading and songs we had learned with energy and enthusiasm. While Papa beamed with pride and our parents enjoyed feeling like their money was well spent, everyone over the age of 11 sat watching the show, unable to follow along and unsure how to participate.
As we grew up, the old methods didn’t quite do it for us anymore either. Few 23 year olds are willing to jump on chairs and sing Hebrew songs at the top of their lungs in front of parents and friends. That said, not every great Seder includes loud outbursts of adolescent singing. In fact, some of the best don’t have any. With a bit of preparation and planning, anyone can host an engaging, interactive, totally not-lame Seder. Below are some tips.
1. ZAYDE SHOULDN’T LEAD. EITHER SHOULD YOU.
A good Seder is a group project. Get the group involved early on. Assign parts in advance to all your guests. Give them a section of the Seder; ask them to think about a creative activity, some discussion questions, or an interesting article or text that relates to their topic. Everyone in the room gets to lead a piece and feels invested in the process.
30 minutes of preparation a few nights before the Seder will go a long way. You can ask guests to lead sections, but you can’t expect a Seder to run itself entirely. Look through your haggadah, take notes, decide in advance what pieces you want to skip or definitely want to do. Write out a few questions and ideas that are interesting and relevant to your guests.
3. USE PROPS!
No matter your age, throwing ping-pong balls at people is fun. So is flinging plastic frogs at your sister. Party stores carry lots of options for plagues. Don’t go with the pre-packaged kits, be creative and make your own.
4. CHOOSE THE RIGHT HAGGADAH.
While you may be nostalgic for the Maxwell House version of the past, it is time to graduate to something more interesting, relevant and user friendly. My favorite right now is: A Night To Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices.
5. BUT DON’T READ IT.
No one wants to sit and read a book for two hours. Be creative about how you retell the story. Come up with games and activities. Bring in contemporary articles about the Arab Spring or the need for a livable wage for discussion or consider including a supplement or two (or three). Put on a play. Just don’t sit in one place and read a book in a foreign language that no one understands.
6. ASK REAL QUESTIONS.
Find ways of inviting everyone’s voice into the room early on. Ask a question that everyone can answer no matter their age, connection to or understanding of the tradition. What makes you feel like a slave? Are there people in our society today that need redeeming?
7. EAT EARLY!
Hunger always gets in the way. The dipping of the parsley actually took the place of the salad course in ancient Rome. Bring back the salad course! Try dipping other things- potatoes, salad, artichokes. Just no matzah yet!
8. GET IN THE MOOD.
This isn’t a formal dinner; it’s a themed dinner party. Wear (or bring) costumes. Decorate part of your house like the desert or a parted sea. Set up a comfortable space for good conversation – no one said a Seder had to take place around a table in a formal dining room. Sit on the floor or on couches. Provide pillows (or invite guests to bring their own) to recline on.
9. GET RID OF THE GUILT.
Pay less attention to what you think should happen at a Seder or your Seder last year, and more attention to who is in the room and the experience you are having in that moment.
10. WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS.
Lots and lots of wine! 4 cups doesn’t mean 4 sips. So lean to the left and down that entire glass of cheap kosher merlot.