Soon it will be Passover, one of my favorite holidays. Matzah ball soup, charoset with maror, friends and family, the sparkle of crystal. Funny plays, enthusiastic debate and storytelling. A Passover seder is fun!
Now some of you may be saying, “What?! A seder’s not fun; it’s deadly dull. We have to wait so long before eating!” I call this the Zayde Pesach Syndrome1, or "ZPS." I’m referring to the tradition of a long seder, recited in a foreign language by a patriarch, while everyone gets hungry and bored. And to all those wonderfully imaginative Zayde seder leaders out there, I apologize.
If you suffer from ZPS, this column is for you. Because Zayde Pesach Syndrome has a cure. Instead of thinking of Passover as a painful reenactment of bondage, with the only freedom being its end, I invite you to imagine it as a fun, engaging family learning experience—in other words, Judaism at its best. You have the power to free the seder.
The essence of the Passover seder is creative. The Torah (Exodus 12:26, Exodus 13:14, Deuteronomy 6:20) describes children asking about the meaning of Passover, and the parent explaining—the only holiday about which the Torah imagines such a conversation. “Ah-hah!” said the ancient rabbis. “Passover is for the children. Let’s create a learning experience where children of all types and all ages (think: the Four Children) can imagine what it was like to be an Israelite slave in Egypt, freed by our mighty God.” These sages introduced story-telling, music, Talmudic debate, ritual, concrete symbols (matzah, shank bone, charoset, horseradish/maror), and sensory experiences (immersing hands in water in the hand-washing rituals; eating symbolic foods in a particular way, such as dipping parsley in salt water, etc.). That’s some pretty smart lesson planning. Teachers in Beth Am’s Youth Ed. programs who teach such lessons are to be celebrated for reaching all kinds of learners.
This original, creative seder is buried in the Passover we inherited from tradition. And if you have the chutzpah to turn the seder on its head, you just might unearth the heart of Passover—and enjoy yourself this year. It’s time to free Passover from bondage.
Start with why. So much that makes Judaism great can be found in the Haggadah: Family. Community; asking questions; food and traditions; story-telling and memory-making; social justice; and overcoming tragedy with humor. It’s all there. So what do you think makes it great? For your family or Passover community, what value or practice of Passover is aspirational, comforting or meaningful?
- If you care passionately about social justice, build your seder around freeing the captive, feeding the hungry and protecting the stranger.
- If your seder is full of children, hand the story-telling over to them. Let them come up with creative ways to tell the story, such as a skit or puppet show.
- Perhaps take inspiration from the disruptive culture of Silicon Valley. What’s broken about your seder? Now, imagine your seder without that. If you’ve got kids at your seder who just can’t sit still at the table, what would happen if you took the table out of your seder? Sit on the living room floor under draped fabric to simulate an ancient Israelite tent, or create a movement seder that uses yoga or dance.
- If your seder lasts way too long, what would happen if you eliminated reading the Haggadah? Perhaps you could ask all your guests (children included) what their favorite part of the seder is, and then invite them to lead it. They could do it in teams. Love the matzah ball soup? Great, make it with Grandma this year. The best part’s singing “Bang! Bang! Bang!?” OK, you’re choosing and leading the songs this year. (And you have permission to make everyone get up, sing along and pantomime!)
The Passover seder is a home-based ritual. For most, there’s no rabbi to construct the ritual; those at the seder can construct it themselves. Rabban Gamliel is not going to appear from the afterlife to strike down your seder for not looking like his seder. It already doesn’t! And neither will your Zayde. If you had the mythical Zayde of my opening anecdote, do you really think he would mourn if your family’s Passover changed so that it engaged everyone there in meaning-making? And what about non-Jewish family and friends at our seder? They put up with a lot. Isn’t it time that everyone enjoyed Passover?
The creative opportunities are endless. It’s time to unleash them. #Free Passover!
I’ll conclude with some great Passover seder resources, by no means exhaustive:
- Jewish Learning Works puts out a great guide for each holiday. Their Passover @Home includes ways to engage children in the learning, Haggadah recommendations and a Sephardic charoset recipe.
- Passover: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration, 2nd Edition by Ron Wolfson with Joel Lurie Grishaver
- The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem has published several haggadot designed for the curious and creative, A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah and A Night to Remember: A Haggadah of Contemporary Voices
- PJ Library provides Jewish children’s books to Jewish homes; you can browse their catalog of Passover-themed children’s books or find Passover events
- Haggadot.com allows you to create your own Haggadah from a nice library of creative and traditional haggadot (plural of haggadah)
- Jewish social justice organizations like American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and Uri L’tzedek provide Passover inserts with a social justice focus, such as a new “four questions.”
To share your own creative ideas, please use #FreePassover and tag @congregationbetham on social media.
1Zayde means grandpa in Yiddish, and Pesach is Passover in Hebrew.