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Filling a Backpack with Seder Foods Helps Liven Up the Holiday Experience

Published March 2004. Reprinted March 26, 2012.

This article is reprinted with permission of JTA.

BOSTON, March 9 (JTA) -- Surprise your seder guests this year by asking them to bring an empty backpack with them for their journey out of Egypt.

Adding an element of surprise can mean the difference between a ho-hum seder and a lively event percolating with vibrant discussion, according to David Arnow, author of the newly published Creating Lively Passover Seders (Jewish Lights Publishing).

The backpack is a prop for the enactment of the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt, part of a bibliodrama Arnow suggests in his densely-filled 371-page volume.

Lively Seders is divided into sections for different passages of the hagaddah, with thematic discussion topics, text-study ideas, activities and readings.

In the pre-seder dramatic activity, guests first gather in a separate room where strips of red ribbon or torn pieces of red construction paper have been hung on the door, symbolizing the lamb's blood smeared on the Israelites' doorposts on their last night in Egypt.

Matzah and bitter herbs are placed in each backpack.

Arnow offers several interpretations to be read aloud about the last night in Egypt. In one story, the Israelites ponder whether to offer shelter to frightened Egyptian mothers seeking protection for their children.

"At the end of the midrash, teaching story, there is an enormous ethical dilemma to explore," Arnow said in a recent interview. "You can have a discussion of themes of vulnerability, or opening your heart to those in dire straits. It doesn't take long to get to issues of Jews being taken in during the Holocaust. You put a little question like that after the story and it's a whole new way for people to get involved in what it means now."

At the end of this warm-up, Arnow's family and guests have enjoyed marching through the house with their backpacks or shopping bags slung over their shoulders.

"It makes an amazing impression on people, singing 'Let My People Go' at the top of your lungs, winding through the house till we get to the promised land: the table," Arnow said.

Some of Arnow's activities and discussion topics are best for incorporating into the seder itself, while others, such as the bibliodrama, are better suited for before the seder begins.

"Once people sit down at the table, they're not at their best when it comes to exploring themes of the holiday. They're sitting around a table, with an empty plate in front of you, it's evening, sun's down, getting later and later and there's a natural 'So when do we eat?'" he said.

Lively Seders grew from seder readings Arnow wrote in the 1980s, and published by the New Israel Fund, an organization Arnow led. The small pamphlets were a big hit among New Israel Fund donors who received them, Arnow said.

These readings, which make up about a third of the book, focus on the theme of slavery and include an activity in the first chapter about the biblical images on the seal of the United States.

Arnow devotes an entire chapter to women of the exodus, who play a major role in the biblical story, he said. "Where are they in the hagaddah? How did this happen?" he asks. Greek thought and culture, which had a very different view of the role of women in society "seeped into Jewish culture," he theorized.

In addition to readings about the new ritual of setting a cup of water for Miriam, Arnow includes lesser known and intriguing stories exploring the mysterious biblical references to Serakh Bat Asher, the only granddaughter of Jacob mentioned in the Bible.

Passover's continuing appeal is based on its universal theme of liberation, Arnow said. "We live in dark times. There are many things that are scary, that are very overwhelming. The Israelites were stuck for 400 years and they thought it would never change. It's an incredibly powerful lesson. In the end, it's a story about hope."

Creating Lively Passover Seders is available at Jewish Lights Publishing, www.jewishlights.com and is now in a second edition.

Hebrew for "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "story," a way of interpreting biblical stories that often fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative and expands on events of characters that are only hinted at. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.

Penny Schwartz is a freelance writer.

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