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NEWTON, Mass., March 6 (JTA)--In our family, the Passover seder is a dress-up affair: suits and ties, new clothes for the kids. So imagine our surprise when one year we arrived for the seder at the door of our friends, David and Shira Milgrom-Elcott, in our dressy clothes, and they greeted us wearing the long, flowing robes of Bedouins!
"Welcome to our seder!" they exclaimed. "Please take off your shoes before you come in."
We dutifully took off our shoes and entered their home. On the right we saw the formal dining room, the table set with fine china and crystal, seemingly ready for the seder guests. David and Shira, however, led us right past the dining room, down the hall and into their large family room. We should have known what to expect from the desert garb worn by our hosts, but we were hardly prepared for the sight of that room. Large white bedsheets were draped from the beams of the vaulted ceiling, forming a tent-like structure encompassing the center of the room. All the furniture had been taken out, except for some beanbag chairs and overstuffed pillows scattered around the floor. In the center of the "tent," on a low coffee table, was the seder plate.
"Welcome to our home in the desert," David and Shira explained. "The seder is a simulation of what really happened on that night of the Exodus from Egypt, so we've decided to conduct our seder in this tent. Please make yourselves comfortable. Take off your ties and jackets, and recline with your kids on the floor."
You can imagine what followed! In a masterfully led, fun-filled experience, the families in attendance enjoyed a delightful, relaxed telling of the Passover story. Once we completed the storytelling section of the haggadah, we moved into the dining room for the seder meal. After opening the door for Elijah, we returned to the tent to complete the seder. It was a seder we will always remember.
That, in a word, is what the seder is designed to help us do: Remember the story of Exodus, and, more importantly, our place in it. "All people, in every generation, should see themselves as having experienced the Exodus from Egypt" are the most important words of the haggadah.
The seder is much more than a history lesson; it is our yearly re-enactment of the liberation and continuity of the Jewish people. 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 a turn reading a paragraph out of the haggadah. In some families that is considered a "participatory" experience. It might be, but it's not always very engaging.
How to Enliven Your Seder
1. Give Homework. When the Weber family invites the Wolfson family for the seder, we are asked to prepare a presentation on some aspect of the ceremony. The presentation could be a drash, 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 takeoff on a game show. Not everyone in your family may be able to do this, but there is no better way to encourage participation than by asking people to prepare something in advance.
2. Buy Time. The seders of my youth never lasted more than 20 minutes. That's how long it took to say kiddish (blessing over wine), do karpas (the "greens" that represent spring, usually parsley), break the matzah, and fight over who was the youngest grandchild who could say the Four Questions. For a few minutes everyone took turns reading a paragraph, then my Uncle Morton would ask the famous Fifth Question: "When do we eat?" End of ceremony. One way to buy time to dwell on the story is to offer your guests something to nibble on between the vegetables of karpas and the meal. My wife, Susie, often prepares an edible centerpiece. She and the children slice jicama (a kind of vegetable) very thin and, with Jewish cookie cutters, stamp out Stars of David, Torah scrolls and kiddish cups. She places the shapes on the end of bamboo shish kabob skewers and inserts them into a head of red cabbage, placed in a wicker basket. She adds carefully arranged red and green peppers, carrots, celery and other vegetables. The result is a spectacular bouquet which we use as a centerpiece on the seder table. After karpas, we invite our guests to eat this centerpiece by dipping the vegetables into saucers of salad dressing placed around the table.
3. Tell the Story. The core of the seder 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, 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 Reiner's "Seder Scenes" (Alternatives in Religious Education) is a good resource for this activity. Another family we know of used puppets and storybooks. The most unusual telling, however, had to be the family who presented a magical version of the Ten Plagues in costume. The father played Pharaoh, who, after complaining how thirsty he was, asked one of the children to fetch him some cool, clear water from the Nile. The child left the dinner room and returned with a pitcher of water and an empty glass. As "Pharaoh" poured the clear water into the glass, it turned red! The father was an amateur magician who incorporated a variety of magic tricks into the telling of the story. It was amazing and unforgettable!
4. Ask Questions. The haggadah invites questions. Encourage your guests to liberate themselves from the book and discuss what it is that the haggadah is trying to tell us. A favorite point at which to do this is after the recitation of the Ten Plagues. "What are 10 things that plague us today?" is a question anyone, no matter what their level of Judaic knowledge, can answer. When the haggadah tells us that we should feel as if we were redeemed from Egypt, what does that mean? What are we doing about Jewish continuity--in our family, in our community?
5. Have Fun. Having family fun is serious business, especially at the seder table. The seder was never meant to be dull. Quite the contrary, it is to be a relaxed, informal educational experience. Some families add favorite songs that children learn in religious school--"Go Down, Moses," "One Day When Pharaoh Awoke in His Bed," and others. A favorite parody is Only Nine Chairs by Deborah Uchill Miller (Kar-Ben Copies), a hilarious account of a family seder.
6. Be Inclusive. Inside most Jewish adults is a child who was upset at not finding the afikomen, or ceremonial piece of matzah. We have created a way to include everyone in the afikomen search. We make a chart with the order of the seder (kadesh, urchatz, etc.) and select one letter from each word. We put these 14 letters on 3-by-5 cards and then hide them around the house. We tell the children that each of them must find at least one of the cards for us to find the real afikomen. When the kids find all the cards, they bring them to the table. Then we ask the adults to figure out a jumbled two-word clue from the letters. In one case, for instance, the letters spelled "at refrigerator." Once the clue is deciphered, everyone runs to the location and finds the real afikomen. Everyone who participates in the search gets a prize.
7. Use Materials. One of the problems in keeping young children interested in the seder is that most haggadahs are not designed for them. When our children were in nursery school, Susie created a "Pat the Bunny"-type haggadah using the coloring sheets sent home from class. She added tactile materials to the sheets where appropriate: cotton balls on pictures of sheep, sandpaper on pictures of bricks of the pyramids, grape scratch-and-sniff stickers on pictures of the kiddush cups. Susie also gave each child a "goody bag" filled with Passover symbols, frog stickers, a bookmark, even moist towelettes for the inevitable spills of wine.
8. Innovations. Each year, experienced seder leaders look for new ideas to incorporate into the ceremony. Here are a few of my favorites. Instead of filling Elijah's cup with wine at the beginning of the seder, wait until just before opening the door and pass Elijah's cup to each participant to pour some of his/her wine into it. This is a demonstration of the need to act in order to bring in the Messianic Era. The Sephardim pick up the seder plate and place it over every person's head during the recitation of Ha Lachma Anya, the invitation to participate in the seder.
9. Choose a good haggadah. There are 3,000 editions of the haggadah catalogs in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and every year more versions appear. Jews have always felt comfortable in putting together haggadahs that reflect their particular slant on the experience of the seder. So we have The Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (a vegetarian haggadah) and The San Diego Women's Haggadah (a feminist haggadah). We have traditional unedited texts and greatly abbreviated liberal texts. We have new "family'' haggadahs and that old standby, The Maxwell House Haggadah. Choose a haggadah that fits your family's needs.
10. Prepare. The ultimate haggadah may be one you put together yourself. With desktop publishing software and inexpensive printing widely available, it is not difficult to edit your own haggadah text. You can easily combine traditional texts with modern interpretations and readings, songs and information. This will take some time, but the reward will be a seder experience that is meaningful and memorable.