“The real purpose of the Seder is to reenact the Exodus story,” wrote Dr. Ron Wolfson, in Passover: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration. “The rabbis created a multi-sensory extravaganza of ritual, symbolic foods, text study, and questions, all designed to engage an intergenerational group around a table. But over the years the Seder has become a rote reading, mostly in an English that itself is often incomprehensible.”
Is your Seder becoming a rote ritual? Well, there’s good news: you, too, can have a multi-sensory extravaganza. First thing is to box up the Maxwell House (even though they’re free with purchase!) and find a Haggadah that speaks to you, your family and friends. There are thousands of great alternatives on the market. There are Haggadot for Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” Jews, as well as for families with young children, feminists, vegans, members of the gay community, environmentalists, and people dealing with alcohol and substance abuse. There’s even one all in rhyme: Uncle Eli’s Passover Haggadah.
It’s not easy to sit through a long Seder. Assume your guests have Passover-induced ADD and plan accordingly. Some inventive folks conduct Seders dressed like our ancestors, others set up a tent in the living room with pillows for each guest, reminiscent of the feasts of ancient Rome on which the Seder is based. Also, keep in mind that stomachs will growl. A little creativity and shtick go a long way, along with some easily accessible munchies on the table.
Include song parodies in your Seder. Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia has a 17-page booklet you can access on their website. It’s called “Seder Songs to Add Pizzazz to Your Passover.” The Haggadah We Tell it to Our Children includes many child-friendly parodies, including “Pharaoh’s Lament,” to the tune of “The Itsy-bitsy Spider.” This Haggadah also reads like a play.
Guests at the Green Household win door prizes. Winners include the first person who says, “When do we eat?” or “You’re a great cook,” or whoever first spills wine. A gift-wrapped goodie flies across the table to the lucky winner. Prizes have included Jewish-themed refrigerator magnets, a Red Sox pen (if they played well that year), Passover candy, Ahava hand lotion and a frog-covered bath towel.
Our Passover Joke Wall is a hit every year. I cover a dining room wall with Passover cartoons, parodies and poems. I spend almost as much time on the Wall as I do kashering my kitchen. The pay-off is that no one who gets noodgy can say he or she doesn’t have a place to wander for a few minutes. The wall stays up all week. On the Sunday of Passover week we invite friends to have a few laughs while enjoying over-egged desserts.
In anticipation of the Seder, we fill the living and dining rooms with stuffed, ceramic, glass, plastic and fabric frogs and a frog wind chime. We also have a three-foot garden frog whose mouth is just wide enough to hold several matzahs — the perfect centerpiece. I have heard of someone who unleashed real ones at her Seder. That far I won’t go.
Speaking of the Ten Plagues, rather than merely reading them, you can buy toy plagues, act them out or make your own. Sneak some red food coloring into a glass, add water – bingo — the bloody Nile. Our friend Marty Lamb from Holliston throws mini-marshmallows for hail, but cautions that said marshmallows are tough to scrape off the floor once they’ve been stepped on. Another participatory plague entails the kids hopping around for a while, which also gets them moving, critical to keeping them involved. Definitely check out Zelda’s Passover Chocolate Marshmallow-Filled Locusts and Frogs, which are yummy and available on line.
I asked a few other friends how they spice up their Seders, and they were kind enough to add their two shekel’s worth: Joy Goldberg of Annapolis, Maryland, adds diced jalapeno peppers to her matzah balls. Miriam Shazeer of Swampscott believes the more the merrier. “Invite 40 relatives,” she recommends. Cantor Ken Richmond of Temple Israel of Natick once challenged his guests to come up with a Passover-themed haiku or didactic cinquain. Newton’s Lynne Satlof-Karas plays Jewpardy, with holiday-appropriate questions. Those who are lucky enough to attend Laurie Alford’s Seder in Natick will find frog-shaped ice cubes in their drinks.
Actually, there’s nothing new about going all-out to keep everyone engaged at the Seder. According to David Arnow in his book Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities, “Maimonides instructed parents to engage in unusual behavior – matzah snatching, removing the tray that held the Seder plate before the meal, etc. – to provoke children to ask, ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’”
Currently, I’m deciding which Haggadah to use. We have about six sets, but I’m tempted to try something new. Keeping the kids as well as the adults excited and involved requires some preparation and can actually be fun. So, get hopping!