The Passover Seder is the Super Bowl of Jewish rituals — a long nighttime event that everyone shows up for, even the most half-hearted of fans.
Yet for generations of Jews, the Seder meal — which calls for a retelling of the biblical exodus story through prayers, songs and rituals — got no real upgrade, no facelift, no innovation. Seders were built around rigid scripts, resulting in monotonous hours of guests taking turns reading flat passages about plagues and freed slaves.
But in today’s distracted, competitive religious marketplace, even observant Jews are hustling to make Passover Seders more engaging, particularly for the young, but for adults as well.
A recent pre-Seder training event at one of the D.C. region’s biggest Orthodox synagogues found every person with some dramatic plan for Passover, which starts Monday at sunset. One person would have live frogs (one of the 10 plagues) in a cage on the dining room table, another’s downstairs was tented to make it feel like the Egyptian desert, yet another recrafted the night as a “Jeopardy!” game. Exodus reenactments were plentiful, as were assigned readings from writers, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Alan Dershowitz.
But they know they need ever-newer ideas.
“My children are serious, intellectual people, and I see them drifting away,” said Potomac physician Larry Goldkind, a father of four. To pull them in, he e-mailed them 150 pages of documents last week on the historicity of the exodus story, along with discussion questions such as: “Do you actually believe anything like the exodus happened? Were Israelites really slaves? And if you don’t, what does that mean? The entire religion is based on revelation that was supposed to have taken place there. Did man write it? God? Do you trash it because it’s not supernatural?”
“A lot of religions don’t seriously engage followers in the modern era who don’t take scripture at its word, and it ends up alienating people,” Goldkind said.
Goldkind was among about 350 men who on March 17 went to Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac for a Seder-prep program.
Although the Passover Seder has traditionally been led by Jewish men, Modern Orthodox men such as those at Beth Sholom live in more gender-equal homes, and the days of temple men’s clubs and women’s clubs have mostly disappeared. So the session had a “guys’ night out” vibe, with tables of high-end scotch and kosher barbecue ribs. The program’s key point: Modern Seder leaders need to innovate.
Most American Jews build their night around reading directly and methodically from the Haggadah, an ancient guide to the Passover tale of Jewish liberation from Egyptian slavery. But Rabbi Nissan Antine reminded the men that the point of the holiday, with its eight days of intense eating restrictions and long ritual meals, is to get Jews’ attention so they ask questions. Namely: Why are we doing this? Or that? The ability to question, to challenge, Antine said, is the essence of being free.
Judaism is a religion built largely around practices hammered out through centuries of rabbinical debate contained in books called the Talmud. So for observant Jews, breaking away from the text and going rogue can feel a little rebellious.
But Antine said the holiday — and the Seder — is just a vehicle for transmitting Jewish values. And in an era when a quarter of Americans have left the faith of their upbringing, there is some urgency among parents to have a memorable, frank discussion about what those values are.
But Antine told the room full of men in jeans and yarmulkes that the questions aren’t just for children. Slavery and suffering can be relative, and human beings will always seek freedom from something. The lesson, at points, turned to the therapeutic.
“We all struggle with different things — illnesses, issues with our livelihood — but through the right kinds of questions, we can all feel that kind of freedom.”
David Farber, a Bethesda lawyer, has often taken his three daughters to Israel for Passover. Two of his brothers live there. He said the family Seder was transformed by one brother’s decision to ditch the tradition of sitting around the dining room table, which encourages everyone to want to start eating. Instead, he hung sheets from the living room ceiling to create a tent-like effect and foster a more informal discussion about the Passover story. With parents on couches and kids on the floor, scenes were acted out and debates were had.
“It was so engaging, so much fun, something you just don’t forget,” Farber said. When he hosts Seder in Bethesda, he includes stories for his daughters about biblical heroines, and he gives everyone a different type of Haggadah to provide diverse commentary and ideas. In recent years, numerous new Haggadahs, some emphasizing Israel and Zionism, others focused on women or singing, have emerged from the various theological schools of Judaism.
The business of transmitting culture and values, however, is mysterious. Farber’s 20-year-old daughter, a ballet dancer in Fort Worth, said she didn’t recall the tents but had wonderful memories of her siblings and cousins “getting restless and throwing matzoh and making pyramids from Styrofoam cups” or taking stickers depicting the 10 plagues and putting them on one another.
“Passover is one of my favorite holidays because I have so many memories,” Alexandra Farber said. This Passover she will be a guest at someone else’s Seder in Fort Worth, but she planned to go through the laborious process of making her apartment kosher for Passover.
Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University professor of American Jewish history, said he thinks that the revved-up Seders are partially a product of “the child-centeredness of American society” but that over the centuries there have been waves of efforts to change and innovate. For example, the tradition of hiding a piece of matzoh for children to find goes back to the earliest centuries of Judaism. And North African Jews, including those from Morocco, were known to hold Passover plays long ago.
Even Antine’s idea of starting the Seder in a different room of the house — to prompt questions and curiosity — has echoes of an era in Jewish history when people didn’t eat in kitchens but ate in living rooms on low couches.
“These are new ways of keeping something old,” Sarna said. “Kids have been kids for a very long time.”