When Joel and Aviva Tessler set their table for tonight's Passover seder, the wine glasses, plates of matzo and dishes for parsley and bitter herbs will be joined by some less traditional items.
Each place setting will have a pair of paper slippers so the guest who wears them can relax and revel in the sense of freedom that is supposed to engulf the seder, the Jewish people's seminal celebration of their exodus from Egypt.
A small mirror will be placed by each woman's seat to recall a Rabbinic legend: After Pharoah decreed that every newborn Jewish boy would be drowned in the Nile, Jewish men said they would have no more children. But their wives, understanding that such a decision would eliminate baby girls as well as boys and lead to the demise of the Jewish nation, used mirrors to playfully seduce their husbands and change their minds.
The Tesslers, of Potomac, hope the items will spark curiosity among their guests, enlivening the ancient rituals of the seder with something new and different.
It is the same reason Jewish bookstores this year are filled with dozens of newly interpreted Haggadot, the special prayer books used only for the Passover seder, and why more and more Passover-themed toys have been created in recent years to teach children about the holiday. It is why Jewish schools, synagogues and organizations continue to expand the number of specially themed seders held prior to the holiday -- this year focusing on women's issues, gay rights and the disabled, among other themes.
"We're always making new traditions and customs," said Sharon Safra, assistant director of the Jewish students' group Hillel at the University of Maryland at College Park. "That's what the seder is about. Delving deeper into the text and making it meaningful for us today."
The holiday starts tonight at sundown and continues until April 24 for Reform Jews and April 25 for Conservative and Orthodox Jews.
Tonight, Safra will bring a feminist Haggada to her family seder. Last week, she helped organize a "Chocolate Seder" on campus -- a purely social event for students that features chocolate matzo instead of the traditional flat, unleavened cracker made of flour and water, and s'mores instead of the usual sandwich of matzo and bitter herbs.
Both of those innovations are fairly recent. But Joel Tessler, the rabbi of Beth Sholom Synagogue in Potomac, said the effort to infuse the seder with contemporary meaning goes back centuries and is central to the holiday itself.
"The seder is all about, 'How do you mesmerize children, and encourage questions?' so novelty makes sense," Tessler said.
The seders he leads tonight and tomorrow will include loads of toys to entertain the youngsters, including plastic snakes, bugs and other objects to illustrate the 10 plagues. Tessler said the Talmud, the authoritative body of Jewish law that dates back 1,500 years, suggests having nuts and other treats at the seder for children to snack on, and he paraphrased the 13th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides:
"If you don't make it [the seder] so that it relates to your audience in a very particular way, then you've failed," Tessler said. "You find out who's in your audience, and you come up with something to serve them."
At a "model seder" for Hebrew school students and their parents held this month at Adas Israel Congregation in the District, Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg told each child to prepare a modern-day question -- about the war in Iraq, peer pressure, classroom cheating or whatever was on their minds -- for discussion around their seder table at home.
Marty Berger, family-life educator and a Hebrew School teacher at B'nai Tzedek Congregation in Potomac, helped his eighth-grade class hold a seder last week for developmentally disabled Jewish adults, hoping the experience would free the students of stereotypes about handicapped people and give them something interesting to talk about with their relatives over the holiday.
As for himself, Berger said Friday, he was sitting in his office with various Haggadot spread all over the desk, "piecing together what I want to use" at the seder he will conduct with family and friends.
"This is the teachable moment, the whole concept of our freedom," Berger said. "Anyone who misses the opportunity to bring this world in which we live to this very ancient seder will be missing a wonderful opportunity."
At the University of Maryland's College Park campus, the Jewish Student Union held its third annual Freedom Seder on Monday night. About 40 Jewish and African American students sat in two small groups discussing slavery, equality and the legacy of discrimination.
Affirmative action came up, as did the Holocaust and a recent student party with a "street thug" theme that African American campus leaders said unfairly stereotyped black students.
One Jewish student talked about always being aware of being a religious minority. An African American student talked about how legalized discrimination against blacks in this country continued to exist until recently and compared preferences in college admissions to a form of reparations.
Karen Perolman, a junior from Ellicott City who helped organize the event, said she brought materials from the previous year's Freedom Seder to her family's holiday celebration.
"Passover's not just about the Jews. It's about everyone who's been enslaved," she said. "Once you say one thing, it sort of opens up all these different doors."
But innovation is not always welcomed by all at the seder table. Debbie Kessler, manager of the gift shop at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, said her grown children consider tradition the essence of the holiday.
The most important part of the seder for them, she said, is singing the songs they grew up with and eating the foods they always have associated with Passover.
"If I missed one thing, they would say, 'Where is Nana's tzimmes?' " she laughed, referring to a traditional sweet potato and carrot stew her mother used to make.
Kessler said she still finds herself browsing for ideas among the new feminist Haggadot and other Passover books sold at the gift shop in Fairfax County, which is busier at Passover than any other time of year except Hanukah.
"The changing and the newness I do because I want it," she said.