Tradition! No holiday says it louder than Passover. But what do you do when you don’t have the traditional household and extended family to celebrate with?
That was the challenge my friend Karen Fink and I faced in 1996.
Her Reform parents had been the family seder-makers, but they were getting tired. She leaned toward Conservative Judaism. Her two sisters married, had children and had their own Passover observances. Karen took on seder-making to assure having the rituals she loved.
As a Jew by choice, I often call myself a Jew with amnesia. Without a Jewish childhood, I have no memories or family traditions to inspire holiday celebrations. The first seder I hosted was a spiritual and social disaster. I raced from stove to table juggling ritual and food preparation while two of my three guests developed an intense dislike of each other. After Nirtzah (conclusion of the seder), my guests fled to liberation; I took the measure of Mitzrayim (Egypt). Neither Karen nor I wanted to be wandering seder guests, so we decided to co-host a seder. Her parents provide the dining room and chairs, rent wine glasses and do the set up. Karen and I cook, run the seder, provide all needed props and clean up.
Here’s what we’ve learned about creating Passover traditions:
Tradition is the repetition of what’s meaningful. One year we may have tzimmes and the next California-style carrot soufflé, but we always serve Karen’s father’s favorite brisket. For the entire Fink family – from Karen’s 102-year-old grandmother (when she was still alive) to Karen’s niece – that brisket is the flavor of Passover. Think through the experiences, prayers, rituals, customs and foods that you value the most and repeat them every year.
Make the seder yours. Passover requires us to repeat the story of our Exodus from Egypt as if we personally experienced it. The Maxwell House haggadah isn’t the only way to do this. I wrote the haggadah we use like a movie script. When our guests sit down, they find a copy on their plate. Each guest reads the lines of the character highlighted in his script. The dialogue crisscrosses the table. Sometimes it’s dramatic, sometimes funny, but it’s never exactly the same. Find your own voice for telling the story.
Explore and adapt from the richness of Jewish experience and cultures. I have never made apple and walnut charoset without being told that someone’s mother, Bubbe, Tante Hannah or next door neighbor did it better. In frustration, I declared myself Sephardic and have made Moroccan charoset from dates, cinnamon and sweet wine ever since. Having Karen’s apple and walnut charoset beside my date and cinnamon charoset is our Passover tradition now. (Since Karen’s family and most of our guests are Ashkenazi, this is the only Sephardic tradition we follow at seder.)
If it doesn’t work, leave it in Egypt. One year, we decided to serve the seder on the floor. (Think desert tent, ornate woven rugs and camel saddles to recline against.) After 10 minutes, every adult was in pain. The tablecloth shifted as people tried to get more comfortable. Wine glasses tumbled. Karen and I looked at each and thought in unison, “Never again!” Remember that liberation is a long journey. Don’t carry excess baggage.
It’s about the people and the experience. A tradition we adopted at our first seder in 1996 was having our guests sign the tablecloth before they left. Karen and I then embroider the signatures and messages. Each year has its own color. When our guests arrive each year, they spend some time looking at the tablecloth, finding where they sat last year and who they sat next to in past years. Some of the people who signed the tablecloth are no longer living. Their spirits and the memories of seders past are still alive at our table.
In the end, it isn’t the menu or the table settings or what haggadah you use that make a great seder. It’s the synergy between what the hosts provide and what every guest brings of him or herself to the seder.
A seder is theater. When you turn the first page of the haggadah, magic begins to happen. Making the space for that to happen is the foundation of a great Passover tradition.
A former newspaper reporter, Jeannette Hartman is a marketing and web consultant, a health writer and the creator of two blogs, FidoConfidential and BackyardTouristLA. She works a shared garden with two friends and loves to cook.