Seders don't have to be long and boring! That's news to a lot of people who grew up reading the Maxwell House haggadah with its King James Bible English. This site is not a substitute for a good haggadah. But it's about a seder with an attitude — the attitude that your seder ought to be a rollicking good time as well as a meaningful ritual.
I'd love your contributions to this page. I can't promise to put everything up, but I'll try to pick the best. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What's Fun About Karpas?
IF YOU HAD TO ASK that question, you've never heard Noam Zion speak. Noam is the creator of A Different Night, the haggadah that has rebirthed tens of thousands of seders in North America. He suggests that the blessing for karpas — "borei p'ri ha-adamah" — doesn't just apply to parsley or potatoes. You can eat any "fruit of the earth" plain or dipped.
Our favorite is strawberries or bananas dipped in chocolate — yup, they're both "fruit of the earth" because the plant grows anew every year. We also use melons, and potatoes, and this year mint from our garden which never died out since there was no real winter. In past years we used portabellas, fried in olive oil with salt & pepper, and dipped in a marinade; but this year we found out they are not considered “p’ri ha-adamah” so they became a pre-seder appetizer, along with spinach cheese squares. The key result: no one goes hungry at our seder. We leave the hors d’oeuvres out (there’s no law says you have to remove them from the table), so nobody starves while waiting for the seder meal at midnight or so.
WE OWE THIS ONE to Caren Shiloh, who brought it out a few years back at about 1:30 in the morning — after the meal, after benching, after Hallel — a time when people have sung a lot, and are beginning to get a little bleary-eyed. This is a great wakeup. It's a knockoff on the TV show; you get the answer and you have to come up with the question. Some are educational, some are trivial, and some are wacky puns. This one is a download: you get question cards and answer cards (in two sizes), and a template for the game board (which you have to make yourself). It's free, but if you use and like the game, Caren requests a small donation to her synagogue; it's your choice. The address is Beth El-The Heights Synagogue, 3246 Desota Ave., Cleveland Hts., OH 44118. Downloads: Q&A — small version, can be printed 1 side or 2 Q&A large version
Game Board template
The Iranian/Afghani Onion Trick
WE FIRST HEARD about this one about 15 years ago, from an Iranian family at our synagogue. A Different Night identifies it as Afghani; people in L.A. say it's popular in the Persian community there. It's simple: during the chorus of Dayenu, everyone whacks each other with scallions. You're supposed to wait until after the 9th verse — just watch the anticipation build! This custom has no religous significance whatsoever!
Needless to say, kids love this one; also needless to say, you may want to establish some ground rules.
NEW — 1200 Questions
HERE'S A BOOK I didn't expect to like. Two guys in New Jersey, maybe just a little obsessively, have spent many years preparing this. But I give it to people to look at, and they won't give it back. It's that addictive.
300 Ways is exactly what it promises: the Four Questions in 300 Languages. Languages Jews have spoken: Yiddish, Ladino, Portuguese, French, Arabic, Russian; languages few Jews have ever spoken: Zulu, Navajo, Chinese; dead languages: Latin, Ancient Egyptian; and made-up languages like Klingon and Lawyerese and Sfat HaBet (Israeli Pig Latin). It comes with a CD and a DVD. Don't overdo it — but add a couple of these to your seder each year and it will be a special touch. My mother-in-law, whose first language was Polish, is looking forward to it! You can learn more about this book and hear some samples by visiting whyisthisnight.com.
SEDRA SCENES is a book, now a couple of decades old, by Stan Beiner. It's a set of short plays, one for each parsha, taking the weekly sedra and putting it into dialogue. The plays keep close to the text or its theme, even when that's hard to do as in constructing the Mishkan.
But it's not hard to do for Pesach. There are four sedras that tell the story of the Exodus — Shemot, Va-era, Bo, and Beshallach. The stories are told in a very clever way; lots of wisecracking from Pharaoh and Moses and Aaron as they negotiate with each other. The jokes work for 6-year-olds and 60-year-olds.
At our seder, we try to have at least one chunk of time during the Maggid section set aside for a serious adult discussion. We send the kids upstairs (with a grownup or teen "director") and they rummage through the old costume bin, divide up the parts, and rehearse. Then they come down and present the play just before Dayenu. It works well on several levels. For the kids, they don't have to be there for "the boring part," and they get to be center of attention for a major event. After Dayenu, a lot starts to happen, so we don't lose anyone. And the grownups get to have their "symposium," an adult conversation of free people that the seder is meant to be.
The Hogwarts Seder
SOME PEOPLE INSIST that Hogwarts is really a yeshiva — a school for people so marginal that the rest of the society doesn't even know they're there, where teachers in strange outfits teach arcane subjects of no use for getting into the college of your choice.
Well, maybe — but that isn't what the Hogwarts Seder is about.
This was a last-minute inspiration 2-3 years ago, and it's become a regular in our family. Everyone who comes to the seder is assigned to one of the four "houses" by the Sorting Kippa, natch. Once the seder begins, all adults (that is, post-bar/bat mitzvah) are faculty members, empowered to give or take away points from any house at whim. You get points for asking a good question, or giving a good answer, or for an act of kindness, or helping out — really anything! You might lose points for interrupting, annoying your sister, fighting — again, wherever it seems appropriate. Grownups get points too, for leading a good discussion, cooking a tasty dish, whatever.
Click here to download a PDF file of house assignments cards (for the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft, Wizardry, and Halacha).
Keep score with the old Shabbos Scrabble method: each team has a book which they open to a page number that corresponds to their score.
We didn't expect much of this whole scheme other than a good laugh, but you'd be amazed how competitive kids can be. Scoring points for your team is a much better reward than candies. At the end of the seder, of course, the decor magically changes to the colors of the winning team. If this doesn't work for you, well, there's always next year in Jerusalem!
Silly Seder Songs
A LOT OF PEOPLE swear by these songs. We don't use many, but we do like the English Echad Mi Yodea. These are all just "folk songs" adapted to the seder — kinda like Had Gadya, if you think about it. I've included a selection; if you have others, please pass them on to me. You can download a PDF if you'd like. I'll update as I get more songs. And if this isn't enough for you, try sedersforyou.tripod.com for the largest collection of silly seder songs I've found anywhere.
AND LASTLY there's the haggadah. Of course this is probably more important than all the others — but I'm not going to get you to change your haggadah.
But I will tell you that if you're still using the Maxwell House or any of its clones — basic Hebrew, stilted translation, and that's all (even if it has nice pretty decorations) — then you are shooting yourself in the foot before you even light the candles.
If you're thinking about a change, it helps big-time to have a haggadah that is both insightful and playful. My favorites are the ones from the aforementioned Noam Zion: A Different Night and A Night to Remember. Noam is an American-born teacher at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His books undertake the project of revitalizing American home Judaism. You can do yourself a big favor by buying one or more — even better, buying for the family. You'll do me a favor too, since I sell them.
Years ago, I took a class on teaching in a supplemental Jewish school — you know, the afternoon or Sunday or evening classes that most kids hate. Lesson #1 was that no matter how great a teacher you are, your students are gonna spend 30% of their time staring at the wall. Therefore, said the teacher, you'd better have something good on your walls so that's not dead time. At a seder, substitute "flipping through the haggadah" for "staring at the walls." So it's more than a little important to have an outstanding haggadah. I sell these books, and they are all returnable, and I almost never get a return.
What if Moses and Pharaoh had e-mailed? A humorous e-mail dialogue on the important subject of garbanzo beans — download.