Passover Feature Running the Seder, or Making Sure Guests Don’t Drown Their Toy Frogs

“A service? What do you mean there’s a service?”

“How long?”

“I’m hungry.”

From guests who arrived an hour late to guests who rushed us through the Haggadah, from guests who wisecracked and whined to guests who drowned their decorative toy frogs in their water glasses, last year’s seder had me wishing the Israelites had never escaped from slavery.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat,” we recite each year as part of the Ha Lachmah Anya prayer. But does this obligatory invitation extend to unruly relatives, who do not, fortunately for them, include my children?

“I’m not working this hard to give a bad dinner party,” I told my husband, Larry, afterward. I was exhausted, exasperated and ready to resign from the seder business.

“Why don’t you lead next year’s seder?” Larry suggested, a little too eager to relinquish his role. “Tell them there’s a new seder master in town.”

“Seder masochist,” I say, knowing I’ll still be doing the majority of the cooking and setting up — but still accepting the challenge.

Unlike God, however, who gave the wandering Israelites 40 years to redeem themselves, I’m giving my relatives one night, April 5. Passover is too important a holiday to ruin because, as I shall read from the Haggadah, “Along with Jews all over the world, we celebrate who we are and where we came from; we examine why we are here and link the meaning of our lives to those who preceded us and those who will follow.”

For good reason, Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday, with, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, 77 percent of all Jews attending or holding a seder.

As seder master, I set myself two objectives:

conduct a complete seder according to halachah, or Jewish law.

A complete seder, my children and relatives will be relieved to hear, doesn’t mean word for word readings of every prayer in English, Hebrew and Aramaic. It doesn’t mean imitating the five rabbis in Bnei Brak who, during the second century C.E., debated the story of the Exodus so intensely that they were surprised when their students interrupted them for morning prayers.

But a complete seder, in my view, does include the 15 steps enumerated in the order of the Seder, from the recitation of Kiddish to the prayer that God accepts our service.

To conduct a seder that will shock, awe and engage all the participants.

“The shock will be when no one comes back next year,” Jeremy, 14, says, fearing an evening of monotony rather than magic.

“No, no,” I assure him, “this year’s seder will be serious and fun.”

“Sounds like an oxymoron to me,” Danny, 12, says.

“Look, I’ll do an opening meditation, which I hope will be meaningful, and then we’ll break into ‘There’s no seder like our seder.’ ” I begin singing it, off-key, to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

Danny rolls his eyes.

Undaunted, I have developed a four-step plan:

I have selected a new Haggadah, “My People Were Nomads,” written by our friend Peter Levitan. It began as an outgrowth of his family’s Haggadah to a project for his synagogue to an obsessive labor of love slated to come out for Passover in 2005.

The Haggadah, on CD-ROM, is comprehensive, adaptable and color-coded to mark core readings, optional readings and rituals, quotations and discussion questions and various customs from Jewish communities around the world. It contains perspectives from the traditional Jewish denominations as well as from the kabbalist, feminist, humanist, Zionist, New Age and secular communities. It also includes children’s puzzles and games, songs and music and recipes.

From a 17-page bare-bones Haggadah to a 100-page version, with a 300-page leader’s manual, the possibilities are limitless. For a test run for our family, I have compiled a personalized, mid-range version, cutting and pasting passages that I find meaningful, appropriate and entertaining.

I have talked to members of my immediate and extended family, explaining my desire for a respectful seder. I have asked them to arrive on time, participate, regroup after the meal without complaining and keep their frogs out of their water glasses.

“It’s like we’re re-enacting the story all over again. You’re the pharaoh and we’re the slaves,” Jeremy moans.

“We need a Moses to rescue us,” Gabe says.

I have allocated assignments ahead of time and distributed them to the participants. Additionally, my mother-in-law, the sole tune-carrier, will be the song master. I have learned to play “Dayenu” and “Eliyahu Hanavi” on the piano. Jeremy with accompany me with his bass guitar. My stepfather will relate his family’s personal Exodus from Eastern Europe. Gabe will read a poem of his choice about freedom. And I have orchestrated a surprise visit from Elijah.

And perhaps the key to success, I am assigning seats. “Spread out the kids,” Danny suggests. “They’ll keep the adults in line.”

“We have been held together and upheld by common remembering,” philosopher Martin Buber says. My goal is that this year’s family seder will assist in enveloping and elevating us, as a family and as a people. That we will joyfully and respectfully celebrate traditions dating back more than 3,000 years and create new ones for our future.

And so, at the end of the seder, after we recite in unison, “Next year in Jerusalem,” I hope I can add, “Next year in Encino.” And mean it.

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