Strangers At A Strange Meal


The first time Melinda Young went to a Passover seder, the hosts put an individual seder plate at each place setting.

Assuming this arrangement of symbolic foods comprised the entire meal, Young, a lapsed Catholic who lives in Austin, Texas, remembers looking at the plate thinking, “OK, there’s a piece of matzah, a boiled egg — and I don’t think there’s any meat on that bone.”

When the matzah ball soup came she downed two portions, convinced it would be the last food she’d see for hours.

Which, of course, it was not. “There’s more food at a Jewish celebration than anywhere else in the world!” exclaims Young, who has been married to a Jewish man for 11 years, is raising her three sons as Jews and jokes that she now considers herself “half-Jewish.”

Unless we have especially dysfunctional families or are, like my daughter Ellie this year, the child asking the Four Questions for the first time, Jews don’t usually find attending Passover seders all that nerve wracking. (As opposed to the notoriously stressful experience of hosting a seder, especially for those who first make their homes fully kosher for Passover.)

But for gentile guests who’ve never before donned a kipa or opened a Haggadah, the holiday — with its numerous rituals and lengthy list of forbidden foods — can be intimidating. Especially if, like Young back when she was a Passover newbie, you’re trying to make a good impression on future in-laws.

Since young Jews tend to socialize more with gentiles than their forbearers did and since virtually every Jewish family is touched by intermarriage, few seders today, at least outside Orthodox circles, are exclusively Jewish affairs. I can think of only a handful of Tribe-only seders I’ve attended in my lifetime — most of them in Israel. And my best friend Stacy, who will be hosting her non-Jewish boyfriend’s parents this year, says that over the years she has invited far more gentiles than Jews for Passover because “they’re the ones who don’t already have plans.”

With a little sensitivity, it’s fairly easy to make gentile newcomers feel comfortable at Passover. But they may need some extra reassurances and should definitely be told that asking questions is not just OK, but encouraged.

Elizabeth Hendler, another lapsed Catholic married to a Jewish man and raising Jewish children in Austin, remembers how self-conscious she initially felt at her first seder.

“I was aware that everyone else knew the words and prayers, that everyone else kind of knew everything and I didn’t,” she recalls.

Nonetheless Hendler ended up enjoying the holiday so much she decided to have one in her home the next year. One aspect that helped make the experience more meaningful and inclusive: each guest was assigned to research one aspect of the Exodus story (Hendler’s was the role of the midwives Shifra and Puah) before they came, and then at the seder they took turns sharing what they learned.

She urges hosts to assure gentile guests that “no one is sitting there judging you if you mess up” and no one cares “if you know the prayers.”

Some guidelines about the family’s pre-meal nibbling rules may also be in order. My friend Mike Kim, who participates in my daughter’s Tot Shabbat with his Jewish wife and daughter, recalls at his first seder he was not sure whether it was OK to nosh on the dipping vegetables and matzah during the Haggadah reading.

“I gauged the level of nibbling I could do — as I was starving — by my father-in-law’s nibbling,” he says. “The more he nibbled, the more I did. When he took a break, so did I.”

My friend Gavin Chuck fondly remembers the efforts his hosts made at the first seder he attended.

“They hid two afikomen: one for the kids and one for me, the first-timer,” he says. “I thought that was a great welcoming gesture.”

Thanks to her role as volunteer coordinator of an international student hosting program, Rhona Goldman of Stony Brook, L.I., has introduced scores of gentiles to Passover.

Goldman has written her own Haggadah that includes “a lot of quotes from American history so that people who are not Jewish can understand the universality of it.”

She also tries to keep the Hebrew readings and blessings to a minimum and gives guests “the opportunity to participate if they choose and talk about customs in their country that they find to be similar.”

Passover’s universal themes — liberation, remembering the stranger since we were strangers in Egypt, inviting all who are hungry to eat — make the holiday easy for people of virtually all backgrounds and political persuasions (at least on the leftist spectrum) to relate to and make their own. The Haggadah used at my husband’s first seder — hosted by grad students at the University of Michigan — even referenced (approvingly) Ho Chi Minh.

Once they get over the initial learning curve and the self-consciousness, many non-Jews, even those not married to Jews, become regular and enthusiastic seder-goers.

My afikomen-hunting friend Gavin, who was raised Catholic in Jamaica and is single, but has many Jewish friends, says Passover impresses him with its “free-flowing mix between ritual and contemplation — especially coming from a background that emphasized the former over the latter.”

Jimmy Tierney, a Catholic (yes, every gentile I know seems to be Catholic) who has been married to a Jewish woman for 19 years, enjoys Passover’s “combination of togetherness, historical tradition and ritual, great food, good conversation, stories with intelligent people, and of course the wine and the fresh horseradish.”

Young, who once assumed the seder plate was dinner, says Passover has edged out Christmas as her favorite holiday.

“It’s good family-centered time, and the meaning behind it is so wonderful. There’s nothing commercial about it, and the kids aren’t waiting to get presents.” (Although they may demand a steep ransom for the afikomen.)

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