This piece originally appeared in the Passover 2023 magazine from The Canadian Jewish News:
If you’re reading these words, you probably fit into one of two categories: You’ve been preparing a family seder for the past few weeks—and it’s been your pride and joy to do it for decades—or you’ve been handed this magazine by a parent or grandparent who invites you for Passover like clockwork, every single year.And now, I’m here to inform you that these routines need to stop. Look, I get it. Bubbe’s brisket. Saba’s boisterous singing. Cousin Ronnie who’s in rabbinical school and insists on explicating things in detail next to Aunt Sylvia—an atheist who only shows up every year because “it’s a tradition.”
Reading from the wine-stained haggadahs prompt the familiar rituals of hiding the afikoman, and spark arguments over who needs to read the paragraph about the wicked child—or maybe a debate about how the patriarchy is to blame for the 10th century text specifying it’s a son.
It’s all part of the annual evenings where we get together and reenact the Exodus in our own unique ways. But something happens when grandma and grandpa always host the seder: Jewish life and ritual become synonymous with them, and only them.
Yes, many of you still live robust Jewish lives independent of those older family ties. But too many Canadians who fall between graduation and retirement have never hosted a seder—and a lot of them have offspring destined to follow in their footsteps.
You know what that leads to? A weekly Shabbat dinner also becomes something that only exists elsewhere, whether it’s done by parents or grandparents or hosted by a synagogue. And you know what that leads to? A lack of ownership of one’s own Judaism—and the inability to initiate doing Jewish.
If you’re a seder host, think back to when you first took the lead, and why it ended up happening. Likely, it was one of several steps toward being an adult, approached with the typical combination of trepidation and pride.
As time passed and you began to do it more often, your confidence grew. You were able to add bits and pieces to the rituals and augment your immediate family with a guest or two.
And yet, while the seders have grown and become legendary family lore, your offspring haven’t experienced the opportunity you seized long ago. What becomes of those lively seders in the long run? Some will do a better job with the brisket. And the singing may get better, too. But the familial associations might also fade away forever.
Now, speaking as the rabbi in the room at The Canadian Jewish News— where I host the Bonjour Chai podcast each week— I’m here to tell you there’s an easy fix for this. Stop inviting them.
I know this is much easier said than done, to the point where your objections are at least partially right. Good thing our diaspora Jewish traditions have a solution for that. Welcome them for one seder. Bring everyone together. Make it the best you’ve ever had. And then cut them loose for night two.
It isn’t easy—but maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe the best things in life involve hard work. Maybe you’ll help them a bit… send them some sides… a bagful of extra haggadahs… assist them with a bit of bubbesitting so that they can get on with the prep. Maybe you won’t give these grown kids any help at all.
Now, for all of you who I’m pushing to walk into the Red Sea without any assurance of parting waters, let me give you some help. It’s not all that hard.
You may have never hosted a seder before, but if you’ve attended a few then you have a pretty good idea of how they go. I’ve learned about a saying from medical school: Watch One, Do One, Teach One. The best way to learn is to just make it happen. The next step after that is inspiring somebody else. Besides, the hagaddah is quite literally the instruction manual for running every seder.
Go buy one that looks interesting. Heck, get four different ones and pick out the parts you like. There’s nothing sacrilegious about switching between editions or tuning out the bits that don’t do much for you. (The seders you’ve been going to have probably been skipping more than anybody is willing to admit.)
One of the most moving lines of the night is found at the start, when we extend an invitation to all who are hungry to come and eat—which can prove a delicious deal when you’re on the receiving end. But we can’t understand the dynamics of hosting when we’re always the guest.
If you’re a serial attendee of somebody else’s seder—and you’ve read this far without turning the page—I’m here to tell you that you’ve got this. A few tips are enough to make you feel like you’ve been doing it forever.
Go forth, lead with confidence, and get accustomed to inviting the older family members who spent all these years inviting you. They’ve earned the right to kvell a little bit.
Avi’s 4 tips on how to host a seder for the first time
Focus on your audience and tailor it to them: Will the guests be family members who’ve done the same thing for years? Try changing-up their customs and expectations—but don’t take it too far. Or will it be a “friendseder” with everyone coming together for the first time? You know what they’re into and their tolerance for communal singing, so plan accordingly. Don’t expect people with young kids to be attentive into the night. Create something light but full of active participation by all.
Recognize that there are very few essential parts: The Four Questions. The 10 Plagues. The afikoman. Whatever they happen to be, find the parts that are important to you and your audience and focus on those. Do some research into their meaning and history and find creative ways to present them. As for the rest of the haggadah? You can skim some, you can skip some, but make sure to straddle the line between treating the seder as a big event and treating it as a boring prelude to the food.
You don’t need to have an elaborate seder meal: Focus on dishes you know well and can make without a sous chef and three interns. Maybe add one dish that wows the crowd. Elevate the karpas from a sad sprig of greens to a full-on spread—anything that can be dipped to fulfill a blessing is fair game: Crudites and Bagna Cauda? Chips and salsa? Strawberries and balsamic glaze? All will be welcomed and get you into the hagaddah with so few complaints that people won’t be hungry along the way.
Expensive props aren’t necessary for the experience: Any wineglass is fine for Kiddush or Elijah’s Cup. No special plate is required for symbolic foods. Get creative for the ritual items and you’ll be surprised how they end up cherished. (And if they don’t on the first try—then just buy one new thing a year going forward.) A good rule of thumb is to mix heirloom items with modern ones, get one from a friend or make an item rather than buying. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something glued.
- Listen for more Passover inspiration on The Second Annual Great Canadian Seder podcast brought to you by Bonjour Chai