Bushes that speak, slaves escaping by nightfall, the Red Sea miraculously dividing – the Passover story is as dramatic as it gets.
It’s also as old. Historians place the Exodus, the fleeing of thousands of Israelites from Egypt into the desert, 3,200 years ago. Sometimes a Seder feels like it takes that long.
God commands Jews observing Passover, or Pesach, which will start Friday night, to remember their ancestors’ bitter time of slavery under Pharaoh and to retell the story through Seder as though they themselves suffered the captivity. A long and boring Seder service is its own enslavement, with participants waiting not for enlightenment and renewal, as the Good Book promises, but simply dinner.
So to all Seder leaders, your evening companions issue you a commandment of their own – keep it interesting!
Beyond the desires of your guests, there’s a divine incentive for keeping your table companions awake.
“You need to make the Seder fresh and relevant,” said Rabbi Eliot Baskin of Congregation Har Shalom in Durango. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not fulfilling God’s commandment.”
You can put new symbols on the Seder plate to make it more inclusive and even a little subversive. A rabbi once likened the presence of a woman on the altar to an orange on a Seder plate. Now women are ordained as rabbis in all but orthodox synagogues, and families put an orange on the plate as a symbol of feminist ideals. They might also put out a cup for Miriam, Moses’ sister, instead of Elijah, the ancient prophet of freedom.
The latest symbol to make it to the Passover table? A tomato, to signify the unfair wages and hardships borne by farm workers.
Some people go to great lengths to make their Seder memorable. Steve Brodsky, a Denver musician and the son of Durango residents Herb and Enid Brodsky, once buried the titles of 30 Beatles songs in the evening’s text. (They had to work hard all day, then they had a hard day’s night.) He also purposely makes mistakes in the story, luring his 7- and 11-year-old sons into correcting him.
Baskin re-enacts the 10 plagues God visited on Pharaoh and the Egyptians – frogs, flies, lice, locusts – take your pick, there’s a lot to work with. This year, he’s putting the cover over the pool and inviting guests to walk across to remind them that God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites.
But Passover’s relevance to modern times never fades. Each era has its pharaohs, whether it’s Amenhotep II of the Exodus or Bashar al Assad of Syria or Kim Jong-un of North Korea. The holiday’s message of freedom and redemption rings true for anyone seeking relief from slavery.
And even in our day, too many people remain hungry. A secondary theme within Passover is thanking God for the manna sent to feed the Hebrews after their escape into the wilderness. Passover reminds us that gratitude for our own plenty isn’t enough, we’re required to share with those who have less.
“Let all who are hungry come and eat,” Baskin said, quoting from the Old Testament. “We came out, and this is the bread of affliction, and it becomes the symbol of freedom.”
In other words, God took care of the Israelites in the desert, and he now expects them to take care of others. Some people collect donations at their Seder to give to the needy, but most commonly, Jews invite new acquaintances to share the holiday feast and open the door for Elijah as a gesture of welcome to all.
While those leading the Seder have a variety of ways to rejuvenate an ancient service, Passover cooks have their work cut out for them should they attempt to bring the same freshness to the traditional meal.
Food is an integral part of the holiday. It symbolizes the Exodus itself. Passover is the only holiday where the very greeting includes food – hag kasher ve sameach – or, have a kosher and happy holiday.
The meal itself usually includes seven courses. The first half of the Seder service ends with matzoh and charosets. In my family, it’s followed by hardboiled eggs served with a dollop of salt water, then gefilte fish, then chicken soup and matzoh balls, a green salad, an entrée of beef brisket or chicken with potatoes, then at least three desserts. Good thing the Hebrews didn’t eat like that when they were slaves, or they wouldn’t have made it out of Egypt.
So how do you make the Seder table as interesting as the creative service that precedes it? How do you blend spice and newfound spring into a meal that’s as traditional and hidebound as the ages?
That’s the advice given to me by every person I spoke to for this article.
“People have their own traditions. If we potchke (meddle) too much, then they’re disappointed,” said Pat Dworkin, a Durango retiree. She mimicked a dissatisfied guest: “I didn’t like the charosets because it wasn’t the way it should be.”
Trust me, she’s right. I once made a Persian version of charosets (the tastiest dish in the Seder ritual, made with apples, wine and nuts) with dates and raisins. I despised it. I spiced up my tried-and-true matzoh ball recipe with nutmeg and almost gagged. I traded our traditional matzoh farfel dish (heavy as lead, but delicious) for a lighter, more spring-like carrot pudding. No one ate it. Well, OK, my dad did, but he was just being nice.
If you want to honor the emphasis on spring and renewal – after all, the Hebrews didn’t wander in the desert for 40 years for nothing – try throwing in a side dish of fresh asparagus, maybe a grilled mushroom or two. The closest I ever came to success in changing a traditional Pesach dish was sneaking some salmon into the gefilte fish, giving it a rosy hue and a sweeter flavor. A few suspicious eyebrows went up, but the plates came back empty.
If you’re determined to sport a new dish on your Seder table, do as Hilary Baskin, the rabbi’s wife, does. She puts out the new version, but also provides the old. She also changes vegetables – sweet potatoes for white, artichokes instead of asparagus, or fish instead of chicken – to mix it up a bit.
Passover has one ritual that could be considered a Seder’s saving grace, to say nothing of the cook’s. You’re commanded to drink four cups of wine throughout the evening.
They symbolize God’s four promises of redemption to his flock: I will bring you out; I will deliver you; I will redeem you; I will take you to me.
So pour the wine, bring on the chicken soup and matzoh balls and relax. Sometimes the same food is the best food.