What’s Special at Your Seder?

We asked about your special traditions. Here are some of your answers.

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In his recent blog post, USCJ’s CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick asked for examples of seder stories, questions and shtick. Here are some of your answers. 

The Passover Quiz: Thanks to Murray Bernstein for sharing his terrific seder tradition — the Passover Quiz. Test your knowledge of all things Passover here.

Each Guest Takes a Plague: Our Seder table’s strewn with multiple small frogs. There’s a charoseth pyramid, surrounded by matza meal sand and desert palms. Each guest is responsible for an individual plague finger puppet, to present at the appropriate time. A few feet from the main table, there’s a separate coloring station for the small children, with crayons and Pesach-themed pages to color. They’re allowed to leave the main table intermittently, to go draw. There are lively discussions about the meaning of freedom, and whatever’s constraining us asPassover_Seder_in_a_Kibbutz individuals from being truly free. Many historical references and various commentaries are thrown in, by individual participants. We use a family-made Haggadah, complete with pre WWWII in Europe family photos. It’s brief, to the point, and allows for lots of discussion. The food’s great (homemade gefilte fish, for instance), the desserts are always plentiful and wonderful (sponge roll filled with homemade lemon curd-whipped cream with strawberries, etc.). All this, and we’re done in 5 hours, with an intermission before dessert. Thanks for asking! — Harvey Edber


The Four Questions in Many Languages: We have 2 traditions during the seder: 1) We engage our guests to say the 4 Questions in as many different languages as possible; we usually have the following ones covered: English, Hebrew, Yiddish, French, and Spanish. 2) We  sing the Echod Mi Yodayah in Yiddish with a hilarious set of gestures, esp for numbers 8 and 9. — Irwin

Slivovitz All Around! Coming from small families,  close friends of my husband and I have had  Seders together for many, many years. One tradition that we started soon after our friend’s uncle passed away was to add Slivovitz to the Seder table. Since Slivovitz was a tradition in his family, we added it  to our Seders. Each person gets  a shot glass  filled with Slivovitz and we go around the table and toast each of our loved ones who have passed away, making a special toast in their honor. Unfortunately, the list gets longer each year.  Slivovitz is not anyone’s drink of choice but it reminds us of Uncle Larry z’l.

Donating to the Needy: After doing our Passover cleaning and gathering the remaining chametz, we donate any fresh, unopened leavened products still in our kitchen to needy non-Jewish individuals before the holiday starts. While Pesach helps us connect with Judaism it also reminds us of the positive impact we can and should have on the rest of the world. Chag Sameach. —Claudia Mikail, MD, MPH


Chains and caftans: We have several traditions that we have added to our sedarim.  Each family brings their own seder plate and the women and girls arrange them while the men set out the dishes of salt water, etc.  No servants here.

We have a set of “C” shaped links that the youngest children make into a chain to wrap the fathers in when we sing about slavery.

This year each participant donned a caftan prior to the beginning of the journey from slavery to freedom. The caftans are large pieces of fabric with a “T” shaped slit in the middle for a neck hole.  People left their shoes off. It set the tone for the evening.  We sat around our Seder plates in little groups for the first part of the Seder, then went to the table for Shulchan Orech.

Finally, prior to the Seder we prehid several “fake” afikomen bags containing notes telling people to keep looking. — Marlene Herman

Try Finding Matzah in the FSU: Our normal Pesach ritual probably follows the usual extended family ritual.  Reading, complaining that it is too long, trying to figure out when the third cup of wine comes, discussing the proper Hillel sandwich,  etc.

This year, as an archaeologist, I find myself in Yerevan Armenia during Pesach working on a research project.  So, where do you find a seder, much less matzah, in the former Soviet bloc?  The Jewish population of Yerevan,  estimates range from 750-3,000 are split between a Chabad with a synagogue that is one floor of an apartment building, and a non-religious Jewish cultural center.

So, where?  No matzah in the stores.  So, tomorrow night we, a Jewish colleague from Canada and I, are attending a communal seder at the Chabad.  The rebbe tells us we can get matzah from him.  So, we are in for a very new experience.  No Masorti here, however.  

Hi to Rabbi Steve, who was my rabbi at Adath Israel on the Main Line. — Mitchell Rothman

A Pesach Poem: I’ve been asked by our Seder hosts to reflect on exodus as a story:

I’m getting ready to leave mine own private Egypt
I’m packing up my bags, putting on my shoes,
Ready to trudge away, follow the man, bound away
Out of my self forged chains on to

Some place ever to be unknown.
Don’t know if I’ll get there, or deserve to get there,
But going on the way there, he told us, is better
Than staying here, in mine own private Egypt.

We’ve onions here, and bitter herbs,
Frogs, ice-stones, locusts, lice, boils, beasts,
It’s dark, the water is red, the animals dead,
And at midnight, everyone else screamed in dread.

It’s time to leave mine own private Egypt,
And follow someone, that one, the man
Who years ago ran, but came back to say
There’s gotta be a reason that all of you
Have gone through all of this. — Dennis Gura

A Time to Remember a Daughter: My daughter Abby, who died when she was 30, almost 8 years ago told us she never cared for Pesach. It was too much. However, for one so disinclined to get ready for the holiday, she always brought in new ideas and activities which delighted our guests. She brought us a play where she played the role of God, while I played Moses.

She also developed a sense of community and served as an aspiring chaplain to the people she met. She became a volunteer for Project Chicken Soup, making and delivering meals. She increased her level of activity and became a buddy to a number of adults and children infected with AIDS. Annually, she would take children to Disneyland with her own money. She chose the path of rabbinic studies, but could not complete it. Her struggle with a liver tumor took her through 5 surgeries and sapped her strength and capabilities.

Abby loved the giving part; but as her disease progressed she could no longer drive and so began her chaplaincy on board Metro’s buses between the Academy for Jewish Religion in Westwood and North Hollywood. As time went on she introduced two items to our Seders based on her activism – the orange and Miriam’s Cup. These are a centerpiece to our Seder table and we explain their meaning every year.

As a side note, Abby was awarded, posthumously, her certificate as a Jewish Chaplain. The certificate hangs in our home. So while Pesach serves as a chance to re-enact the story, it is also a chance to remember.

A Big Box of Gefilte Fish: My mother used to tell stories about her family life growing up in Brooklyn, and I remember getting a big box of Passover foods including gefilte fish, matzoh, horseradish, macaroons and two boxes of Horowitz- Margareten matzoh ball soup sent by my great grandmother. To these ingredients my mother added charoses for the Hillel sandwich composed of apples, nuts and wine with a touch of cinnamon. Our Seder plate always had parsley for dipping in salt water, carrots and celery, a lamb shankbone, matzoh, a roasted egg, charoses, and, of course, a bitter herb. One year we opened the door for the prophet Elijah and to our surprise a rabbi from Israel was standing behind the door asking for donations for a Yeshiva in Israel. We fulfilled the mitzvah of providing for those in need by making a contribution. As a young child I thought he had come from heaven to bless our family. As I grew up my parents invited guests to our Seder to welcome the stranger into our home. My mother used the occasion to explain our traditions, and when I married I continued this tradition of inviting family and friends to our Seder.

The house smelled wonderful with the scent of fresh flowers on the white tablecloth, a chicken roasting in the oven, and a beef brisket simmering on the stove. Guests and college students were often drafted into peeling carrots for the carrot pudding and helping to set the table with our best china and silver. As a child I loved the search for the Afikomen, and as a parent my husband and I tried to think of new places to hide it every year from our children who were quick to find it in exchange for silver coins.

The singing, festive atmosphere and delicious food all contributed to make our Seders very special, and all I have to do is close my eyes to see the people I love seated around our table for the Passover service. — Jane Rosenthal


Kosher Coca-Cola and Dipping Maror in Charoset: There are three customs that I treasure very much about my Geffen family sedarim.

1) First, my grandfather, Rabbi Tobias Geffen, z”l, helped Coca-Cola formulate a product that was kosher for Passover as well as year-round in the 1930’s.  Much has been written about it which is accessible on the web.  I appreciate that the kashrut of Coca-Cola may have been the first time that a rabbi “kashered” the chemical components of of a processed food.  His achievement led the way for the emergence of the kosher food industry as we know it today.  Although Rabbi Geffen’s name no longer appears on the product, every year I buy some kosher for Passover Coca-cola as a matter of pride.  These memories inspire me to remain faithful to the principles of kashrut.
2)  Davening the entire haggadah.  My father, Dr. Abraham Geffen, learned to chant the haggadah text from his father.  This is how we grew up, chanting every word of the traditional Hebrew and Aramaic text.  I haven’t been to anyone else’s seder where this is done.  Two years ago, my father again chanted every word at our seder.  Now he is 97 and due to dementia he is no longer interested in doing this, but his voice sings inside my head.
3)  I presume that my father carried on another custom from his father, who was trained in the Lithuanian yeshivot.  How do you dip maror in charoset?  Since charoset is seen as a custom, not a mitzvah, I think there is a lot of variation on how this is accomplished.  My father taught us to mix some wine and charoset in a small cup, making a thick liquid.  Next, we wrap some charoset and maror in a piece of Romaine lettuce (which can also be considered maror).  Then, we dip our “wrap” into the charoset/wine “dip” and eat it.  Again, I have not seen anyone else do this and it is a custom that was probably unknown to Maimonides since it is not in his writings.
This year, it no longer seemed practical to bring my father to our house for the seder.  But there was no way I was going to have a seder without him!  So we arranged to run a short seder at his dementia care home, Cohen Rosen House (part of the Hebrew Home in Rockville, MD).  We gathered about fifteen (out of 18 residents) several family members, and all the staff in the dining room.  We sang the core songs, including kiddush and Mah nishtanah.  I instructed everyone to make their wrap and dip.  And even though no one else did it, I still felt better doing it in my father’s presence.  Several residents sang Hebrew texts correctly — even though they have a hard time conducting a lucid conversation in English. It was beautiful and meaningful for all of us.
My parents both worked to make our seders beautiful and meaningful — as they worked to make our home life and Jewish observances equally beautiful and meaningful.   Singing Hebrew/Aramaic prayers/songs and discussing Jewish values were things we did in our home every week, not just once a year.  We cherish the traditions our parents carried on; we cherish our parents, and we try to convey their beauty and meaning to our children and grandchildren. It is a very strong inspiration to me.