This article appeared in the March 26, 2010 Jewish Advocate.

Special quirks make Passover unique

By Susie Davidson


Like mom says, everybody's got schticklach: distinctively personal habits and rituals. And during a Jewish holiday, they've got a green light to let them fly. Many of our holidays celebrate freedom – usually, from those who would seek our destruction – so the fact that we are even able to observe them makes them inherently liberating. But we should also celebrate the emancipation of spirit. Our creative ways, and our quirks, are all good - and sometimes, just what we need to get through a long holiday - in this case, eight days without bread and proper pizza.

Pesach begins with great flourish. After all, every house can use a good cleaning, and it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t look forward to the Seders. Then, we spend the week ahead trying to placate varied tastes and preferences, in the most uniquely palatable ways possible. Although most heads-of-households would humbly defer to the contrary, successful Seders and Passover weeks are often largely due to their own signature innovations.

To get there, though, requires ingenuity. We need to draw on our indomitable, plentiful imaginations. We’ve got the resources. First of all, we often have our families, all together. Inviting new people is also a great way to mix things up, in good keeping with holiday tradition. “I always invite people who have nowhere else to go to join our Seder in Arlington, Virginia,” said Phyllis Levine, a Brookline native who works for the Defense Department. “I have had students, young working professionals, members of the military, and recent Russian immigrants,” she said.

We get a visual lift from finally using those once-a-year items in the highest cupboard: the matzah-themed servers, the special Passover dishes and glassware, those gorgeous Seder plates, as well as the meat and dairy kitchen towels, and sometimes, easy paper goods we can just toss in the recycle bin. Even the dog and cat often get special holiday dishes.

“The dishes come up from the basement; they are the same traditional patterns used for decades in the family,” said Sheila Decter, Executive Director of the Jewish Alliance on Law and Social Action. “Memories come back just from remembering when that particular china or glasses entered the stream,” she said. Many of the Seder plates were made by children of successive generations.

New technologies are available as well. “Years ago, we began to take advantage of living in the digital age,” said Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, whose family creates and prints haggadot. “I suppose it will not be long before we can create a digital version that everyone can read on their personal devices,” he mused. The personal haggadot gave them flexibility, he says, allowing them to insert new readings, such as about the popular addition of an orange on the Seder plate, based on an allegedly urban legend where Prof. Susannah Heschel was told in Florida that “a woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the Seder plate.” Rabbi Jaffe also adds an olive, “representative of our hope for and commitment to working towards peace.” He says his family does their best to complete the full liturgy. “But our discussions and arguments are as central to our gathering as the four questions," he said.

Seders at the Decter home are lengthy (though maybe not till 3 a.m. - see below), with the first night geared to the young ones. Skits include costumes, and cousins from out-of-town perform Exodus stories. There seems to be plenty for the kids to enjoy. “Commercial face masks from Jewish book stores are worn to represent the plagues, with small animals, frogs, insects, and other props,” she said. A band with small musical instruments plays, with everyone encouraged to bring in new versions of old songs. “Musical artists on the piano and violin have typically practiced ahead of time,” said Decter, who said that some have become special favorites, with all the children knowing the lines. Two Yiddish traditions conclude the second night: a rousing rendition of Eshet Chayil to thank the hostess, and a reading of the Pesach holiday greeting from the staid Manischevitz Haggadah. “It guarantees that the language is kept in our ears for yet another year,” she says.

The second night is geared toward adults, said Decter, but certain touches keep the kids involved. “The whips of the Egyptians are represented by green onions or more exotic vegetables from a specialty store,” explains Decter, "and everyone gets to ‘beat’ their neighbor.” Readings go around the table, with pauses for questions or comments. “Many participants voice serious philosophical questions our people have faced,” said Decter. “Others share their knowledge.” Topical readings come from social action groups like MAZON, American Jewish World Service, and JALSA. As would be expected at the home of a social justice crusader, varied groups and experiences are well represented.

“There are always participants who have been at local interfaith Seders, the Labor Seder, or who are immigrants, social work students, or come from other sectors of society,” said Decter.