How to host your first seder
Hosting a dinner party can be stressful enough. Hosting a seder for the first time can seem positively overwhelming. There are so many moving parts. We spoke to four veteran hosts who have hosted more than 100 Passover seder dinners between them. Here is some of their advice.
“There is a lot of detail with this holiday,” said Liat Miller, 37, of Sherman Oaks. Miller, who identifies as a liberal Conservative Jew, always starts by making a guest list, which dictates whether she needs to rent tables and chairs.
Especially if you’re doing kosher, Miller said, “going to the butcher the week before is a nightmare.” Miller suggests purchasing the meat in advance and freezing it. She generally cooks a brisket two days before the meal. She lets it cool, slices it and pops it in the fridge. “Then you just heat it before you serve it.”
Sandy Croll, 75, of Beverly Hills, whose family worships at Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles, said lamb shanks for the seder plate can be hard to come by and often sell out. Make advance arrangements. “There’s no formula [for Passover],” she offered, “except, ‘Be prepared.’ ”
Choose a Haggadah and a Leader
There are so many haggadah options. Find one that resonates with you and is appropriate for your audience. Beverly Hills resident Leanore Saltz, 88, who has long been active in the local secular Jewish community, has a collection of secular haggadot she has acquired over the years, including one from the Sholem Community and another from the Workmen’s Circle Cultural Center, both Los Angeles-based organizations. She likes that they talk about Passover “in an historical sense” as well as “our obligations today as Jews.”
Miller suggests a simple haggadah for first-timers. She and her husband considered the “30 Minute Seder” available on Amazon. Instead, she simply customized one she already had by highlighting portions she found most meaningful. “I can’t get 20 kids to listen for two hours,” she said. “You have to be realistic.”
Make sure you have enough haggadot. Croll recommends one for every other person so people can share easily, if not one for every guest. “It keeps people on track and keeps people involved,” she said.
And even if you envision a very participatory seder, with people taking turns reading or reading together, designate a leader, in advance.
Also, consider reading through the haggadah several days before the holiday to get a better sense of timing and to make sure you have everything you need at your fingertips. For example, Croll said, traditionally at a seder, the leader of the service washes her hands ceremonially. So she sets an attractive bowl and pitcher of water at the table expressly for this purpose.
Don’t Go It Alone
The first seder Evelyn Drapkin, 46, hosted nearly a dozen years ago at her home in Los Feliz might easily have been her last. A member of Temple Beth Hillel, she tried to do everything on her own. “It was really hard,” she said. “Dinner wasn’t on time. It wasn’t as peaceful. … I was like, ‘I’m never doing it again.’ ”
Instead, the following year she asked her guests to bring the side dishes. That has remained her system. Those who don’t cook, she asks to bring wine.
And there’s no rule that says everything has to be homemade. One year, Saltz’s husband made gefilte fish from scratch. “It was so timeconsuming,” she said. Now she buys Manischewitz gefilte fish. To give it additional flavor, she cooks it with sautéed onions and carrots as well as white wine and seasonings. And though she’s never done it herself, she points out that there are plenty of businesses such as Got Kosher? on Pico Boulevard where you can pick up an entire Passover dinner (orders must be placed by April 3).
Consider doing individual seder plates for each guest with the bitter herbs, charoset, vegetable (often parsley) and salt water. This way, Croll said, people aren’t reaching across the table and spilling wine and grape juice and dripping salt water everywhere. “I use little plastic throwaways,” she said.
And make certain you have plenty of matzo.
Consider reading through the Haggadah several days before the holiday to get a better sense of timing and to make sure you have everything you need at your fingertips.
Passover, Saltz said, is a happy holiday. So singing is a big part of their evening. Most haggadot feature several songs. But you don’t need to limit yourself to those. Saltz and her family sing Yiddish songs as well as the Israeli folk song “Zum Gali Gali.”
Croll makes sure every guest has a packet that includes song lyrics to all the tunes they sing, including “Let My People Go” and “The Ballad of the Four Sons,” which is sung to the tune of “Clementine” (Said the father to the children/ At the seder you will dine/ You will eat your fill of matzo/ You will drink four cups of wine). This way, newcomers, or those who may not remember the words from one year to the next, can sing along.
In keeping with the tradition she grew up with in Israel, Miller usually gets something new to wear that evening. So do her husband and kids. “It’s spring, a new beginning,” she said.
Remember the Kids
It’s the rare child who will sit quietly and contentedly through a long seder. Croll always sets up a special kids activity table with Passover-themed coloring pages and puzzles.
One year, leading up to the seder, Miller asked one of her guests who is especially good with kids to come up with something to keep the younger guests busy while the main course was being plated. Miller’s friend created a scavenger hunt based on the Israelites. It was a huge hit. Miller also sometimes puts on an animated movie about the Exodus when the kids’ attention starts to fade. “At least it’s in the spirit of the holiday,” she said.
And don’t forget to get prizes for the kids if you plan to hide the afikomen. Also, children can and should help with the preparations. Drapkin shows her two school-age daughters a place setting once the tables and linens are set up, then she has them replicate that.
Know Your Audience
While the desire to include everyone in the festivities is understandable, remember that not every guest is necessarily eager to lead off the group in song or read a passage featuring unfamiliar words. Especially for a child who isn’t a confident reader, “that might be really embarrassing,” Croll said. “I think if there were any doubt, I would check with the parents before.”
Make It Your Own
If there is something you want to do at your seder or put on your seder table, go for it. For the hosts we spoke with, often it is the original aspects, the parts you won’t find in any haggadah, that are most meaningful. For example, several years ago, Croll’s husband introduced a group reading of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at their seder. This has remained a fixture of the gathering.
The Drapkins light multiple yahrzeit candles for loved ones they have lost, including Evelyn’s mom, as well as the Jews who died in the Holocaust, and victims of 9/11. They also invite their guests to light candles for anyone they have lost. It’s a tradition Drapkin picked up from her mother-in-law.
Saltz intends to add an orange to her seder table this year. This was something she learned at a seder hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women, a group she is active in. “The orange symbolizes fertility and that the women did all these things back in the ancient days but were never given credit for it,” she said. “So you put one orange on the table. That orange represents Miriam. She danced and sang. She brought life to the table.”
Consider Hiring Help
“I personally think Passover is the most difficult meal,” Saltz said. “You’re making so many different courses.” She said she uses more dishes than at any other holiday. But she doesn’t find it stressful, in part because it’s very much a group effort at her home, with her husband making his famous double chicken soup a week in advance. Saltz makes the hard matzo balls her family favors the day of, and her adult daughters contribute kugel, vegetable sides and desserts.
“I just find someone to do the dishes,” she said.
That’s an investment Miller wholeheartedly supports. “If you can afford help, you should get help. Give yourself the break of the whole night off.”