Easy tips for stylish Passover place settings

Setting the Passover table can be overwhelming. Does the seder plate have all the right elements? Where is the afikomen? Did we put out Elijah’s cup? 

So when you reach the point of arranging the individual place settings, you want things to be quick and easy, without a lot of fuss. With these tips, you’ll be able to make place settings that are unique and creative — and as fabulous as the food and company.

Mix and match.

Don’t worry about not having a complete set of matching dishes for all your guests. Do you really want to look like a restaurant? Mix and match the dishes you do have for an effortless look. Even if you do have a few sets of matching dishes, go ahead and mix them up anyway.

The key to successful mixing and matching is balance. If you have a lot of clashing patterns, balance them with some solids. You can also achieve balance by incorporating plain, neutral napkins.

And a few words about white dishes. Plain, white plates are a good staple to have at your disposal, especially for dinner parties. They sell them in stacks at home stores for just this purpose. But even when you’re using these pristine plates, feel free to mix them up with other colors and patterns you might have.

Everything old is new.

What if you have a bunch of old dishes from Bubbe? Lucky you —vintage dishes are so popular right now. The more “granny” they are, the better. Case in point: transferware. These old-fashioned dishes were once relegated to cardboard boxes in the storage locker. Now there are collector’s clubs, and they’re even used as artwork in trendy hotels. Again, mix and match. Mixing older china with more contemporary pieces you have in the cupboard is positively chic.

Even plates from the 1970s and ’80s that were once considered dated are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. So if you’ve got some of these oldies but goodies hiding in your cabinets, take them out and show them off. Guests will think you’re such a hipster.

Keep it simple.

Home magazines and etiquette guides offer a dizzying amount of advice on the correct pieces to include in your place settings. There are so many different forks and spoons, and precise places to put them. Then there are all the glasses for different purposes. My advice: Keep it simple; there are enough items on the seder table as it is. Limit your place settings to just the basics you’ll need for the meal at hand. 

Also, avoid extraneous accessories like chargers. Sure, they look elegant under your dishes, but it’s just another element you don’t need. I love chargers, don’t get me wrong. I have them in both gold and pewter, and I use them all the time. The problem is they add at least an inch on each side of your dinner plate, taking up precious table room. It’s another item you have to stock up on, and another item you have to clean. If you’re having a large group for the seder, they are just too much to worry about.

Try a table runner instead of a tablecloth.

A tablecloth adds both a formal and festive touch to any occasion, but let’s get real — they are a total pain. If you’ve ever ironed a tablecloth, you know what I’m talking about. Instead of a tablecloth, place a table runner along the center of the table. It doesn’t have to be made of anything fancy, or even fabric. Be creative. I’ve used long sheets of butcher paper, decorative wrapping paper, and black-adhesive contact paper made to look like a chalkboard.

Another way to use table runners is to place them widthwise, between guests sitting across from one another, rather than lengthwise. That way, the runners also act as placemats. And if you insist on fabric runners, a great resource for them is the dollar store, where they’re, um, $1.

Incorporate place cards.

I know I’m complicating things a bit by recommending place cards to indicate where everyone sits, but believe me, they make things easier in the end. There’s always that awkward moment when guests arrive at the table and are not sure where to sit, and then they ask you. Suddenly, you are the U.N. ambassador, having to negotiate who likes whom and deciding whether allies need to be together or separated. If you settle all this in advance with place cards, you can skip that awkwardness and get right to the seder service. 

Your place cards can be as simple as names written on folded sheets of paper. They can be tags tied to ribbon around napkins. Personalize each guest’s haggadah and make that the place card. Or write names on pieces of matzah with icing for a unique and edible place card.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

Afikomen, Afikomen Wherefore Art Thou?


The afikomen: dessert or simply a ploy to keep children — and some adults — awake through most of the seder? Most people probably favor the latter, and tend to choose one of two techniques to make finding the half-piece of matzah interesting:

Method No. 1: Hiding the afikomen somewhere in the room/house/neighborhood for the child or children to find it.

Method No. 2: A child steals the afikomen from the leader’s place at the table when he or she gets up for rachtzah (washing the hands), hides it somewhere else and gets to bargain back for it. (This only works if a second child doesn’t take the matzah from the hiding place of the first.)

In either case, there is usually some prize or reward for finding the afikomen, thus allowing the adults to be able to continue the seder — and merrily sing “Chad Gadyah.”

While most children would probably welcome a monetary gift, you aren’t supposed to give money out at the seder. So, if your family chooses method No. 1, go the present route with one of these kitschy, quirky, “isn’t that cute,” “I wish I got that” items. (Note: if your family chooses afikomen-finding method No. 2, be warned that Sony PSP or Club Libby Lu might come up at the bargaining table.)

“Ma Nishtanah?” just got a whole lot cuter with artist Yitzy Erps’ reversible 4 Questions Finger Puppets. Each plush puppet has a seder item on one side, with its year-round equivalent on the other: matzah/bread, maror radish/carrot, cushioned chair/hard chair and karpas/beet.

$12.95. Ages 3 and older. ” target=”_blank”>www.chosencouture.com.

When your kid shouts, “I have boils!” don’t panic — it is just Matzah Ball Bingo. Two to six people can play this educational (shhhh, don’t tell the kids) retelling of the Pesach story. No reading required, which means parents can spend the seder at the adult table.

$8.95. Ages 4 and up. ” target=”_blank”>www.cafepress.com/yidgear.

Need a way to infuse your holidays with creativity? One word: Haggadah-rama — and there are 51 more where that came from. Lynn Gordon and Nina Miller condensed some very cool ideas into the playing card-size 52 Activities for Jewish Holidays. Pick one and make a memory.

$6.95. ” target=”_blank”>www.dreamworks.com.

As strange as your family is, be glad you aren’t having seder with the Byrneses and the Fockers. But you can bring Ben Stiller, Barbra Streisand and Bobby DeNiro home for the holiday on the just-released “Meet the Fockers” DVD. Cool extras include more than 60 bloopers and 20 deleted scenes, feature commentary with director Jay Roach, a Fockers’ family portrait and a virtual tour of Streisand’s Malibu mansion (just kidding).


Kids Page

Before Pesach, we get rid of all the chametz in our homes. Chametz is anything that rises, like bread. So the night before Pesach, after the whole house has been cleaned, we hide 10 small pieces of bread around the house and search for them by candlelight. You know, at the seder, we search for something too. This time, it is not bread we look for, but matzah! We search for the afikomen. Whoever finds it wins a prize!
Find the afikomen!

The Yiddle Riddle

Q: What happened to Pharaoh’s blue sandal when he dipped it in the Red Sea?
A: It got wet!

Sent in by
Adam Slomiak, 12,
Thousand Oaks

Ghosts of Passovers Past

I have never quite gotten used to celebrating two seders.

After doing only one seder for each of the nine Passovers I was in Israel, the second night now seems like religious deja vu, a "Groundhog Day," where I’m setting the table yet again, rereading the haggadah and singing the same songs, thinking that if only I get it right this time, I won’t have to relive the night once more.

In my life, I figure, I’ve been at almost 50 seders — 60, if you count the whirlwind week in Ukraine when we led them daily for the locals — and looking back through the years, I can chart the course of my life: location, family status, relationships, religious level, political affiliations and — thank God there were no photographs — some embarrassing fashion eras.

My first 17 Passovers, I did two seders in Brooklyn with the five members of my immediate family, plus guests. For me, the highlights of both nights focused on the afikomen ritual. The hiding of the second matzah somewhere in the house was accompanied by an intricate set of clues, which my father dispensed sparingly throughout the long night. So what if the clues weren’t always historically accurate ("Give me liberty or give me death" = Thomas Paine = windowpane = on the windowsill), the game served its purpose: it kept us awake, children and parents alike. Back then, it seemed to be about the prize we’d receive if we negotiated well (you can’t complete the meal unless you eat a piece of it), but now I see it was about engaging us, connecting us to a tradition that was partly sourced in the custom, partly personalized by our own eclectic families.

I was 18 when I spent my first Passover away from home in Jerusalem on vacation from yeshivah. As learned and religious as I was at the time, it was a disappointment to find myself at a fast-paced, no-nonsense, no-time-for-commentary seder. It was a surprise, really; I had no idea that all seders weren’t like mine — with various degrees of fighting over how many sections you could expound upon or how long you could drag the songs out.

This Israeli modern Orthodox family did a rat-a-tat reading around the table (one which I would long for in later years), and I had to stumble over my paragraph in embarrassingly accented American Hebrew. Alas, there was no afikomen search! But praise the lord, there were presents. In an odd custom I have yet to see repeated, when the cup of Elijah was filled and we opened the door, a secret Santa had left a bag of goodies outside, wrapped and ribboned, with our names on them.

Since that seder, I have seen many different customs, from the children hiding the afikomen from their parents, to the different types of must-have seder night foods. When you aren’t at your own seder, you are forced to adopt other people’s customs ("I hope you eat kitniyot," my Conservative friend said the year I was out in Rosh Ayin, which was the beginning of my adaptation of Sephardic custom on Passover) and take on other tunes (by the end of one potluck seder my friends and I were so tired of fighting for our own melodies that everyone just cacaphonously sang out loud the last song simultaneously in their own favorite tune).

But it wasn’t all fun and games. For many of the seders, I had meticulously prepared something meaningful, though what was meaningful, I see now, changed along with me. In my early 20s it was Torah insights on the text. During my years living in Israel, it was Zionist-type commentary, and as I got older, I related the text to contemporary issues: feminism, human rights, the meaning of freedom.

In 1998, I went with Hillel students to the former Soviet Union and conducted seders for both the elderly, who remembered forgotten tunes from the years before communism, or for the younger ones, who could hardly grasp the concept of religion but sure could understand freedom.

People find freedom in the most unlikely of places, such as prison (see page 10), the holy breaking of the waves, the state of Israel or the original Exodus. "In every generation let every man look upon himself as if he came forth out of Egypt," is the Passover commandment that stresses the quest to turn the journey into a personal one.

From New York to Miami to Kiev, Jerusalem and California, all my seders were different — yet all had some elements that were the same: not just the wine, the matzah, the fight over seating arrangements or the falling asleep at the table, but the sense of connectedness to each other, to our past, to our future.

At a time of great fear for Israel, for Jews everywhere — for humanity — Passover is here to teach us that we may not share certain traditions, interpretations or opinions, but as Jews we share a common past and a cojoined destiny.

Happy Passover.