Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

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.

Start Early

“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.

Have Fun

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.”

PASSOVER – The Model Seder Begets Model Students

Lingering clouds huddle at the eastern edge of Los Angeles’ clear blue skyline, casting a dusty shadow over the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains. Follow one of those meandering white trails down the mountain, and you’ll find yourself at Weizmann Jewish Community Day School in the eastern foothills of Pasadena, where 38 students and 11 staff members occupy a stronghold of Jewish education in an area of Southern California not known for its overall Jewishness.

On this day, two weeks before Passover, it’s time for a model seder.

The time-honored ritual of the classroom model seder, which happens everywhere from Chasidic preschools to confirmation classes at Reform temples, makes the seder familiar and comfortable. And here as elsewhere, the school ritual gives students knowledge and expertise to take home.

Prior to the start of the event, excitement is brewing in the classroom off the garden courtyard, part of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, a 400-family Conservative synagogue where the 23-year-old school is housed.

The 12 kids in the combined first and second grades are eager to get started, ready to recite the story of strangers in a strange land.

Restless feet in sneakers or party shoes swing under the table, while kids remind each other to be on their best behavior.

“Remember, there’s a reporter here!” they scream-whisper across the table.

“The model seder makes me feel good because Pesach is my favorite holiday,” begins Joette Labinger, who has been teaching at the school for 17 years.

Labinger has set the table with everything from flowers to saltwater, and the group begins with the blessing over the wine (grape juice in this case).

Before each child a paper plate is arranged with seder foods — a sprig of parsley, some celery sticks, a mound of charoset, a glob of red horseradish and a hard-boiled egg.

As some moms bring around a bowl and a pitcher of water to wash small hands, arms shoot up into the air to answer Labinger’s question about why Jews do karpas.

“For spring,” one child answers.

“We dip it in saltwater to think about the tears of the slaves,” another answers.

The kids have been learning about Pesach since the day after the Purim masks were stored away. There’s a lot of material to get through, and Labinger’s goal is to make the children feel comfortable at any seder, and to be able to follow in their own hagaddah.

As the participants dip into the karpas, some choose celery while others brave — and a few even profess to like — the parsley.

Some of today’s bounty was picked from the kids’ garden right outside the classroom, part of an integrated learning approach at Weizmann. When the third- and fourth-graders learned about California, for instance, they planted and harvested native plants, and sold them at the local farmer’s market, sending the proceeds to a local food bank, explains Lisa Feldman, the school’s principal.

Activities with a service and science bent are strong here, which seems to fit the proximity to JPL and Caltech, where many parents from the school work or are students. The service component, Feldman says, includes going next door monthly to visit a retirement home, and the school has an ongoing relationship with the Eaton Canyon Nature Center up the block.

Labinger teaches both Judaic and secular studies to her class. So for Passover, the kids practiced reading English and Hebrew in the hagaddah, and used math skills for all the counting and measuring the seder requires.

The work is paying off, as the kids proudly read in perfectly accented Hebrew, a product of their five hours a week of language immersion with a Hebrew specialist.

The students count off the plagues — and come up with 11. They get 10 on the second try.

After a rousing rendition of “Dayenu,” they are ready for matzah. They joyously crunch while suspiciously eying the gnarly horseradish root.

“Does it taste like ginger?” Sharon asks optimistically.

The kids all take a dab of the red horseradish, tempered by a dip into the sweet charoset, and after the requisite wrinkled noses and mock heaving, Sharon announces definitively that maror does not taste like ginger.

The charoset is a hit, and the kids are invited to eat whatever is on their seder plate before they start the afikomen hunt.

In a snap, Maia finds the unleavened loot hidden in the bookshelf. She later reveals that her older sister cut a deal: She would tell Maia where Mrs. Labinger usually hides the afikomen, if Maia promised to give her sister one of the two Bazooka bubblegums the winner always gets (everyone else gets one). As afikomen bartering goes, it seemed fair — and enterprising.

By the time the kids get to the blessing after the meal and the concluding songs, it looks like a real seder — the table is decorated in purple stains and matzah crumbs, and the kids are slap-happy on four cups of grape juice.

The bubble gum treat is still sitting in front of them, and the chorus that brings this seder to a close is nothing if not universal — “It is time for dessert yet?”


Seder at Bubbie’s

Mah Nishtanah Ha Lila HaZeh Mikol HaLeilot?

Why is this night different from all other nights?

On all other nights I’m required to act like a 25-year-old
adult, but on this first night — being the youngest person at my seder table —
I get to be a kid.

For the last seven years, I have flown to Chicago to enjoy
the first night of seder with my Mom, Bubbie, Zayde and Uncle Brad. Yes, this
seder is small, but cozy. And knowing that Bubbie’s kremslach (potato pancakes
with shmaltz) are waiting for me, makes the four-hour flight worth it.Â

During my family’s traditional first-night seder, my Zayde,
who was born in Eastern Europe and lost his parents and sister in the camps,
dons his kittel, the traditional white robe worn on Passover, to preside over
the seder. While we all read out of the same ’50s-looking hardcover hagaddah
(we are not Maxwell House people), there are an assortment scattered around,
from “The Open Door” (my choice) to the Artscroll (my Mom’s) to the several
Hebrew-filled commentaries used by Zayde and Uncle Brad. Everyone has a chance
to chant the “Kiddush” (something my Zayde taught me when I was a teenager as a
surprise for my Bubbie). I sing the Four Questions in Hebrew and my Bubbie then
says it in Yiddish (as her mother, my Big Bubbie, used to), with some help from
my Zayde.

Two Passovers ago, I introduced my family to the Miriam’s
Cup, which is filled with water in honor of Moses’ sister Miriam, who led the
women in song as the Israelis left Egypt. Needless to say, this move was met
with a couple of raised eyebrows, but I’ve got favored-grandchild status. My
mother, on the other hand, doesn’t fare so well. Every time we reach the four
children (gender equality), she always, without fail, ends up with the part of
the wicked child — regardless of where she sits. But every year she grins and
bears it, wearing the title as a badge of honor.

The subterfuge starts after Zayde breaks the middle matzah
for the afikomen. In our family, it is my job to steal the afikomen from my
Zayde. I figure as long as I have to ask the Four Questions, I should reap the
rewards usually reserved for the kiddies. He wraps it up in a white napkin and
puts it on the server near his seat at the head of the table. As soon as he
goes to the kitchen to wash his hands I pounce. I grab the Afikomen and put a
folded-up napkin in its place before he comes back.

When afikomen time hits, I negotiate with Zayde — provided
Uncle Brad hasn’t taken it from where I put it. (Note: When someone asks if you
are 100 percent positive you have something, double check before you say yes.)
When I was younger, I would ask for books or toys; when I was a teen I asked
for my Zayde to stop smoking. Now I don’t ask for anything — it’s all about the
thrill of being able to grab and hide.

The thrills continue as we sail throughout the rest of the
seder. “Who Knows One?” becomes an exercise in lung power as my mother and I
compete to see who can say “I Know Thirteen” in one breath. We sing the verses
of “Chad Gadya” in the same manner and contemplate how much a zuzim would be
worth in today’s economy.

When our seder is over, it’s almost like the last day of
camp: you couldn’t wait for it to come and now you are sorry to see it go.

One day, I know, I will no longer be able to go to Bubbie’s
house for Pesach. But even when I have my own seder, with my own youngest child
— and even grandchild? — to say the Four Questions, I will still want to sing
them out loud, as if I were still sitting at Bubbie’s table. Â