Guests at one of Heidi Kahn’s Passover potlucks stepped into a desert oasis. That year, her Irvine tract home was transformed with a Bedouin makeover achieved by suspending a tent inside. Another year, guests, who always contribute to the feast, were also asked to bring household goods and were put to work assembling care packages for Jews trying to flee the former Soviet Union.
Typically, the amphibian plague, one of many inflicted on ancient Egypt in the biblical story of Exodus, gets a star turn at Kahn’s seder. Plastic frogs croak unexpectedly at arriving guests, who can fold origami frogs while waiting for latecomers. Some guests even don frog masks.
“When you’ve sat through a lifetime of tedious seders and create your own tedious seders, and then go to Heidi’s place and play, no seder will ever compare,” said friend and past guest, Gail Shendelman, of Irvine. “I’m spoiled for life.”
Throwing over typical seder conventions for a sensory and culture-rich affair leaves some of Kahn’s guests infused with Jewish pride and others spiritually reconnected. Nobody goes away dreading Passover.
“It’s like a giant party and teaching experience,” said Kahn, mentor teacher at Irvine’s University Synagogue and a preschool program at the Jewish Community Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa.
“She likes to take a multisensory approach,” said Nancy Kouraklis, another University teacher, who says Kahn’s classroom invariably includes objects to smell and touch, music and ingenious projects.
Her seder is equally marked with myriad novel details that evoke the holiday’s symbolism and origin.
“It’s so creative. It’s like a Broadway production,” said Ilene S. Mountain, a two-time Kahn seder guest.
The first act typically involves children retelling the Passover story. As preschoolers, Kahn’s own girls, Marlee, now 11, and Jordana, 9, romped as the Egyptian princesses who cradled baby Moses. In later years, as Kahn would narrate, every invited child would display a scene they had been preassigned to depict artistically.
This year’s theme wasn’t clear yet. “It depends on the crowd. I’m not ready to commit,” she said.
A native of South Africa, Passover is Kahn’s favorite holiday. She overfills her home with as many as 40 visitors, which always include her parents and siblings. “I don’t want to say no to anyone,” she said.
Kahn can spend four days on meticulous preparations, such as the rose petal bed that cushions a huge, water-filled glass bowl that elegantly elevates hand-washing with nature’s perfume.
The seder’s second act around the dining room table typically lasts 90 minutes and is directed by Kahn, who calls on guests to participate in turn. “There’s not a boring moment in the whole thing,” Mountain said.
Each chair is equipped with a personalized seder pack of props, such as hammers to represent tools of enslavement, and “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah” by David Dishon and Noam Zion (Shalom Hartman Institute, 1997). Selected guests receive special props, such as a shower of styrofoam that substitutes for a plague of hail or Pharaoh’s crown.
Also at Kahn’s instruction, guests have laden the table with nondairy, vegetarian concoctions because of family food allergies. The menu always includes traditional Passover foods, but with a twist: charoset, for instance, is flavored with Egyptian or Yemenite spices.
Unlike most seders, where guests ignore hunger pangs while the haggadah unfolds, Kahn encourages noshers throughout to fortify themselves.
“The dress code is you have to be able to dance and eat excessively,” she said.
Playing guitar or pounding drums, her brother, Brian Sepel, interrupts the reading for traditional songs such “Dayenu,” or atypical ones such as “There’s No Seder Like My Seder,” sung to the show tune “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Some guests are wary of letting their hair down. Intuitively, Kahn intercedes.
“I get embarrassed to read aloud,” Mountain said. “Before I even said anything, she says to me, ‘Don’t worry. I have just one paragraph for you to read.'”
One exotic Sephardic ritual stands out for many guests. Kahn ordered everyone from his or her seat to march in a circular procession. She handed each a sheaf of green onions, which to were to use as faux whips on the backs of their neighbors.
“It was kind of silly and juvenile,” Shendelman said. “It took many of us out of our comfort zone. But it did have a different meaning. She taught me a lesson in what it felt like to be a slave and told what to do.”
In the final act, the search for the afikomen (the hidden matzah ), is a treasure hunt that requires clues for its solution. Every child receives a prize.
Kahn’s extravaganza does have its downside.
“You’ll never be able to go to another seder again.” said Mountain. Any other, she said, “is a big snooze.”