November 20, 2018

Bring a story to your seder

Passover seders can be noisy affairs. Gather families and friends together for a festive meal and, invariably, people will gravitate toward the lively art of random schmoozing.

They’ll schmooze about Trump, Clinton, Kobe, AIPAC, J Street, Bibi, Iran, family gossip, community gossip, Jimmy Kimmel’s spoof videos, how Facebook is taking over our lives, Trump again, which colleges the kids got into … and, if they can squeeze it in, how our ancestors were liberated from slavery 3,300 years ago.

Reading the text of the haggadah is also no guarantee that the conversation will focus on our ancient story. That’s because the haggadah itself doesn’t read like a story — it’s more of a compilation of commentaries, blessings and exhortations with a few plot lines thrown in.

Maybe that’s why, in recent years, creative types have developed countless variations of the haggadah to fit just about any theme you like, from social justice to Hollywood to the environment. I can see why these new haggadot are so popular — you get to spend the seder night honoring a cause or cultural idea of your choice, while connecting it in some way to the theme of the Passover holiday.

This year, however, I would like to suggest a simpler idea to make our seders more meaningful, one that works regardless of the haggadah you use.

It’s an idea that honors one of my favorite causes: telling stories.

Here’s how it works: Over the course of the seder, everyone at the table gets to tell one inspirational story about someone they met in the past year.

Preferably, it will be about a person who falls outside of your social circle — someone who doesn’t vote, pray, live or think the way you do. In other words, a “stranger” who moved you or opened your mind in some way.

If you plan to do this, let people know ahead of time so they can think about their story. If a guest asks, “Can I bring anything?” just tell them, “Bring a good wine and an even better story about a stranger who moved you.”

The real question is: How many of these stories do we each have? How often over the past year have we left our bubbles to engage with strangers? 

Passover reminds us that we can easily be “enslaved” in the comfort of our own social circles. When we’re called upon to lean sideways during the Passover meal, I see it as a reminder that the strangers we so often ignore during our busy lives are off to the side somewhere. We must lean sideways to notice them and hear their stories.

We often think of strangers as vulnerable souls who need our help. But they can also be fellow human beings who need our ear, or whom we need to hear. It’s not enough to feed the stranger; we must also show interest in their stories. 

Stories add meaning to our lives. And let’s face it, an essential purpose of Jewish holidays and rituals — whether we’re feasting under a sukkah or fasting on Yom Kippur or gathering around a seder table — is to make our lives more meaningful.

The Passover seder, which calls on every generation to relive the foundational story of the Jewish people, is an ideal place to share little stories of human connection. After all, it is millions of little such stories that have sustained our epic journey since we were liberated at Sinai.

The thing is, though, we’re not the same flock of Jews who trekked through the desert 3,300 years ago. We’re still one people, but we’re a people with a million different stories.

We are the most diverse Jews in history. Here in America, we have Jews from virtually everywhere. We have different denominations, ethnicities, traditions, histories, accents, ideologies, neighborhoods, foods, music, views of God, different everything.

We are so diverse, in fact, that we have become strangers in our own eyes. Our little stories live on, but inside our little bubbles. It’s true that some of our differences divide us, but others can unite us, especially if they arouse our curiosity about our individual stories.

This year, for example, a Reform temple in Beverly Hills, Temple Emanuel, will celebrate the ancient Sephardic tradition of Mimouna on the last night of Passover. They will be doing what my ancestors did in Morocco for centuries. Cultural appropriation at its finest. 

So, while we schmooze about the usual stuff this year and remember our ancient story, let’s add meaning to our seders by bringing the stories of the strangers in our midst. Let’s liberate our bubbles.

All we have to do is look sideways.

Happy Passover.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at