Jewish Journal


April 3, 2003

All Who Are in Need

Elijah isn't the only stranger who should be invited to your seder table.


Passover is a holiday of remembrance, a time to recall and retell the story of the deliverance of the Jewish people from generations of Egyptian bondage. But there is also a different kind of remembering that takes place each Passover, in which memory is personal, not scripted. We spontaneously recall, often vividly, the many different seders we have attended over the years, both as a child and as an adult. 

My own memories begin in the early 1960s, when our family went to a seder or ritual Passover meal each year held at the Chicago home of my Aunt Fella and Uncle Morris. Almost every adult in attendance was from Eastern Europe; boredom among the children was rampant. My cousins and I would inevitably end up crawling under the table for a mischievous rendezvous, a distraction from the relentless Yiddish-accented recitation of "The Maxwell House Haggadah." (Literally translated as the telling, the haggadah recalls the Israelite Exodus from Egypt and indicates the rituals performed at the seder.) Eventually, our impatience was rewarded by my aunt's amazing Passover delicacies. I don't ever recall understanding what was going on, but I still looked forward to going. It was comforting and predictable -- the same relatives came each year and the same food appeared on the table. 

Because the seders I attended growing up always had the same cast of characters, it was an exciting break from routine when someone unfamiliar showed up. One year my older cousin brought a boyfriend, and it noticeably changed the seder dynamic. When I went away to college, it was my turn to become the unfamiliar face when I attended my first seder with a family other than my own. It was then that I really started to appreciate what a mitzvah it was to extend invitations to strangers, especially those unable to spend the holiday with family. Since then, I've been a guest at many different seders. It is still a comforting ritual for me, even though the faces are new, the accents American and the dishes different. But it is never a predictable experience. While the haggadah is always the road map, each new seder takes different side roads on which I never traveled. 

It was a marvel the first time I attended a seder conducted by Jewish educators. 

While the seder was lengthy, everything was discussed, explained and analyzed. I acquired many new insights and went home fervently wishing that such an innovation had been introduced to my Chicago relatives. 

Another seder, early in my career as a "Seder Stranger," caught me by surprise. 

Still fully in possession of childhood naiveté, I was taken aback when I encountered non-Jews at the table, friends of the host family. Their questions reminded one of the simple child of the haggadah, and it turned out to be a lovely experience to see the ritual through their eyes. 

One year, my seder experience was a disappointment. I call this one seder-lite. 

It was a perfunctory matzah and wine tasting accompanied by a riffling of the haggadah pages that figuratively stirred a cool breeze, but didn't warm my heart. 

In a subsequent year, I was delighted and entertained at a seder orchestrated especially for children, with wind-up frogs and finger puppets. 

Perhaps the most memorable seder I attended is the one I call, both wryly and fondly, the last supper. It was led in Manhattan by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach at his Upper West Side shul. Seventy of us from all over the country listened to stories and sang wordless chants until 3 a.m. When I finally left, the seder still had a few hours to go. Reb Shlomo died the following fall. This seder turned out to be the last one he led. 

Drawing from my own enriching experiences, I am now an enthusiastic advocate of inviting strangers to one's seder. 

Many families do this routinely, reaching out to welcome various categories of Jews as well as non-Jews.

Naomi Osher of Newton, Mass., recalls her parents having 20-30 people each year at their Cincinnati home, a number of them Christians. Her parents' born-again housekeeper always looks forward to the tzimmes, a sweet carrot dish.    

Fred Kahn of Buffalo Grove, Ill., remembers the time, when he was a boy, that his mother called the Hillel at Northwestern University to see if any students wanted to come to seder. On the night of the seder, seven students from the dental school showed up at the door, causing the family to scramble for seats and plates.

Rabbi Sheldon Ever and his wife, Reva, before immigrating to Jerusalem, made sure each year to invite local widows and widowers who had nowhere to go, drawing from the large elderly population of their Miami Beach neighborhood. On occasion, attendance at their seders was as high as 40. 

Having strangers at the seder can generate some comical moments, especially when the guests aren't Jewish. Mary (not her real name), grew up in Detroit, attended Catholic schools as a child and never learned anything about Judaism. As an adult, she befriended a man whose father was a cantor, and the family invited her to their Passover seder. She was very excited at attending her first Jewish event, and wanted to bring a very special gift. So she looked hard to find the one item that she knew symbolized Judaism. She still turns purple every time she describes the look on the faces of her host and hostess when she presented them with a challah. 

Both guests and hosts benefit when strangers are invited. Individuals who are single, widowed, away from home, newly converted or unable to conduct their own seder are deeply grateful for an invitation. Unaffiliated Jews strengthen their connection to Judaism, and those experienced at seder participation pick up new insights and ideas for future seders. Guests who aren't Jewish often find the experience fascinating, although it is probably a good idea to prepare them in advance for the unfamiliar ritual aspects of the meal. 

Hosts gain in a variety of ways. Jewish affiliations for young children are reinforced when they see strangers sing the same songs and perform the same rituals as their parents. Family tensions can be eased when strangers are present, as difficult relatives are more likely to be on their best behavior.  

Strangers contribute new songs, melodies, stories and interpretations, help out in the kitchen and entertain the kids. 

Their questions can bring out new understandings and make the experience continually meaningful. New friendships and connections often emerge. 

If you are inspired to invite one stranger or many, here are some people and places you might call to find guests: 

Your rabbi, synagogue office or a synagogue located in a neighborhood that is no longer predominantly Jewish, where remaining members are likely to be elderly; 

An assisted-living center or geriatric home;

The Hillel or Chabad House at your local college or university;

Chaplains at local hospitals or military bases; 

Jewish community centers;

Food pantries, social service organizations and immigration organizations;

Reform or Conservative organizations that conduct classes for converts;

Organizations that provide interest-free loans or tzedakah to the Jewish community. 

Remember, by opening your home to others on Passover, you fulfill the appeal of the hagaddah liturgy: "Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are in need, come and share the Passover meal." 

Reprinted from JewishFamily.com, a service of Jewish Family Life!   

Mark I. Rosen is the is the author of "Thank You for Being Such a Pain: Spiritual Guidance for Dealing With Difficult People" (Harmony Books, 1998).

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