April 3, 2012
Questionable behavior for after the seder
Why is the day after the seder different from all other days? Is it because we are exhausted? Or our clothes no longer button? Possibly.
More likely, I suspect the day after is different because of all the newly minted questions that drop into our brains like zuzim.
Hearing the Four Questions the night before at the seder just gets us started, and traditionally, by the next day when we meet another Jew, we have formulated four more:
- At your seder, how many people were there?
- How was the food?
- What time did you eat?
- How did you ever manage to stay awake?
To that end, here’s a handy post-seder guide:
1. How many attended? That would seem the easiest to answer; even the simple son or daughter can count. What they really want to know is (in my best Four Questions chant), whose side of the family attended, and are they the ones that on Passover eat bread? Did the out-of-town college students take a plane? And tell me, did you invite any neighbors? Was there anyone there who wasn’t Jewish?
A lot of questions, but here’s the key query behind them: How inclusive was your seder?
On the night of the seder we ask why we dip our herbs twice, but the next day we want to know if Uncle Herb the family atheist fell asleep, or did Aunt Phyllis show with her new partner. And what of the vegan cousins?
Our tales of seder tables filled with character relatives are greeted with grins and groans, but Dr. Ron Wolfson, author of “Passover: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration,” with Joel Lurie Grishaver, says at his seder he purposely leaves one seat empty.
“You leave an empty seat at the table for Elijah the prophet because you want Elijah to come,” Wolfson, the Fingerhut professor of education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, said in a recent interview. “Symbolically, leaving space is a metaphor for inclusivity.”
Wolfson believes the seder is a “wonderful opportunity to gather people”—colleagues, friends and family who have no place to go, or who are not Jewish—and that “hospitality will hasten the day that Elijah will come.”
My family has found that inviting guests beyond family has brought new perspectives, flavors and songs to our seder. And as a bonus, everyone is on their best behavior.
2. How was the food? Beyond inquiring about the specific density of the matzah balls and the Scoville (hotness) rating of the maror, what people want to know—especially cooks—is whether your festival meal escaped from the servitude of old school Passover cuisine.
Wolfson says that asking food questions after the seder is a good way for cooks to up their game.
“A lot of people share recipes after the seder,” he said. “Creative cooks are somewhat challenged by Passover. ‘How do you make a pesadik lasagna?’ they ask.”
In our own home, we have found that creative uses of typical Passover ingredients like matzah, or nuts to make matzah roca, or an almond tort can help delay the inevitable how many more days of this can I take?
3. What time did you eat? Sometimes known at the seder as the fifth question, the query expresses our need to compare levels of endurance.
At our seder the festival meal usually isn’t served until about two hours in. (Is that an “oy” I just heard from some contrary son?) In such instances, before you start, Wolfson recommends tipping off people to the length, so they can prepare.
“And let them know why you are doing this,” he adds.
Wolfson also counsels flexibility. “I have seen seder leaders say it’s OK if you have to go at 10,” he said. He also suggests that hunger can be assuaged by using points of the seder, like eating the karpas, to also serve hor d’oeuvres.
We usually serve artichokes. After 20 pages it’s amazing how popular the pointy things become.
A post-seder question about length is really about our sense of time in responding to the Haggadah’s main dictate that “in every generation it is our obligation to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.” How successful we are in redacting the “going out” brings us to the fourth question.
4. How did you manage to stay awake? Few people actually ask this; it is more a question that every seder leader must consider. For in our “duty to tell the story of the departure from Egypt,” the more one tells of the departure in an unrelatable way might itself lead to a departure if not of seder attendees, then of their attention.
Wolfson suggests running the seder like a “committee meeting,” calling on different people to participate. He advises that prior to the seder, “Give them homework, so they can have an investment in the evening being a success.”
Depending on Jewish backgrounds of the seder goers, “edit judiciously,” Wolfson advises. “Most guests have not a clue to what’s going on.”
At our seder, after the plagues, to give guests a clue, we get them outside where between two walls of blue tarp and while singing “Dayenu,” we shpritz them with water bottles to remind them of the crossing of the Red Sea.
Afterward, there are lots of questions.
Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.