Seder experts agree: no growling stomachs

A rabbi who’s written a book on Passover says the most important part of planning a seder is making sure people don’t get too hungry before the meal is served.

“People have more energy and more of an attention span when they’re not hungry,” said Rabbi Mishael Zion, who teamed up with his father, Rabbi Noam Zion, to write “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices.”

Rabbi Noam Zion

Father and son spent a recent weekend in Marin County giving their advice on how to create a lively and interactive seder as scholars-in-residence at Congregation Rodef Sholom, Congregation Kol Shofar and the Osher Marin JCC.

In anticipation of Passover, which begins at sundown on Friday, April 3, approximately 400 people came to the five sessions that he and his father held over the weekend. Mostly they gave seder tips and answered questions.

“People came with all kinds of amazing stories,” Mishael told J. afterward.

Preventing growling stomachs around the seder table is easy, Mishael said. Just take the ritual of dipping karpas (usually parsley) into salt water and expand it — turn it into crudités and dips available throughout the first half of the seder.

What can be more tricky to manage are family relationships.

“Most questions revolve around anxiety about family dynamics at the seder,” Mishael said. “Neither of us are therapists, but we end up dealing with a lot of questions because Passover is about family, and families are complicated.”

Rabbi Mishael Zion

Mishael recommends that families embrace their own histories by telling family stories related to enslavement, liberation or service during the seder. This tradition can also be a good way to make guests and family members who aren’t Jewish feel comfortable about participating. One idea is to have two seder plates; one with the traditional ritual items, and one made up of objects brought by guests that represent their family stories.

American seders have changed quite a bit over the years, Mishael said — from the all-Hebrew seders of early 20th-century immigrants to mid-century seders with the Maxwell House haggadah to the freedom seders and feminist seders of today.

Nowadays, Mishael said, the focus is on making room for participation, reflection and plenty of questions about the Passover story. That can mean engaging children in games and skits and encouraging guests to contribute their own expertise — a lawyer can be invited to speak about labor law, for example.

Still, it’s important not to deviate too widely from the traditional seder parameters. Mishael recommends changing no more than 10 to 20 percent of the standard seder.

“People come for tradition,” said Mishael, 35, the Jerusalem-based co-director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships.

Noam, 67, is a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel and the co-author of the seminal “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah,” which has sold 250,000 copies since its 1997 publication, according to Mishael.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.