Passover Seder Background

Tradition, Tradition, Tradition!

By Alieza Schvimer
March 2010

Miryam, from Madison, Wis., sat at the seder table surrounded by her family and two unfamiliar guests. Every year her aunt invites strangers to the family seder, a common Passover tradition and mitzvah, but this year the guests—a Russian woman and her son—were particularly comical. The woman had facial hair and wore a wig. With each of the four glasses of wine, Miryam watched the woman’s wig fall more and more off-kilter as she grew louder and louder. It was a seder she would not soon forget.
“She told me she thought my uncle and my dad were very attractive men. Yuck,” Miryam recalls. Another year, her aunt invited a man who had recently gotten over the chicken pox and inadvertently kept picking at his scabs.

Passover traditions vary widely, but the seder table is always at the heart of the holiday. The tradition of inviting strangers to one’s meal, though not necessarily uncommon, is one that Miryam holds dear and regards as her family’s special custom. “All the crazy guests make for excellent stories,” she notes.

Besides having strangers at the seder table, traditions vary when it comes to creating a memorable meal. According to Sephardic tradition, during the singing of “Dayeinu,” families hold celery, chives, leeks or scallions, and lightly beat the back of the person sitting next to them. This tradition is supposed to symbolize the Egyptian taskmasters who whipped the Israelites while they were enslaved in Egypt. Though Becca’s Skokie, Ill., family isn’t Sephardic, they began observing this tradition five years ago.

“Although hitting people with scallions seems incredibly weird, I look forward to it every year. It's a time when I can appreciate the silly nature of my family, and also step into the shoes of my ancestors,” Becca says. The tradition doesn’t come without its share of mishaps, however. “It was all good and fun until one year when my sister missed my head and smacked me in the eye. My eye healed up after a couple of weeks, but my sister never heard the end of it,” recalls Becca.

If it weren’t for the seder itself, Passover would be a holiday filled merely with matzah. The idea of the importance of family would likely be lost beneath the grumblings of Jews forsaking unleavened bread. But because family is so integral to the holiday, Passover is an experience when kids anticipate the finding of the afikoman and even the simple retelling of the Exodus story is a lively event.

Various families tell the Passover story differently, and although the Haggadah is at the center of it all, the retelling occurs in myriad ways. Jacob, from Los Angeles, Calif., may use a Haggadah, but his family employs music in order to liven up their seder. “We do a sing-along to the story of Passover and to the seder,” Jacob says.

It may seem cheesy, but Jacob says his family’s sing-along, which they’ve been doing since he was born, helps create a better understanding of the Jews’ experience when they left Egypt. “The purpose of this tradition is to apply stories that seem so far from reality to our everyday lives, and bring the holiness of it all down to earth.”

Other families stick to the Haggadah, but ask every person present to read a different part of the story, involving the entire seder table. Miryam’s job every year is to recite the story and prayer about Miriam, the part she says her aunt assigns her “naturally.”

Danny and his family, from Evanston, Ill., have a tradition of making puppet shows depicting the plagues as described in the Haggadah. “[My sister and I] act out the Passover story with my cousins using puppets we made the week or so beforehand.”

The traditions families create now are likely to move on to the next generation. Danny believes that when he has a family of his own, Passover for them will be much like it was for Danny when he was young. “I know that when I have kids, they will act out the plagues, too. It is a great way to make the holiday more personal, and draw more connections.”

Though traditions may vary from one person to the next, the importance of family is apparent from the beginning of the recitation of the kiddush, the blessing over the wine, to the end of Nirtzah, the conclusion of the seder. The love Miryam possesses for the holiday is exemplary of Passover’s meaning, “I love Passover with my family because it is one of the only times of the year that my whole family gets together. Everyone really gets along and gets into it, so it’s very lively and exciting.”

Alieza Schvimer is from Evanston, Ill. She loves to hang out with friends from camp, read, write and watch TV.
This article originally appeared on JVibe.com, the online community for Jewish teens.